When someone hears about my national park quest, they often ask me if I’ve visited a particular place that they have enjoyed. As often as not, the location they mention is not part of the National Park System.

That’s not particularly surprising. There are a wide variety of land management agencies at the national, state, and local level—each of which have different purposes, rules, and fees. Unless you’re really paying attention, it’s easy to get confused.

If you’re inclined to buy an annual park pass—which I hope you’ll consider doing—it’s important to understand what you’re getting. I’m using metro Phoenix as the example here, so your local passes may vary.

So in the interest of clarity, here’s a quick rundown:

Maricopa County Parks

This includes just the 10 or so regional parks in Maricopa County, Arizona. The big question is whether or not you’ll be boating at Lake Pleasant—there’s one annual pass for the lake, and a separate one for the rest of the parks. Other counties or metro areas may or may not have their own park systems and annual passes.

Arizona State Parks

This includes the state parks that are still open. Again, you’ll need to decide if you’ll be doing a lot of boating. The standard pass doesn’t include the river parks on weekends (Friday-Sunday) or holidays, while the premier pass does. All states have a state park system, but their rules for annual passes varies.

Arizona State Trust Lands

This includes state trust lands (which are not considered public lands) and is actually a permit, so be sure to read the fine print as they include some important restrictions. You won’t find any visitor services here. Most Western states have their own systems of state trust lands; their primary purpose is not recreation, so don’t expect park-like amenities or rules.

Federal lands

This includes National Parks, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, and Bureau of Land Management lands where you pay an entrance fee. If it has the word “national” in the name of the area, it probably fits under this heading. There’s a single pass called the America the Beautiful: the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass that is supposed to cover entrance fees for all of these.

A very important note here. Some National Forests, including several in Arizona, now exclude some very popular fee areas from being covered by this pass. They call some of these sites with “enhanced amenities” and others are technically operated by a private permittee or concessionaire, but you and I might not notice the difference. Yes, this is total bullshit that’s still a better-than-nothing attempt to deal with the inadequate budgets Congress appropriates for our public lands. These areas also often have their own local Forest pass (Tonto Pass, Red Rock Pass or Grand Red Rock Pass, and the Coronado Pass are Arizona examples) with daily and annual options which vary with each national forest.

You can also get a highly reduced or free pass if you are:

A few additional tips

  • You can usually buy these pass at any staffed entrance station or visitor center.
  • Many places have annual passes for a specific park location.
  • These passes usually admit a carload but don’t cover any additional fees—like camping or tour fees.
  • Areas managed by a concessionaire aren’t covered in the federal pass, even for basic things like parking or entrance fees.

Speaking of park passes, don’t you think we should have an America the Beautiful pass for kids?