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Is the Annual National Parks Pass Worth It?

    If you’re anything like us, the US National Parks are at the top of your must see list. Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Saguaro, Grand Teton, Acadia… the US is full of amazing locations to fill your road trip travel itinerary. And that’s not even mentioning the over 350 other park sites under the NPS administration, like the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and Gettysburg National Military Park.

    If you’re planning a National Parks travel itinerary and are visiting a couple of national parks, is the annual national parks pass worth it? What if you’re planning to hit a couple of national parks over a couple of different road trips?

    Should I Buy the Annual National Parks Pass?

    You may be wondering if the national parks pass is worth it, and that is an easy yes for us. Absolutely! Many of our RV road trip travel itineraries focus on US national parks and park sites, so we easily save money on the annual national parks pass every year.

    Without an annual national parks pass, vehicle entrance to almost all of the 63 National Parks will cost between $20 and $35. And other NPS sites like Assateague Island National Seashore, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and Wright Brothers National Memorial also have entrance fees. Some of the small NPS sites charge a $10-15 per person fee instead of a vehicle entrance fee. When we visited New Hampshire, we had planned to make 4 different stops along the Kancamagus Highway, all of which charged a $5 parking fee. I didn’t realize until we got to the first parking lot that these sites were part of White Mountain National Forest and therefore covered by our national parks pass.

    Some parks and park sites have free entry, so if you’re only planning to visit a few sites, you might want to look them up and do the math specifically for your trip. There are also a few sites where an annual parks pass might not make your visit free, like Mount Rushmore National Memorial, which has free entry but charges a parking fee with no NPS pass discount. At other sites, you’ll want to book a tour, which will not be covered by your annual national parks pass.

    But a good rule of thumb is this: if you are planning to visit at least 3 National Parks in the next year, you should get the pass. While some vehicle entrance rates are cheaper, most of the 63 national parks charge $30 or 35 for your visit. (Your receipt is usually good for a week of re-entry.) The annual national parks pass is $80, so visits at just two National Parks would put you very close to the annual pass price and you’d have a whole year to use it. You can find all the National Park sites fee information here to calculate how much you’d be spending on entrance fees for your specific national parks travel itinerary.

    Don’t forget that 4th graders get a free annual parks pass and discounts and lifetime passes are available to military and seniors.

    Should I Buy the State Parks Pass?

    You may also be wondering if the state parks passes are worth it, and that’s a much more nuanced question.

    While our National Parks are amazing, many people will tell you that state parks are their favorite to visit. Many of them are simply spectacular but fly under most people’s radar because the national parks are more well known. So you get the incredible views with fewer crowds and less hassle booking a campground. But… camping in state parks comes the extra day fee or the need for purchasing state parks passes.

    As a quick rule of thumb, I’d say there are two reasons you might want to purchase a state parks pass.

    1. The park charges a per person fee.

    2. You’re camping inside the park and the park charges either a daily fee or a per person fee.

    Living in Virginia, the need for a state parks pass was not initially obvious to me. Most Virginia state parks charge only a day use parking fee. And there’s no fee at all for those with campground reservations. So you’d have to visit several Virginia state parks in order to save money with the state parks pass.

    However, in Texas, a daily fee is charged per person (13 and older) per day for everyone who enters the park, whether for day use or for camping. Even without counting our boys, a four day camping reservation at Pedernales State Park would have an additional $48 fee. That adds up quickly! The Texas state parks pass costs $70 and covers everyone in your vehicle, so we saved money in just a few days of camping.

    South Dakota has what they call a daily park license, charging all vehicles $8 a day, both for day use and for camping. While this fee didn’t add up quite as quickly as the Texas state parks fees, the annual vehicle entrance fee was only $36, which means we saved money very quickly. And since the popular Custer State Park charges a $20 temporary license fee, good for 7 days, we decided to buy the annual entrance license.

    So back to our rule of thumb. If your road trip itinerary includes several stops at state parks from a state with a per person entrance fee, it’s possible you’ll break even on a state parks pass, depending on how much that pass costs. And if you’re camping more than a few days in a park with a daily vehicle fee or a daily per person fee, you should definitely look into their state park annual pass to see if it will save you money.

    If you’re planning an epic multi-state road trip and planning to stay in a lot of state parks, I am sure that purchasing 3 different state parks passes was not part of your ideal travel itinerary. But not all states charge a daily fee, so be strategic when route planning and consider swapping state parks stays for other campgrounds in states where the pass doesn’t feel worth purchasing. While we love camping inside state parks, we have definitely opted for the full hookups and convenience of an RV park when a state park’s fees hiked up the campground rates.

    Some state parks passes are 100% worth purchasing, even for shorter visits, so definitely do the math when planning your state parks travel itinerary to see if you can save money by purchasing the annual pass.

    *All prices and fees listed in this post are 2023 rates.

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