Person holding an 'America the beautiful' annual pass card against vista of Shenandoah
Here’s what to consider before buying this pass. (Photo: grandbrothers/Shutterstock)

Everything You Need to Know About the America the Beautiful Interagency Pass

Granting access to more than 2,000 national parks and recreation areas, the America the Beautiful pass is a game changer for any park-hopping traveler. Here’s how to know if the pass is right for you—plus how to buy it and use it.

Person holding an 'America the beautiful' annual pass card against vista of Shenandoah

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If national parks are our country’s best idea, the America the Beautiful pass could easily be runner-up.

This annual interagency pass, established by the 2004 Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, gives travelers access to more than 2,000 recreation destinations for $80 per year (with up to two owners per pass). The included spots? Just about every federally run park and outdoor recreation area. The pass covers entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges, plus day-use fees across national forests, national grasslands, and lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Reclamation.

It’s kind of a big deal, but is it right for you? And is it worth the annual fee? Here’s what to consider before buying this pass.

What Is the America the Beautiful Park Pass?

America the Beautiful is an interagency park pass that covers entrance and standard day-use fees for nearly all parks and recreation areas managed by six federal agencies: the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

While the pass gets you in, America the Beautiful doesn’t give you full rein of the park. You’ll still have to pay for amenities like camping, boat launching, special permits, or services offered via private concessionaires.

How Much Does the America the Beautiful Pass Cost?

It depends. The standard annual America the Beautiful pass costs $80. Each pass can have two owners, marked by two signatures on the card’s back. Co-owners don’t have to be married or related.

For destinations that require per-vehicle charges, one America the Beautiful pass pays for your entire car. At sites requiring per-person charges, this pass covers up to four adults. Children ages 15 and younger get into these destinations for free.

Timing-wise, the pass is valid for 12 months from the date you purchase it.

Special America the Beautiful Pass Options

Five categories of people qualify for discounts via the following special pass options:

  • Military: Free annual passes for U.S. military veterans, Gold Star family members, and current U.S. military members of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Space Force, Reserve, and National Guard, as well as their dependents. Check here for requirements before ordering your pass online or in person.
  • Seniors: Discounted rates of $80 per lifetime pass or $20 per annual pass for U.S. citizens or permanent residents ages 62 and over. Apply here.
  • Disabilities: Free lifetime America the Beautiful passes for U.S. citizens and residents with permanent disabilities. Apply via this form.
  • Fourth-Grade Students: Through Every Kid Outdoors, an initiative to help children and their families fall in love with—and then protect—America’s vital natural resources, every U.S. fourth grader, including homeschooled children and ten-year-old free-choice learners, receives a free America the Beautiful pass from September through August. In destinations that require per-person entrance fees, this pass covers up to three adults.
  • Volunteers: Volunteers who’ve accumulated at least 250 service hours for federal agencies involved in the interagency pass program can enjoy free annual volunteer passes, which are valid for 12 months from the date of issue.

Where Do I Purchase an America the Beautiful Pass?

You have three ways to nab this pass: Purchase it in person; most spots that accept the passes also sell them on-site. Buy it online from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) store or retailers such as L.L.Bean or REI. (The latter donates 10 percent of each pass sale to the National Park Foundation.) Or call the USGS at 888-275-8747 to purchase the pass over the phone.

How Do I Use the Pass?

Simply present the card to park rangers upon arrival at any park or recreation area entrance. For unstaffed entrances, display it either via a hangtag on your rearview mirror or on your dashboard, signature side up.

Take note: you need the physical card to use the America the Beautiful pass—no email confirmations or phone number lookups here.

Should I Buy an America the Beautiful Pass?

Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you plan to visit more than two national parks or federal recreation lands that require entrance fees, an America the Beautiful pass is a good idea.

Let’s look at the numbers. For a weeklong California road trip from Joshua Tree ($30 per vehicle) to Death Valley ($30 per vehicle) and then Yosemite ($35 per vehicle), your America the Beautiful pass would pay for itself and then some.

After that, you’ll still have the flexibility to visit thousands of other national parks and recreation areas via the pass, which only means one thing: it’s time to hit the road.

Lead Photo: grandbrothers/Shutterstock