Last Updated on: 20th March 2023, 01:12 pm
I’m currently sitting in a snowed-in hotel in Dickinson, North Dakota, reflecting on a successful National Parks road trip, and how our America the Beautiful Pass made it possible.
As we left Theodore Roosevelt National Park last night, we counted up the thirty-five (35!) national parks, monuments, memorials, battlefields, historical parks, historic trails, recreation areas, and seashores that we visited on various road trips over the past year.
When we bought our America the Beautiful pass, we didn’t realize exactly how much money we would end up saving – or how much money a National Parks pass can save you if you love visiting national parks!
Spoiler alert – we could have saved even more if we had used these tips earlier!
Here are our best national parks pass tips so you can plan your own epic National Parks road trip, series of trips, or even try to see all sixty-three US national parks on one annual pass!
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My Favorite Travel Booking Sites for 2023
These are my favorite companies that I use on my own travels.
Protect Your Trip via Safety Wing
Find the best deals on hotels & vacation rentals on Booking.com.
For English-speaking private airport transfers, book through Welcome Pickups.
For road trips and independent travel, rent a car through Discover Cars.
Find information and cruise reviews on Cruise Critic.
For packing and travel essentials order via Amazon.
We Saved $430 with Our America the Beautiful Pass – Here’s Exactly How We Did It
Before I get into tips to help you plan your national parks family vacations (or friends’ trips, girlfriends’ getaways, etc), here are the numbers from our year exploring the USA:
We are based out of Oklahoma City. While there are six National Park Service Sites in Oklahoma, we only visited one of these close to home, the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
Most of our visits have been on road trips. In the past year, we have spent thirteen weeks road tripping around the US on five separate road trips.
In fact, during this time we have driven as far west as Las Vegas, Nevada, as far south as Padre Island, Texas, as far east as Hilton Head, South Carolina, and as far north as Glacier County, Montana!
Here’s exactly what we spent on entrance fees at national parks service sites in the last year, and what we saved with our National Parks Pass:
As you can see, we didn’t buy our pass until after we’d visited two sites with entrance fees, so if we would have bought it when we started visiting NPS sites, we would have saved an additional $30!
Did you know that there are national parks and national monuments that do not have entry fees?!
Many of the NPS and BLM sites we visited didn’t have any entry fees at all. The free parks and sites we visited during this time are:
Birmingham Civil Rights NM | California NHT | Great Smoky Mountains NP | Martin Luther King Jr NHP | Oklahoma City National Memorial | Old Spanish NHT | Penitente Canyon Recreation Area | Selma to Montgomery NHT | Shiloh NMP | Timucuan EHP | Trail of Tears NHT | Tuskeegee Airmen NHS | Tuskeegee Institute NHS
If you are primarily interested in looking for ways to save money, I suggest making sure to include some sites that don’t have entry fees on your itinerary.
We have had just as wonderful of a time at Great Smokey Mountains National Park, which never has entry fees, as we have at Rocky Mountain National Park, which has both entry fees and online reservation fees.
In my America the Beautiful pass tips section later in the post, I have more ideas for saving money on visiting national parks.
This is something we have gotten much better at as we visit more parks and see how many offer the same ways to save money.
How Much Money Can You Save with an America the Beautiful Pass (National Parks Pass)?
While there are thousands of combinations of ways you could spend money on entry fees at US national parks, one number people want to know is how much you would save if you used the parks annual pass to visit all 63 national parks in one year.
Excluding monuments, memorials, etc., the total entry fees you would pay to visit every national park in a year is $1090.
This assumes you’d pay the typical fee for a non-commercial vehicle, and you would only visit each park for as long as your initial entry fee covers (or less).
I.E. No circling back to parks once you’ve visited unless it is included in your initial entry fee.
If you qualify for a basic America the Beautiful Annual Pass (and not a Senior Pass, Access Pass, etc.), you would save $1010 if you visited every park in one year.
Though my guess is you’ll spend tens of thousands of dollars on travel expenses!
You could also save more than that if you visited national monuments, memorials, military parks, etc that charge entry fees in addition to the major national parks.
America the Beautiful Pass Tips for Visiting US National Parks, Monuments, and More!
Use these tips to get the most out of your national parks pass, including where to buy one and more.
All About the America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Passes
The America the Beautiful Pass is the main national parks pass in the US. There are multiple versions of it, which I will discuss in more detail below.
The pass covers entrance fees and standard amenity fees at over 2,000 federal sites in the US.
While many people think of it as a “National Parks Pass,” it’s actually an interagency pass and is run by each of these six federal agencies.
We haven’t used our pass for sites that are managed by any agency other than the NPS or BLM; however, now that we’ve gotten used to using our pass when we travel, we are on the lookout to explore America’s federal recreation sites beyond the biggest names and most famous parks.
Costs to Visit National Parks without an Annual Pass
Some of the parks we’ve visited are free, like Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee and some, like Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, only charge for expanded services.
Other sites, like Mount Rushmore National Memorial, are free to enter but have a parking fee.
In these circumstances, visiting with an annual pass will not reduce your costs, as there’s either no cost or the fees aren’t considered entry fees or day-use fees.
For the parks we visited that have entry fees, prices ranged from $10 to $35 for the passengers in a non-commercial vehicle.
Some parks allow up to four people in a car to be covered, while other parks cover all people in the car up to fifteen.
The fee at most sites covered visiting throughout a seven-day period.
Many more of the parks we visited charged $30 or $35 (13 parks) compared to $10-25 (6 parks).
If you are looking to visit places that do not have an entry fee, you’re in luck!
Out of over 400 sites managed by the National Park Service, only 108 have entry fees. This means there are over 300 sites managed by the NPS that are free!
Of course, the most famous sites and national parks are the ones with fees since they need the most funding to keep their sites open to throngs of visitors each year.
You can see a list of fees for national parks with entry fees here.
Note that some sites have discounted off-season rates, which is another way to save money visiting national parks!
This list doesn’t include the fees for places overseen by other agencies, like national forests and national wildlife refuges. If you want to look up fees for a specific recreation area, go to that site’s website.
America the Beautiful Pass vs. National Parks Pass vs. Interagency Pass vs. National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass
The good news is that, while there are many different terms people in the public use to refer to these passes, they’re all actually the same pass.
This means you don’t have to choose between an America the Beautiful Pass and a National Parks Pass. They’re all the same.
Their official name is the America the Beautiful – the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass.
They aren’t technically a “national parks pass” since they are bigger than that and include all the agencies we discussed above. Hence the nickname the “interagency pass.”
And while the full name might be a mouthful, no one will fault you for calling it simply an annual parks pass, a national parks pass, an America the Beautiful pass, a recreational lands pass, or any other combo of terms that helps you remember to use it as often as you can!
Other Types of Annual Passes
There is a separate U.S Forest Service pass that covers only USFS sites in the Pacific Northwest.
You can buy the $30 US Forest Service – Annual Pacific Northwest Region Forest Pass if you are interested in visiting the following sites in Washington and Oregon:
Columbia River Gorge NSA | Colville National Forest | Deschutes National Forest | Fremont-Winema National Forests | Gifford Pinchot National Forest | Malheur National Forest (No Sites Require a Pass) | Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest | Mt. Hood National Forest | Ochoco National Forest (No Sites Require a Pass) | Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests | Olympic National Forest | Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest | Siuslaw National Forest | Umatilla National Forest | Umpqua National Forest | Wallowa-Whitman National Forest | Willamette National Forest
Note that this pass does not cover entry fees into National Parks in Washington and Oregon, even where the national forest and national park are next to each other and share a name.
(So if you want to do a Crater Lake boat tour or hike the Cleetwood Cove Trail, skip this pass and go for the America the Beautiful pass).
National Passes vs. Park-Specific Passes (Site Passes)
For some, a park-specific pass or a site pass might make more sense than getting the Interagency pass.
A park-specific pass is usually less than the ATB pass, often around $50-60 dollars for the year), though they can be more.
This kind of pass is better for someone who lives near a park or will be staying near a park for two weeks or longer.
This way you can dig into all that one park has to offer without paying the weekly fee multiple times.
For example, my family who lives near the Padre Island National Seashore could spend $10 for a one-day pass, $25 for a seven-day pass, or $45 to visit for a year.
If you know you want to see one park for more than seven days and won’t be seeing any other parks for the next twelve months, this is a good option.
List of National Parks Included in the America the Beautiful Pass
Here is a list of the National Parks included in the America the Beautiful Pass. Links go to my guides on visiting the park (where I have them) to help you plan your trip.
Acadia National Park | Adams National Historical Park | Antietam National Battlefield | Arches National Park | Assateague Island National Seashore
Badlands National Park | Bandelier National Monument | Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site| Big Bend National Park | Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park | Bryce Canyon National Park
Cabrillo National Monument | Canaveral National Seashore | Canyonlands National Park | Cape Cod National Seashore | Capitol Reef National Park | Capulin Volcano National Monument | Carlsbad Caverns National Park | Castillo De San Marcos National Monument | Cedar Breaks National Monument | Chaco Culture National Historical Park | Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area | Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park | Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park | Christiansted National Historic Site| Colonial National Historical Park | Colorado National Monument | Crater Lake National Park | Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve | Cumberland Island National Seashore
Death Valley National Park | Denali National Park & Preserve | Devils Tower National Monument | Dinosaur National Monument | Dry Tortugas National Park
Everglades National Park
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument | Fort Davis National Historic Site | Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine | Fort Pulaski National Monument | Fort Smith National Historic Site | Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park | Fort Vancouver National Historic Site
Glacier National Park (Does not cover entry at adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada) | Glen Canyon National Recreation Area | Golden Spike National Historic Site | Grand Canyon National Park | Grand Teton National Park | Great Falls (George Washington Memorial Parkway) | Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve | Guadalupe Mountains National Park | Gulf Islands National Seashore
Haleakalā National Park | Harpers Ferry National Historical Park | Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park | Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site | Hovenweep National Monument
Indiana Dunes National Park | Isle Royale National Park
Joshua Tree National Park
Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park
Lake Mead National Recreation Area | Lassen Volcanic National Park | Lava Beds National Monument | Lewis & Clark National Historical Park | Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Mesa Verde National Park | Montezuma Castle National Monument | Mount Rainier National Park | Muir Woods National Monument
Natural Bridges National Monument
Olympic National Park | Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Padre Island National Seashore | Perry’s Victory International Peace Memorial | Petrified Forest National Park | Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore | Pinnacles National Park | Pipe Spring National Monument | Prince William Forest Park | Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park
Rocky Mountain National Park
Sagamore Hill National Historic Site | Saguaro National Park | Saint Gaudens National Historic Site | San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park | San Juan National Historic Site | Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks | Shenandoah National Park | Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore | Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Theodore Roosevelt National Park | Thomas Edison National Historical Park | Tonto National Monument | Tumacácori National Monument | Tuzigoot National Monument
Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site | Vicksburg National Military Park
Walnut Canyon National Monument | Whiskeytown National Recreation Area | White Sands National Park | Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield | Wright Brothers National Memorial | Wupatki National Monument
Yellowstone National Park | Yosemite National Park
Zion National Park
Pro Tip: This list was updated as of April 2022. Always double-check with any park you plan on visiting before you leave for your trip!
Who’s Eligible to Get an America the Beautiful Pass + Price
Almost anyone can purchase an America the Beautiful pass, but there are special passes with various rates depending on citizenship, age, occupation, and ability.
America the Beautiful Annual Pass
This is the most basic version and the one that costs $80. Anyone age sixteen or older, regardless if they are a U.S. citizen or not, can purchase this pass.
America the Beautiful Senior Annual Pass
If you are a US citizen or permanent resident who is sixty-two years old or older, you are eligible for the senior annual pass instead of the regular annual pass. This one costs only $20 per year.
America the Beautiful Senior Lifetime Pass
If you qualify for the Senior Annual pass, you can opt for a senior lifetime pass instead. The cost is $80, and it does not need to be renewed.
According to USGS, if you have purchased a senior annual pass, you can trade it in for a lifetime senior pass at the following rates:
1 Annual Senior Pass card plus $60 for Senior Lifetime Pass
2 Annual Senior Pass cards plus $40 for Senior Lifetime Pass
3 Annual Senior Pass cards plus $20 for Senior Lifetime Pass
4 Annual Senior Pass cards for Senior Lifetime Pass
America the Beautiful Access Pass
US citizens and permanent residents who have a document permanent disability can get a lifetime free access pass. USGS gives the following definition when determining eligibility:
A permanent disability is a permanent physical, mental, or sensory impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.
America the Beautiful Military Pass
Current US Military members, Veterans, Dependents and Gold Star families are eligible to get free annual passes.
Qualifying members from five military branches and the National Guard are included (US Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and National Guard).
Gold Star families and veterans will soon be eligible for free lifetime passes based on a recently passed law. This will take time to implement. Anyone who will be eligible for free lifetime passes can continue to use annual passes in the interim.
America the Beautiful Every Kid Outdoors 4th Grade Pass
All 4th graders in the US, as well as homeschoolers age 10 regardless of grade, have access to a free pass from September 1 of their fourth-grade year through the following August 31.
The pass is good for the student as well as three adults in the car during their park visit. This means more of the family can benefit from spending a year chasing parks, whether close to home or on a road trip!
This federal public lands initiative is also available to schools.
To claim your fourth grader’s pass, print out the paper voucher from the Every Kid Outdoors website.
Good to Know: Kids under the age of sixteen are always free, so the waived pass cost covers the cost of the adults bringing the fourth-grade pass holder to the parks!
America the Beautiful Volunteer Pass
Folks who volunteer at least 250 documented hours at national parks & federal recreational lands can receive a free annual pass as a thank you. Hours do not have to be completed within one year.
How to Buy an America the Beautiful Pass
The America the Beautiful pass can be purchased in multiple ways.
We bought ours at Great Sand Dunes National Park since it was the first park we visited on our big Rocky Mountain / Southwest Parks road trip.
We chose to buy our pass at the park because we didn’t have time to get one shipped to us.
If you want to buy a pass in person, check this list to make sure your park sells them. It also lists which kinds of passes the park sells since some passes require more documentation than others.
Note that parks that don’t have entry fees don’t typically have any pass sales.
This list only includes National Park Service sites, so if your first destination is managed by another agency, check directly with the agency or site.
You can also buy the pass from retailers like REI and directly from the USGS store on their website.
Pro Tip: Annual passes cannot be downloaded – you must use the physical plastic card. If you don’t have time to wait for the pass to be shipped to you, consider buying it directly at a park.
Good to Know: the fee for the pass you buy typically stays within the park you buy from (if you buy on-site).
If there’s a park near you that you love, you may decide to buy your pass there even if you intend to use it first somewhere else.
How to Use Your Interagency Annual Pass
You must present the physical pass with you at the park or site you are visiting, along with an official photo ID.
Most passes can have two owners who are both named on the card, but only one needs to be present to use the pass. The two owners do not need to be related or married to co-own a parks pass.
Your pass will cover you and the other passengers in your car. Because the pass covers so many different places with varying rules, the USGS puts it this way:
Each Annual Pass admits pass owner/s and passengers in a non-commercial vehicle at per-vehicle fee areas; and pass owner + 3 adults, not to exceed 4 adults, where per-person fees are charged. (Children under 16 are always admitted for free).
Your pass is non-transferable, so you or the co-owner must be present. This is checked by photo ID.
If you and the co-owner are traveling in two separate vehicles, you will need a second entry fee or pass, as the pass is only good for one vehicle (or two motorcycles arriving at the same time if both are co-owners / four bicycles at most sites but not all).
If your situation is more complicated, you can call ahead to the parks you plan on visiting to check that your pass covers the group you want to bring in the vehicle/s you plan on using.
Good to Know: Passes that are lost or stolen cannot be replaced, so make sure to keep track of your pass!
Federal Agencies are that are part of the Interagency Pass
The most well-known is the National Park Service since many people researching these passes are headed to national parks. However, six agencies run the Interagency Pass program:
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
The Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation)
The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)
The National Park Service (NPS)
USDA Forest Service (USDA FS)
US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)
Many of my favorite sites in Oklahoma, like the Wichita National Wildlife Refuge and Talimena National Scenic Byway, are overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the USDA Forest Service.
Once you get to explore the parks, don’t be surprised if you end up visiting public lands overseen by all of these agencies!
How Many People Can Share an Annual Pass
Two people can share one annual pass. You both fill out the back of the pass. One of the two of you must be present whenever the card is used.
What Fees are Included with the Pass
The fee covers costs that are listed as “entry fees,” “standard amenity fees,” and “day-use fees.”
What Fees Aren’t Included with the Pass
The pass does not cover fees that are considered expanded amenities like camping fees, boat launching fees, interpretive services like tours, concessionaire fees from private companies operating federal lands, and online reservation fees.
Despite having an annual parks pass, I have paid to park at Mount Rushmore, paid an entrance fee at Poverty Point which is operated by the state of Louisiana, a tour fee at Wind Cave where entry is free but cave access is by guided tour only, and reservation fees to access the Bear Lake Corridor at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Additionally, your annual pass does not provide any discounts on concessions or gift shop items.
Using Park Reservation Systems
You cannot use your annual pass in place of making reservations at parks that require them. Reservations need to be made on Recreation.gov.
Of all the parks I’ve been to, only two needed reservations to access specific areas of the park that I wanted to visit: Glacier and Rocky Mountain.
Other parks, like Wind Cave, have tours that can be reserved in advance. I was able to get a tour ticket at the park, but they sell out early during high season.
Recreation.gov is also where you can enter lotteries, get permits, and reserve campsites.
Sometimes you will be charged a small fee. We paid $2 per reservation for the system for RMNP, but there was no actual fee for the timed entry reservation itself.
However, with campsites and permits, you will pay the fee online at the time you make the reservation.
Pro Tip: Before you visit a national park, check what reservations, permits, and lotteries are required.
Usually, you won’t need anything, but the most popular places use these systems for crowd control either year-round, during high season, or for special events like holiday celebrations.
How Long You Can Use Your Annual Pass
Your pass is good for twelve months from the month of purchase, but it expires at the end of its final month.
If you want to use this as a challenge to see as many of our beautiful national parks as you can before it expires, go for it!
Of course, in practicality, you only need to go to a minimum of 3-4 parks before you will start saving money. And once you have your pass, you start looking for ways to use it.
When to Buy Your Parks Annual Pass
Buy it when you start visiting parks! If we had bought ours earlier, we would have saved an additional $30.
Having the pass inspires us to go to more parks, which is the real magic of owning one!
You can make your pass last a little longer if you buy it earlier in the month since it expires twelve months later on the last day of the month.
However, if you will be going to a park with entrance fees that sells passes, I would take a leap of faith and just get one if you can afford the extra expense upfront.
More Ways to Save Money in National Parks and Other Federal Sites
While we have saved hundreds of dollars using our annual pass, here are a few more things we do to save money at national parks and public lands:
BYO Lunch & Snacks (& any other meals you will want)
First, we bring our lunch and food. While we have eaten in parks (and had one memorably great meal at Grand Teton National Park), the truth is the food we bring is just as enjoyable as the food we buy – for a fraction fo the park
The parks do try to have good food, but it’s not always a sure thing. While I’ve had great snacks at Zion NP, a delicious meal at Grand Teton NP, our sandwich at Yellowstone NP was a sheer disappointment.
Oh and the pie at Capitol Reef, that was way more than worth it!
However, for the most part, we have an equally nice time, with arguably better food, and just as stunning of views, when we pack a lunch and eat at a picnic table!
Another option is to visit the famous restaurants located near parks. There are a few spots that are worth visiting in their own right.
Places like Wall Drug outside of Badlands National Park (South Dakota) and the Polebridge Mercantile at Glacier National Park (Montana) have been serving parkgoers for almost a century.
A benefit of these kinds of stores is their prices are usually much less than park prices while also being much more scrumptious.
Good to Know: Not all parks have concessions, and some parks only have concessions during high season. If you want to buy your food at the park, make sure they will be open.
BYOB – Bring Your Own Beverages
Second, we bring our drinks as well using refillable water bottles at the free water fountains. Just check that the place you’re getting your drinking water from is labeled as potable or is marked as a drinking fountain!
Travel Together to Minimize Extra Fees
Third, we travel together in one car. We always go as a unit, so we don’t end up needing a second pass or paying an extra entry fee.
If someone needs a day off, they can stay behind, but it’s not feasible to meet up later.
Pay Attention to Gas Prices
Fourth, we gas up the car before we get to the park. Parks that have gas stations in them are necessary, and we have used them we needed to. But gas outside of the park is always less expensive!
Gas stations just outside of parks are also higher on average than gas stations that serve local communities (and not just tourists).
If you can get gas closer to your hotel instead of near the park, your wallet will thank you!
Look for Hotel Deals Outside of the Parks
Finally, we don’t stay in the parks unless we get a really good deal. We stayed in one park lodge (though it was located outside the park).
We paid more than we paid anywhere else to stay there – and the price has tripled since our trip!
While these look super fun and kitschy, we have always been able to find hotel deals for a third of the price of what it would cost to stay in the park.
I use Booking.com to book all my hotels and motels near national parks. I like it because I can book rooms with free cancellation in case something better comes along.
While I have a few park lodges on my bucket list (like the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone and the Many Glacier Hotel at Glacier NP), for now, we look for chain hotels and independent motels in towns near the park.
Staying in towns also gives us easy access to grocery stores and gas stations that are less expensive than park stores.
Since we aren’t planning on camping or using an RV, we’d rather save money on accommodations and put that money towards extending our trip or upgrading our activities.
Good to Know: Not all national parks have lodging or camping options. You can check the site’s page on the NPS website (or other agency) to see what the available lodging is if you want to stay at the park.
Things to Do in National Parks
If you are new to visiting national parks, you may wonder what all the fuss is about and if you will enjoy them if you aren’t an avid hiker.
No matter which park we go to, this is what I do look up to start planning our time.
While we don’t do as much hiking as I would like (see: traveling with a toddler and husband’s soccer injuries), we can get in easy hikes at some parks.
We look for hikes that take less than an hour and are stroller-accessible if possible.
I look forward to coming back to some of these places when we can enjoy longer hikes together!
Important Historic Sites
Many parks have historic points or buildings – not just historical parks.
While you might expect to see a famous ancient building at Mesa Verde, there are historical buildings at most of the big national parks!
Some of my favorites that we’ve seen are Mormon Row at Grand Teton National Park, the Maltese Cross Cabin at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the Never Summer Ranch at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Scenic Drives and Loops
Many parks have been designed to be easily accessible by car, and therefore have beautiful roads that make for beautiful scenic drives.
While Trail Ridge Road at Rocky Mountain NP and the Going-to-the-Sun-Road at Glacier NP are world-famous, you can go on scenic drives at almost every national park.
Common Wildlife Sightings
When you go to Grand Tetons NP, you want to see a moose. At Yellowstone, you want to see a bison relaxing in hot springs. At Theodore Roosevelt NP, you want to see the free-roaming horses.
Many national parks are famous for their wildlife sightings. It helps to know ahead of time what is possible (and probable) to see in the park you will visit, along with where to go and any safety precautions you need to take.
Good to Know: Never approach wildlife and take all signs about wildlife at a park seriously.
Popular Photo Spots
If you love photography, you might find that it’s fun to recreate famous photographs of parks or look for popular spots to get your own take.
Sometimes this will actually lead you to a spot outside of the park or inspire you to get to a spot before sunrise!
Things to Do Near National Parks
If you are staying in an area for a few days and want to add something to do outside of the park to your itinerary, here’s what we usually look for:
Popular State Park
Many national parks are located near popular state parks. While you will have to pay the state park’s entrance fee (if there is one) these make for really great days!
Some of our favorites that are located near national parks include Custer State Park next to Wind Cave, Dead Horse Point State Park by Canyonlands, and, Mustang Island State Park near Padre Island National Seashore.
Historic or Famous Nearby Town
Many of the older national parks have famous towns nearby that are either connected to the park or predated it.
Places like Jackson, Wyoming, Polebridge, Montana, and Deadwood, South Dakota make wonderful day trips if you want to explore the area beyond the park’s borders.
Other towns near national parks that I loved visiting included Gatlinburg, Tennesee, Kanab, Utah, and Durango, COlorado.
Hot Springs or Famous Swimming Hole
I always Google hot springs near any park I visit. There may not be any (or I may not have time to go), but this is need-to-know information for me for planning a national parks trip.
Don’t skip this step, especially if you know you’ll be sore from hiking!
Breweries and Distilleries
While most of these are relatively new, local craft breweries and distilleries are some of my favorite places to visit in between days at national parks.
I’ve sampled award-winning whiskey, more moonshine than I could stomach (literally), and a vodka brand partially owned by Channing Tatum.
Breweries are great as well, especially if you can skip the brewery tour and go right to the tasting room!
Being outdoors so much is a great way to get inspired to do something you might not do much at home.
You can find local guides ready to take you on all kinds of adventures, though horseback riding is my personal favorite.
Famous Watering Holes
If you don’t have time to see a whole town, at least find out the one or two most famous nearby spots.
Famous local bars, like the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson and Saloon 10 in Deadwood have their own stories to tell – and amazing decor to boot.
Famous Local Foods
You might not know much about Wyoming or Arizona cuisine, but seeing national parks all over the USA gives you a chance to try out foods you’ve never had before!
From elk jerky to huckleberry milkshakes to buckwheat pancakes, different areas of the country have their own take on American cuisine, and this is your chance to try something new!
National Parks Souvenir Ideas
One area where we always spend a little money at every national park is on our national parks souvenir collection.
Our family collects national park magnets, as well as magnets from every US state and country that we visit.
It’s something we started when we were living abroad, and we have continued it now that we are back in the US.
Needless to say, our fridge is bursting to the seams with magnets. We may need to get a second fridge just for our collection!
Other great national park souvenir collections are the tokens that each park sells, park t-shirts, something from the park book shop (which often aren’t available online), posters, or stuffed animals.
If you’re looking for ideas for souvenirs for kids, our son has ended up with a small national park stuffed animal collection.
While he doesn’t have one from every park, we’ve “adopted” Yoti, a coyote from Padre Island National Seashore, Moose Wilson, a moose from Grand Teton National Park, Buffy, a buffalo from Wind Cave National Park, and Bear, a black bear from Great Smokey Mountains National Park.
Something else we love that isn’t quite national parks related but features a lot of pictures from our national parks trips is a map of the US with pictures of us in each state we’ve traveled to as a family.
Santa Clause brought it in December, and it is proudly displayed in our kitchen, mocking us and prompting us to plan new trips whenever we can!
Is the America the Beautiful Pass Worth It?
For our family, it absolutely has been worth it!
Yes, we’ve saved money on entry fees. But obviously, we’ve spent more money than we’ve saved on our trips.
The best thing it has done for our family is to prompt us to plan trips to see more national parks and other federal lands.
I don’t know if we would have visited Utah, Arizona, or the Dakotas in the past year if we weren’t chasing national parks!
And now we’re eyeing parks in Alaska and Hawaii as great excuses to plan future trips!
Before last year, I’d only been to four national parks. Now I’ve been to twenty, plus national memorials, battlefields, monuments, seashores, historical parks, etc.
We’re a national parks family now – something I never would have dreamed of before we bought our pass!
Frequently Asked Questions about the America the Beautiful Pass and other National Parks Passes
Here are the most asked questions about the America the Beautiful pass.
What does the America the Beautiful pass cover?
Entry fees, standard amenity fees, and day-use fees at over 2,000 national parks and federal lands.
Is America the Beautiful pass the same as a national park pass?
Yes, there is only the America the Beautiful interagency pass. No pass covers only national parks.
Does the America the Beautiful Pass Cover State Parks?
No, state parks are not included. Where a state park runs a national parks site, like Poverty Point in Louisiana, the national pass is not accepted.
There are some state parks, like Custer State Park (South Dakota) and Dead Horse Point State Park (Utah), that we have visited because they offer something unique and are worth seeing in addition to the national parks in the area.
Does the America the Beautiful Pass Cover American World Heritage Sites?
Where the World Heritage Site is not a national park, like Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, the pass is not accepted.
Does Yellowstone accept America the Beautiful pass?
Yes, Yellowstone National Park accepts the America the Beautiful pass.
Does Monument Valley accept the America the Beautiful pass?
No, Monument Valley is on Navajo land and is run by the Navajo Nation.
Monument Valley, along with other famous Southwest sites like the Four Corners Monument, has fees that go to the Navajo Tribe to help maintain these sacred and beautiful places.
What is the difference between America the Beautiful pass and the senior pass?
They are both technically branded America the Beautiful. The senior pass is either an annual pass at a discounted price of $20 or a lifetime pass for $80.
What is the cost of an America the Beautiful pass?
The basic pass that is available to anyone age sixteen or older costs $80.
Other pass options are available for those who qualify.
Discounted rates are available for seniors who qualify for the senior pass, and free passes are available for those who qualify for the Military Pass, the Access Pass, the 4th Grader pass, and the Volunteer pass.
Where can I buy the America the Beautiful pass?
You can buy the pass online and at parks that offer the pass.
Does America the Beautiful pass cover the entrance fee to national parks?
Yes, it covers entrance fees, typically labeled entry fees.
Can I use an America the Beautiful pass if I don’t drive to the parks in a car?
You can use the pass if arriving on a motorcycle, bicycle, or foot. Different rules apply as to how many people can accompany the pass holder based on how the group arrives.
5 Things I Bring on National Parks Trips
While preparations for national parks trips can vary wildly based on climate, activities, and type of park, here are five things I bring with me on a majority of national parks visits.
A Packable Down Jacket – everyone in our family has one. They’re light and easy to keep in your backpack or car, but they’re warm enough to make a huge difference if the weather turns cold.
A Lightweight but Durable Backpack – My Venture Pal 40L Lightweight Packable Daypack was a steal for the price. It’s survived 16 national parks as well as trips to Mexico and El Salvador!
It won’t last forever, but it has more than proved its worth so far.
A Pair of Binoculars for parks where I’m going to be looking for wildlife, like Yellowstone and Badlands, or historic sites like Mesa Verde.
I use these binoculars, and my husband has a separate pair.
A Portable Charging Bank in case my phone dies. Having a portable charger for your phone is crucial.
This is a safety issue as my offline maps may be the only way to navigate in the park where there’s no cell phone data available, as well as the convenience of being able to use my cell phone camera and
A Basic First Aid Kit to handle minor issues while you are out. Don’t let a hot spot on your foot turn into a blister, or leave a small cut open to the elements.
I keep a small first aid kit in my backpack at all times when we are on the road.
Before Your Trip – Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
Whenever I go on a trip, I always make sure to get travel insurance!
This is especially true for trips where I’m visiting big cities or spending time in the great outdoors!
The company Safety Wing is the travel insurance company I always look to first, and I happily recommend them!
I always make sure to get travel insurance whenever I’m going to be over one hundred miles from home, in large cities where tourists can be the target of pickpockets, and anytime I’ll be doing outdoor activities.
It makes my life easier knowing if something should happen, I’ll be able to take care of it!