One of my go-to suggestions for a vacation spot in the United States are any of the US National Parks.
The National Parks in the United States include some of the most beautiful and extraordinary natural parks in the entire world, like Grand Canyon National Park and my personal favorite, Acadia National Park.
Unfortunately, access to most US National Parks requires an entrance fee, which can make visiting them prohibitive for some travelers. Luckily there are a handful of ways to get in for FREE!
Keep reading to learn more about how to get a free America the Beautiful pass to all US National Parks AND how to get in for free if you don’t qualify for a free pass.
What is an America the Beautiful pass?
First off, what exactly is an America the Beautiful pass? The America the Beautiful pass is an annual pass that provides entry to any National Park in the United States that typically requires an entrance fee.
For most visitors, an annual America the Beautiful pass costs $80. However, there are 4 types of America the Beautiful passes that are absolutely FREE.
How can I get an America the Beautiful pass?
America the Beautiful passes can be purchased at specific US parks, depending on the type of pass you want to purchase (or get for free!).
To find out where to get an America the Beautiful pass for US National Parks, check out the Pass Issuance List from the National Park Service (NPS).
Free National Park pass for disabled citizens and residents
US citizens and permanent residents that have a permanent disability are eligible for a free America the Beautiful pass. This pass is referred to as the Access Pass and is valid for life – not just one year!
To apply for an Access Pass, proof of a permanent disability and citizenship or permanent residence is necessary.
Citizenship or residence is proven via a state-issued driver’s license or ID card, a US state-issued birth certificate, US passport, or a permanent resident card (aka “green card”).
Proof of a disability can be tricky and open to interpretation, but there are a few options.
A signed doctor’s note describing your disability is one option for proof, though it could be open for interpretation as to whether the information in the note is sufficient.
A better bet might be to use a state or federally issued document, such as a receipt of Social Security Disability Income (if applicable), or letter from a rehabilitation agency stating your permanent disability.
TIP: Disability parking passes and license plates are NOT accepted as proof of a permanent disability.
An Access Pass can be obtained in person at most federal parks. Check the Pass Issuance List (linked earlier in this article) to locate the closest park that issues this pass.
You can also apply for an Access Pass through the mail, but there is a $10 processing fee.
Free military national park pass
Current members of the US military (and their dependents) qualify for a free annual America the Beautiful pass. This includes members of the National Guard and Reserve units, but NOT veterans. At this time there isn’t a free national park pass for veterans.
If you are a current member of the US military, you’ll need your military ID card to apply for your pass.
If you’re a dependent of a current military service member, you’ll need a DD Form 1173 card.
Not all parks issue free annual passes for active military members, so be sure to check the Pass Issuance List at the top of this post to find the closest park that issues a Military Pass.
Free 4th grade National Park pass
Students in the 4th grade (or age 10 if homeschooled) are eligible for a free annual pass to US parks.
The 4th grade National Park pass is part of the National Park Service’s Every Kid in a Park program. The pass is valid September through August of the academic year it is obtained.
To get a pass, students must complete an outdoor activity, such as swimming in a lake or hiking at a local park. After completing the activity, visit the Every Kid in a Park website to submit a record of the activity to get a voucher for the pass.
Alternatively, teachers and youth leaders can supervise a qualifying activity and provide printed vouchers to students as part of class or a program such as Girl Scouts.
Once you have a voucher from the Every Kid in a Park website, bring it to any park that requires paid entry to exchange for a free Every Kid in a Park pass.
TIP: Digital copies of the voucher are NOT accepted. The voucher must be printed in order to exchange it for a free annual pass.
Free annual National Park volunteer pass
Another free annual pass for entry to US National Parks is the National Parks Volunteer Pass.
The National Parks Volunteer Pass is available to anyone that completes 250 volunteer hours with an agency or organization that participates in the Interagency Pass Program.
Agencies that you can volunteer for include most state and federal parks, as well as a handful of governmental departments, such as the Department of Veteran Affairs.
To find local volunteer opportunities that qualify for this pass, visit volunteer.gov.
Once you are selected for a volunteer position from Volunteer.gov, you will get a document that will outline your commitment that can be used as proof of volunteer hours.
Alternatively, you can request a signed letter from your supervisor or coordinator confirming that you’ve completed at least 250 hours of service.
Free days at National Parks
If you don’t qualify for a free America the Beautiful pass, there is one more way to access the parks for free.
Each year, the National Park Service selects several days in which all parks that require a fee are open to the public free of charge. Typically the free entrance days coincide with holidays or special celebrations.
The free days at National Parks for 2019 are:
- Monday, January 21 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
- Saturday, April 20 – To kick off National Park Week
- Sunday, August 25 – As part of the celebration for the birthday of the National Park Service
- Saturday, September 28 – In celebration of National Public Lands Day
- Monday, November 11 – In honor of Veterans Day
Low-cost National Park Senior pass
Last, but not least, if you are age 62 and above, and a citizen or permanent resident of the US, you can get a low-cost pass.
In the past, there was a low-cost lifetime pass called the Golden Age Passport. However, the Golden Age Passport was discontinued in 2007.
Since then, the Golden Age Passport was replaced with 2 new options: the Annual Senior Pass and the Lifetime Senior Pass.
An Annual Senior Pass is $20 versus $80 for a regular America the Beautiful pass.
The Lifetime Senior Pass, which provides lifetime access, costs $80.
While $80 isn’t cheap per say, when spread out over the years, it’s a pretty good deal. Plus, if you can’t plunk down $80 in a single year, you can exchange 4 Annual Senior Passes for a Lifetime Senior Pass!