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How I Saved $150 While Exploring the Wilderness
As a longstanding Penny Hoarder, my wallet is my arsenal. Each card in my billfold was hand-chosen for its unique set of rewards, benefits, and perks.
But one of the most powerful pieces of plastic among them actually isn’t a credit or debit card. In fact, it may even beat out my library card — though it’s close.
It’s my annual national parks pass, also known as the America the Beautiful Pass. And this year, it’s been my ticket to a ton of low-cost adventure.
Why Should You Purchase a National Parks Pass?
At the standard $80, an America the Beautiful Pass may seem fairly spendy — especially if you’re only planning a one-off national park visit. (Psst: Certain demographics can get the pass for a discount, or even for free; more specifics on those deals below.)
But you might be surprised how many places fall under the pass’s purview. With this once-per-year purchase, you’ll get free standard access not only to the national parks, but also to national monuments, preserves, battlefields, grasslands, wildlife refuges and other federal recreation areas all across the country.
And when I say “across the country,” I mean it. The most recognizable parks might trend west, but there’s a pass-eligible property in almost every state in the nation. Even if you don’t live anywhere near the Grand Canyon, chances are you have a park or property in your area covered by the pass — especially given that over 2,000 sites are pass-eligible.
So even if you don’t travel much, a parks pass could be worth it.
If you’re taking a road trip, you basically have to get one… which I discovered myself this year.
Here’s How Much I Saved with my America the Beautiful Pass
This year, as part of an epic summer road trip, I visited nine parks that would have charged me an entry fee, along with several other fee-free locations.
And doing some retroactive math, it’s easy to see the wisdom of my parks pass purchase.
Here’s exactly how much I would have spent at each of those parks if I hadn’t had my pretty little green card with me:
Badlands National Park, South Dakota: $20
Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wyoming: $20
Glacier National Park, Montana: $35
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming: $35
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming: $35
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado: $25 (or $35 if I wanted to go back multiple days)
Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico: $25
Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico: $20
Castillo de San Marcos, Florida: $15 (For those puzzling over their mental maps: I flew back home to Florida to visit after signing a lease in New Mexico.)
Grand total: $230
Savings: $150 — almost twice what I paid for my annual pass!
What an America the Beautiful Pass Covers (and What it Doesn’t)
The national parks pass is pretty great, but it doesn’t cover everything. Here’s exactly what you’ll get for your $80 investment.
Along with all the fee-collecting areas governed by the National Park Service, the America the Beautiful pass also gets you into locations managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Again, that translates to over 2,000 recreational properties across the country.
The pass waives standard park entry or day-use fees for you, your standard-sized vehicle, and up to three accompanying adults aged 16 or over. (Children aged 15 and under get in for free anyway.)
Extra expenses, like camping fees or guided tours, are not covered, however. And you will be required to show photo identification to verify ownership every time you use your pass. (I can vouch that they stick to this rule.)
Finally, keep in mind that the passes are nonrefundable, nontransferable, and won’t be replaced if they’re lost or stolen — so treat yours like cash and keep it close to your heart!
Where to Purchase Your Pass — and How to Get a Discount
So. Ready to go on an adventure?
You can get your pass in person at any of the federal recreation areas in this list, or you can buy it online ahead of your travels. If you’re old school, you can also order it by phone: call 888-ASK USGS (1-888-275-8747) and dial extension 3 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Mountain Time.
And if you happen to fall into one of the following demographics, you’re in luck; you can score an annual parks pass at a steep discount, or even for free.
- Seniors aged 62 or older: You can choose between a $20 annual pass or pay the full $80 — but get in free for the rest of your life. Plus, your pass may provide a 50% discount on certain amenity fees in some locations. These include camping, swimming, boat launch and specialized interpretive services.
- Current U.S. Military Members and Their Dependents: You can get a free annual parks pass by presenting your valid military ID at any of the pass-issuing federal recreation sites on this list.
- Fourth-Graders (including Home Schooled and 10-Year-Old Free-Choice Learners): U.S. fourth graders get a free pass that covers admission for everyone in their vehicle for the duration of the school year and the following summer (August through September). Print a paper pass from the Every Kid in a Park website to exchange for an annual pass in person.
- U.S. Citizens or Residents with Permanent Disabilities: Obtain your free access pass by providing medical documentation at any of the pass-issuing recreation sites. As with the senior pass, your card may get you half off on certain fee services and activities.
- Volunteers: If you’ve volunteered 250 hours or more with a federal agency that participates in the Interagency Pass Program, you’re eligible for a free America the Beautiful Pass. For up-to-date information on volunteer opportunities in your area, go to Volunteer.gov.
America’s national parks system was created for a reason. These landscapes and historical sites have a special kind of power that’s hard to put into words. (Yes, even for a writer.)
So if you’re looking for a new card to add to your wallet, consider this one. Even the best credit card sign-up bonus on earth can’t remind you what it means to be human.
Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a writer whose work has been featured at Fodor’s, Yahoo, SELF, Ms. Magazine, the Establishment, Roads & Kingdoms and other outlets. She’s working diligently on filling up her National Parks Passport.