Travel insights from Taylor Coulson, contributing editor of The Compass

Your Guide to National Parks Passes

Visiting a national park doesn’t always require a history lesson from the botanist or tour guide on staff. Some alternative activities that are offered at various locations are hiking, camping, cycling, swimming, kayaking and sometimes even cross-country skiing. Something to keep every visitor intrigued. Better yet – every year there are National Parks Free Days, making it even easier for anyone to experience a national park!

The Best of the Best

Are you dreaming about hiking the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States or visiting the world’s first national park? Even if your only goal is to see a wild mountain goat, it’s possible with a visit to a national park. Here are a few of the best destinations for whatever you may be looking for on your next stateside adventure.

Hiking and Kayaking at the Everglades National Park

Visit the only subtropical preserve in North America and explore untouched areas of the park by kayaking through the backcountry waters of the Florida. Whether you’re all about leisurely walks or serious hikes through the trails, the Everglades National Park will be calling your name – just like the birds that thousands of visitors come to see each year. There are walking, biking, canoe and kayak trails through multiple temperate and tropical plant communities, marine and estuarine environments. Fun fact: this is the only place in the world where you can witness alligators and crocodiles living side by side!

Cross-Country Skiing at Yellowstone National Park

For those winter warriors wanting to ski near hot springs or geysers with a glimpse of mountains, geysers, forests and lakes wherever they turn, this park is it. The world’s first national park (yes, the world’s) is sprinkled between three states: Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, leading to more ski trails than you can count. Canyon Village offers an intense 1.8-mile rolling course with multiple steep drop-offs, aptly named Roller Coaster Ski Trail.  Mammoth Hot Springs has a ski trail that takes skiers through forested areas to semi-flat open land for glimpses of Swan Lake Flats. Yellowstone truly has room for endless opportunities for visitors to experience a winter wonderland, with plenty of warming huts along the way.

Cycling at Glacier National Park

Ever hear of Going-to-the-Sun Road? The Crown of the Continent, aka Glacier National Park in Montana, is home to the epic 50-mile highway that passes through almost every type of terrain the park has to offer. If you’re into cycling and looking to ascend around curves leading to alpine meadows, profound forests, mystic waterfalls and of course glistening glaciers and lakes, this is the national park for you.

Types of Passes

To visit a national park, you need a pass. Here’s what you need to know about your pass options and what a pass gets you.

A pass generally covers entrance, standard amenity fees and day use fees for visitors; however children 15 years old and younger are admitted free.

Here are the different types of passes you can use to visit national parks in 2019.

  • America the Beautiful Passes are golden tickets to over 2,000 federal recreation sites. With this pass, your entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges are waived, giving you access to thousands of national forests and grasslands waiting to be discovered. You can also use it to visit federal recreation sites.
  • Annual passes are available to everyone. The cost is $80 and can be purchased at a federal recreation site, online or by phone at 888-ASK-USGS (1-888-275-8747).
  • Annual passes for U.S. military are free and available for current U.S. military members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and most members of the U.S. Reserves and National Guard, and their dependents. Military ID is mandatory.
  • The Every Kid in a Park program provides free annual passes to fourth graders valid only during the fourth-grade school year through the following summer. This program is also available for home-schooled and free-choice learners. Educators can also receive these passes for their students!
  • Senior passes are split between two price options: $80 for a lifetime senior pass and $20 for an annual senior pass. These passes are available for U.S. citizens or permanent residents 62 or older, online or through the mail.
  • Golden Age passports are not sold anymore, although if you have one from previous years, they will continue to be honored.
  • Access passes are free and available for U.S. citizens or permanent residents that have obtained permanent disabilities. Documentation of said disabilities and residency or citizenship is also mandatory.
  • Volunteer passes are also free, and available to volunteers with federal agencies participating in the Interagency Pass Program that allow up to 250 service hours to be performed.

The senior and access passes may extend discounts on various amenity fees charged at facilities for services like camping, swimming, boat launching and specialized interpretive services, but are not guaranteed.

If you’re not an avid-adventurer but still seeking the fun that national parks offer, there are daily and weekly passes available. Visitors exploring just one site or looking for daily or weekly permit options can rest assured because site-specific electronic passes and permits are coming soon to these national parks:

  • Acadia National Park, ME
  • Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, FL
  • Colorado National Monument, CO
  • Columbia River Gorge national Scenic Area, OR
  • Everglades National Park, FL
  • Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, CA
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND
  • Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, CA
  • Yellowstone National Park, WY
  • Wayne National Forest, OH

Prices are based on the type of vehicle and how many visitors there are. Passes are immediately valid on the date of purchase. Some national parks have daily passes, like Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Canyonlands, Yosemite National Park and more. Most national parks have special use permits that require an application process. The beautiful landscapes are perfect backdrops during special events like weddings, scattering ashes, first amendment activities, rim-to-rim hikes or runs, and other non-commercial events.

Obtaining your pass is easy whether you’re purchasing it at the park entrance stations, online (an extra $10 processing fee is added) or from third party vendors. Payment methods vary per site but Amazon, PayPal and checks are accepted in addition to debit or credit cards.

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