For the ninth or tenth straight year, Kim and I bought an America the Beautiful Pass (or its predecessors, the National Parks Passport and Golden Eagle Passport). For $80 a year, it’ll get you and your family into every National Park unit and the other federal land management agency lands for free. Given the fabulous list of places that includes, it’s an incredible steal.
Most years, it pays for itself early in a roadtrip. This winter, it only saved us $8. Vicksburg National Military Park, of the 11 total national parks we visited, was the only one1 that charged an entrance fee. Unlike the majority of sites in the West, we’ve noticed that Southern units rarely charge an entrance fee. Even so, we’ll probably break even later this year.
In addition to the regular America the Beautiful pass, there’s also an America the Beautiful Senior Pass, an America the Beautiful Access Pass, and an America the Beautiful Volunteer Pass.
The Senior pass, formerly called the Golden Age Passport, is a one-time
$10 (now) $803 fee and covers US citizens ages 62 and up. That’s quite a deal. The Access pass, formerly called the Golden Access Passport, is an even better deal – it’s free for anyone with a permanent disability. Mind you, these passes cover the entrance fee for you (and your family) into any national park for rest of your life. The Volunteer Pass, however, is awarded only after 500 2502 cumulative hours of volunteer work and is good for a single year from that date.
Now, I realize that many seniors and people with disabilities may have limited and/or fixed incomes which make it difficult to enjoy our national treasures. But at the same time, we’re not asking for income tax returns at the entrance station—if your drivers license says you’re 62, you get a lifetime pass…even if you’re Warren Buffett. I understand that getting seniors to the parks is a laudable goal—and that as a voting block, they could be particularly helpful in ensuring adequate park funding.
But I think we’re missing the real opportunity here: getting young kids to the parks. Instead (or rather, in addition to) the existing passes, there should be a youth pass. It should be valid until the age of eighteen and function similarly to the senior pass.
We should call it the Golden Eaglet Pass.
Yes, kids under the age of 16 are already admitted for free. But that’s misleading. If you’re driving to a place like, say, Grand Canyon National Park, you’re going to pay
$25 $30 a carload whether or not it contains a 12-year old. But if grandpa was asleep in the back seat, you’d get the entire car in for free.
There are already very compelling reasons for why we need to get kids outside more often – whether it’s combating obesity, connecting them with the wonder of the natural world, or giving them a chance to learn first-hand about our natural and cultural heritage. We all know and agree that it’s important.
We also need them to become lifelong advocates for public lands, helping to ensure that the special places they visited remain for their own children to experience. Providing an incentive for families to make sure that happens is a good idea.
As a final comment, I’d also love to see the volunteer pass dramatically lower its service hours requirement.
500 250 volunteer hours is roughly an entire quarter of full-time work and would be valued at more than $10,000 $5,000. That’s a ridiculously high amount of volunteer time for an $80 pass and essentially ensures that only retirees will meet the requirement in a single year (and hell, they can already get a lifetime pass for $80). That total should be dropped to 50 hours or less. After all we should be doing a better job of rewarding those who donate their time, energy and skill to protecting and interpreting our special places that help make this country great.
Note: You can buy any of these passes (well, except for the youth pass I’ve proposed) at virtually any National Park Service unit that charges a fee, or basically any federal fee area that’s staffed. By the way, the unit at which you buy it receives an additional cut of the fee, so keep that in mind. In the past, we’ve also seen them for sale at REI.
Also, most federal sites have “fee-free days” several weekends a year.
[back to post] Poverty Point National Monument, while technically a unit of the National Park System, is owned and run by the State of Louisiana and charged its own $2/person entrance fee that’s not covered by the pass.
[back to post] The Volunteer Pass requirements have been dropped to 250 hours, which is still far too high.
[back to post] The National Parks Centennial Act passed in early 2017 is raising the price for the Senior Pass from $10 to $80 for the lifetime pass. Still an amazing deal.