How-To Guide: Saving Money at U.S. National Parks

In the U.S. there are hundreds of national parks, national forests, national historic sites, and national recreation areas.  These are popular places to visit, not only for Americans but for tourists from around the world.  Many people visit the U.S. specifically to visit these places.

Mesa Verde NP

          (Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado)  (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Like everything else these days, prices are going up at all these areas.  Locals and tourists alike want to save money wherever they can, so I’m writing this post to help you do that.

NOTE: I use the following abbreviations:

  • NP = National Park

Let’s look at entrance fees, to see what kind of money you’d have to spend to visit different parks.  These prices are as of 2017.  I’m going to list two different price levels: the price for a solo person traveling into the park in their own car; and the price for a carload of people.  I’ve chosen popular parks around the U.S., just to give you an idea.  (The states in which they’re located are listed after the park name.)  All passes are valid for 7 days unless otherwise noted.

  • Yellowstone NP (WY/ID/MT):  $15/$30  
  • Everglades NP (FL): $8/$25 
  • Acadia NP (ME): $12/$25  
  • Zion NP (UT): $15/$30
  • Denali NP (AK): $10 per person, no rate for carload

Yellowstone NP

          (Yellowstone NP, Wyoming/Montana, Idaho.  This is “Old Faithful”, which is in Wyoming.)  (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Not all national parks charge an admission, but these are some of the more popular parks, and if you’ve got a family or a group of friends, it can add up fast.  So how can you save money?  The answer: BUY A PASS!

Arches NP

(Arches National Park, Utah.)   

There are several types of passes available.  Not everyone is eligible for every pass.  Let’s take a look at each pass, how much it costs, how long it’s good for, and who can use it.  First though, here’s a link to all the places where you can BUY your pass:

Let’s start with the pass that ANYONE can buy (Americans or visitors): the ANNUAL PASS.  

          How much is the pass?  $80

How long is the pass valid?  One year (12 months) from the date of purchase.

How does the pass work?  Each Annual Pass admits the pass owner and all passengers in a private vehicle at per-vehicle fee areas; and the pass owner + 3 adults, not to exceed 4 adults, where per-person fees are charged. (Children under 16 are always admitted free).

Where is the pass valid?  The U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land ManagementBureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers honor the Annual Pass at sites where entrance or “Standard Amenity Fees (Day use fees) are charged.  Check with the agency that runs the site you want to visit, to make sure they’ll accept the pass there.

           What is NOT covered by the pass?  It doesn’t cover what are called “Expanded Amenity fees”, things like camping, boat launching, parking, special tours, special permits or ferries.  It only covers “day use” fees at the park.

Where can I buy the pass?  You have two options for this pass:

  • You can buy it at most national parks and other nationally-managed sites.
  • You can order the pass online at


          (Glacier Bay National Park, AK, from the deck of the cruise ship!)  (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

The second type of pass is the FREE MILITARY PASS.

Who can get the pass?  It’s only available to current U.S. military members and their dependents in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, as well as Reserve and National Guard members.

How much is the pass?  It’s FREE!

How long is the pass valid?  One year (12 months) from the date of issue.

Is the pass different from the ANNUAL PASS?  It’s exactly like the ANNUAL PASS except that only military members and their families can get it, and it’s free.  Everything else is the same.

Where can I get the pass?   You must request the pass IN PERSON at any of the places on the list above.  You must show your Common Access Card (CAC) or your Military ID (Form 1173).  It can’t be ordered online.

Big Bend NP

          (Big Bend National Park, Texas: the Rio Grande River and the border with Mexico!)

Have you got a fourth-grader in your family?  If so, you’re in luck!  They can get the ANNUAL 4TH GRADE PASS for free!

          How much is the pass?  If you’re a 4th grader (whether in public or private school, or home-schooled) it’s FREE!

          Who can get the pass?  ONLY 4th GRADERS!  Aren’t you paying attention?  🙂

         How does the pass work?  It’s EXACTLY like the ANNUAL PASS.

          How long is the pass valid?  It only lasts while you’re in 4th grade and in the summer after 4th grade (September through the following August.)

          How do I get the pass?  YOU can’t, but your 4th grader can!  They need to visit this website:  and follow the instructions.  They’ll have to answer some really easy questions (like “what is your zip code?”), and when they’re finished, they’ll get a paper pass that they can print out.  The 4th grader brings that paper pass to the park or area he/she wants to visit, and exchanges it for a REAL PASS!  And the 4th grader can bring his/her family for free, just because they’re a 4th grader!  Good job!

4th grade pass

If you are an older person, you may qualify for the SENIOR PASS!

Who can get the pass?  Any U.S. citizen or permanent resident aged 62 or older qualifies for the SENIIOR PASS.  You must be able to show proof of age and citizenship or residency.

How much is the pass?  There are two types of SENIOR PASS: the  Lifetime Senior Pass, which is good for life and costs $80; and the Annual Senior Pass, which is good for one year and costs $20.

Are these passes like the ANNUAL PASS?  Yes, they are exactly alike.

Where can I get the pass?  You can buy it at any of the locations in the list above.  YOu can also order either pass online BUT there is a $10 “processing fee” and it could take up to three months to get your pass!  I’d recommend just buying it at the first park you visit!

Here’s a nice graphic that gives you all the basic information about a SENIOR PASS.  

Senior passes

Are you permanently disabled?  If so, the ACCESS PASS is for you!

Who can get the pass?  U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities.  You must provide documentation of permanent disability and residency or citizenship.

How much is the pass?  If you meet the criteria listed above, it’s FREE!

How does the pass work?  It’s exactly like the ANNUAL PASS.

How long is the valid?  The ACCESS PASS is valid for life!

Where can I get the pass?  You can get it at many of the federal sites (see the list above) with the proper documentation.  You can also get it by completing the paper application  (find it here:

There is a $10 processing fee mail orders.


                    (Statue of Liberty National Monument, New York.)  (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

So is an ANNUAL PASS (or one of the other passes) right for you?  Let’s look at one trip that many people make, and see if the pass would make sense.

Many people (including a LOT of Europeans) come to the West to “do” the national parks.  They mostly visit some or all of the following (I’ve listed the day prices):

  • Yellowstone NP  ($15/$30)
  • Yosemite NP  ($15/30)
  • Grand Teton NP  ($15/$30)
  • Arches NP  ($10/$25)
  • Zion NP  ($15/$30)
  • Bryce Canyon NP   ($15/$30)
  • Capitol Reef NP  ($7/$10)
  • Canyonlands NP  ($10/$25)
  • Glacier NP   ($12/$25)
  • Grand Canyon NP  ($15/$30)

The ANNUAL PASS costs $80.  Just from that list above, it would seem that if you’re going to visit at least five of these parks on your vacation, the ANNUAL PASS makes sense.  And if you like to visit the parks and other areas often throughout the year, then the ANNUAL PASS is a no-brainer!


          (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)

I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit to some of the U.S. national parks, and that the information here will help you save money on your next trip!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.