October 26, 2020



The holidays will be here before you know it. This means that if you haven’t already, it’s time to start compiling your Christmas shopping list.

While there’s no shortage of great gifts out there this season to choose from, don’t just reach for the nearest catalog or sales ad for inspiration. Instead, why not give that special person on your list the gift of an entire year of unique experiences?

A National Park annual pass might seem like an odd choice for a gift. But when you consider exactly what your friend or loved one will be able to do with that pass, you’ll understand why it’s the perfect gift for everyone on your list.

What is a National Park Pass?

In the U.S., there are more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. While national parks are the best known, there are also national forests and grasslands, seashores and battlefields, historic sites, monuments, and many, many more varieties of land managed by the government.

Many of these sites have entrance fees. These fees help the National Park Service better manage these fragile natural and historical resources. But if you choose to visit national parks often, these can really add up. There are park-specific annual passes. However, those choosing to visit more than one park each year are better off with an annual pass.

The National Park Service offers several annual pass options:

America the Beautiful Annual Pass

The standard annual pass is called the America the Beautiful Pass. It’s available to everyone, whether they are American residents or not. This means that visitors from other nations can buy one if they plan to visit several parks during a vacation. 

This annual pass costs $80 a year. The pass becomes active the month it is purchased and lasts for 12 months after that. It gains the cardholder, as well as three additional occupants of their vehicle, access to more than 400 sites that have entrance fees. The pass does not include any fees that are for third party companies, like ferries or bus services that help get you to the historic or natural site. The pass doesn’t cover any other services, like campground fees, facility rentals, etc.

Free Annual Passes

The National Park Service offers three different types of free annual passes. All carry the same benefits as the America the Beautiful Pass, just without the fee.

The first is for all active members of the U.S. military, as well as their dependents. This includes those who are in the reserves or the National Guard. 

The next type of free pass is for anyone with a permanent disability. This pass is called an Access Pass, and it does provide a few additional benefits. Cardholders will get a 50 percent discount on some amenity fees, for things like camping, swimming, boat launching, or interpretive services.

Volunteers who donate at least 250 service hours with federal agencies each year can receive a free pass through the Interagency Pass Program.

Finally, any fourth grade U.S. students, or home-schooled children who are 10 years of age, are eligible for a free one-year pass. This pass is a part of the Every Kid Outdoors initiative. In order to get it, children and their parents will need to visit the Every Kid Outdoors website to get a paper pass that can then be exchanged for a card at federal recreation sites that charge an entrance fee or day-use fee.

Senior Pass

Any U.S. permanent residents or citizens who are age 62 or older are eligible for a Senior Pass. This pass costs $80 for a lifetime pass or $20 for an annual pass. The pass includes the same benefits as the regular annual pass, as well as a 50 percent discount on some amenity fees, like campground fees, swimming or boat launch passes, etc.

How to Gift a National Park Pass

Gifting a national park pass to family or friends is easy. You can easily order a gift pass online directly from the National Park Service’s website. You can also visit a national park visitor center. Many outdoor stores offer national park passes for sale as well.

When you purchase your national park pass, you’ll receive a blank card with no names. The month and year during which your pass was purchased will be punched on the card. This indicates that it will expire at the end of the same month, in one year’s time.

After you gift the pass, the recipient will need to sign his or her name to the card. Then, when they go to a park to use it, they’ll need to show the card and a photo ID. There is no way to remotely use your card, as records of National Park Annual Passes are not stored online or in any database.

Each National Park Pass is actually good for two cardholders. So when you gift it, the recipient will get to choose the person that they will share the pass with. This makes it a great gift for couples. But card-sharers don’t need to be married or even related. You are also free to share a card with your friend and hiking buddy.

Why a National Park Pass Makes for the Perfect Gift

There are several reasons why a national park pass makes for an excellent gift. To start, its a great way to save your friend or family member some money. Park entrance fees can run as high as $35 a vehicle. If they visit several parks a year or visit one park often, this can really add up. The money they save can go towards activities in the park or even some fun souvenirs.

Even if the recipient doesn’t frequent national parks right now, the pass can be a great way to inspire them. Knowing that they can visit for free, you might just convince them to plan day trips or vacations to new and exciting locations. They’ll see and experience new things, enjoy some nature and fresh air, and be left with memories that will last a lifetime.

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