Yosemite to Yellowstone: Getting a National Parks Pass

Key Points

  • A National Parks Pass is a good investment if you're looking to visit some national parks.

  • There are different types of passes, such as senior and military passes.

  • The benefits of having a National Parks Pass are far-reaching.

As a red-blooded American, I love this country. Not for its puppet-like politicians or unlimited ways you can eat yourself to death, but for its nature. The geography of America is as wide as it is deep, spanning from the Everglades in Florida to the frozen tundra in Alaska. Sadly, I've seen but a fraction of the bountiful beauty this country holds. If you're in the same boat, then consider getting a National Parks Pass.

Every state in the Union has natural areas. Even Kansas, known for its endless cornfields, has the Cimarron National Grassland. Nature preserves, national forests, and wilderness areas are free. But if you want to enter one of the 63 national parks in America, you need a National Parks Pass. As reported on July 13, 2023, a grandma visited all the parks in the country with her grandson! Take a page from her playbook and check out a few of these gorgeous locations. Trust me, it's worth it.

Here are the various types of passes and what they unlock for you.

national park view

The Different Types of National Parks Passes

Everyone isn't created equal when it comes to National Parks Passes. Some people should pay less, some people shouldn't pay at all, and most people should pay full price. Hey, maintaining and protecting natural areas ain't cheap.

Annual Pass

The Annual Pass is the blanket entry ticket for every person of every flavor. It gives you 365 days of access to America's National Parks. It costs $80, which is a screaming deal. You can't transfer the pass to other people. If you buy it for yourself, then yours it shall remain.

Anyone 16 years or older may purchase the pass; children under 16 are always admitted for free. Each Annual Pass can have up to two "owners". None of these passes are valid for state parks or city recreation areas, only areas owned by the federal government (excluding Area 51).

Pick one up in person at one of these places, or go to this website to order one. Perhaps be really old school and call 1-888-275-8747, extension 1, and get one. These are the three ways to order every type of pass.

Military Pass

The Military Pass is free for all active military members: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force, as well as Reserve and National Guard members.

A few things to note. Documentation is required. The pass admits the pass owners and any accompanying passengers in a private non-commercial vehicle at per vehicle fee areas or the pass owner and up to additional three adults (16 and over) at sites that charge per person.

People in the following groups don't qualify:

• Foreign military members (including those stationed in the U.S. and have a CAC card) 
• National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employees 
• Public Health Service (PHS) members 
• Inactive U.S. Reservists 
• Civilian military contractors 
• Civilian military employees 

A Military Lifetime Pass is available for Gold Star families and veterans.

4th Grade Pass

This pass is free for kids in 4th grade through the school year into the following summer. It's available for U.S. 4th graders, including home-schooled and free-choice learners 10 years of age, with a valid Every Kid Outdoors paper voucher.

To get it, you must get a paper voucher by visiting Every Kid Outdoors and following the instructions. Then exchange a printed voucher for the Annual 4th Grade Pass at federal recreation sites that charge entrance or standard amenity fees.

Every child under 16 gets in free to all national parks, so what's the point of the 4th Grade Pass? Good question.

This pass comes with some extra perks.

It covers the student and their entire family, including up to three adults, meaning the whole family enjoys the benefits of this pass. Free admission for children under 16 may not necessarily extend to other people.

Education is the focus. The program promotes environmental education and connects children with nature. A child with this pass has access to activities and learning experiences in national parks and other federal lands.

The 4th grader must complete an online activity and obtain a personalized pass. This process creates a sense of excitement for them. They can hold this document and say, "This is my pass." A sense of ownership will hopefully lead to a sense of pride for the parks they now have unlimited access to.

national park in canada

Senior Pass

A Senior Pass is for folks over 62. Yes, you're still young at heart, but hey, might as well take advantage of the perks that age brings.

You can get a yearly pass for $20, or a lifetime pass for $80 — which, hopefully, means another three or four healthy decades.

Access Pass

An Access Pass is for U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. Applicants must provide documentation proving their permanent disability and residency status. It's completely free.

Volunteer Pass

The National Parks Pass is available as a free annual pass for volunteers who have completed 250 service hours with federal agencies participating in the Interagency Pass Program. To obtain the pass, volunteers can reach out to their volunteer coordinator for more details and instructions on how to apply.

This pass serves as a token of appreciation for the dedicated service volunteers provide and grants them the same benefits and privileges as other National Parks Pass holders. It's a great opportunity for volunteers to enjoy unlimited access to a wide range of federal recreation sites and contribute to the conservation and enjoyment of these natural treasures.

The Benefits of a National Parks Pass

As a proud owner of a National Parks Pass, let me tell ya, the benefits are bountiful. I love having it.

Here's why.

Cost Savings

This pass gives me access to 2,000 federal recreation sites across the U.S. of A. Instead of paying entrance fees at each location individually, my pass covers the cost of admission for me and the passengers in my vehicle.

I live an hour north of Yellowstone and go there a dozen or so times a year. I've saved a boatload because of this pass. If you're doing a nationwide trip, you'll get significant savings as well.

Unlimited Access

I get unlimited entry to all national parks for a whole year. It's cool to know I can visit as many parks as I want without extra charge. I can make the quick 40-hour-one-way trip to the Everglades, and the money saved from my pass will go towards the cost of gas. Actually, I might need to sell a kidney too.

Discover Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or lesser-known gems like Great Basin National Park. This pass provides the flexibility to enjoy the diverse natural wonders of the United States. Such convenience allows you to focus on enjoying your outdoor activities, spending more time hiking, camping, wildlife-watching, or engaging in other recreational pursuits within the parks.

Support for Conservation

Every penny of your National Parks Pass goes to conservation. The maintenance, preservation, and enhancement of these stunning places are expensive.

Your purchase supports wildlife conservation, trail maintenance, visitor services, and educational programs, all to ensure these natural and cultural treasures remain pristine for future generations.

Additional Discounts and Benefits

In addition to free entry, the National Parks Pass may provide additional benefits such as discounts on amenities and services within the parks, including campsites where you can make a campfire, boat launches, guided tours, and more. Some parks also offer special perks or discounts for pass holders, such as priority access to popular attractions or facilities.

Shareable With Others

The National Parks Pass allows pass holders to bring along other individuals in the same vehicle. This means you can share the pass with family members, friends, or other loved ones, making it easier and more affordable to explore national parks together.

Connection With Nature and Cultural Heritage

At its core, this pass is a means to connect with the natural world. I believe America's greatest asset is its natural beautybreathtaking landscapes and legions of wild animals not found anywhere else. Witness a grizzly bear in its natural habitat, and suddenly, TikTok seems pretty banal. Gaze out at the expanse of the Grand Canyon and feel your problems turn into nothing.

National Parks are time capsules of the world before humans. They're humanity's collective heritage and a means to understand the importance of peopleless places.

Nothing compares to a national park.

national park in wyoming

Our Greatest National Asset

As the father of the national parks system, Teddy Roosevelt, said, "The establishment of the National Park Service is justified by considerations of good administration, of the value of natural beauty as a National asset, and of the effectiveness of outdoor life and recreation in the production of good citizenship."

President Roosevelt's words resonate into the present. People the world over are more aware of the fragility of our planet and of its precious natural wonders. A good citizen contributes to the administration of these protected areas.

I would go further than Roosevelt by saying national parks aren't just a national asset, but an international one — created for the good of people everywhere. Purchase a National Parks Pass today and enjoy the stupendous beauty of America's National Parks.

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