One of my go-to suggestions for a vacation spot in the United States is to visit a US national park.
The National Park Service (NPS) includes some of the most beautiful parks and recreation sites in the entire world, such as Acadia, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks.
Unfortunately, most US national parks require 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 how to get a free US national park pass. Plus, learn how you can get in for free if you don’t qualify for a free pass.
How can I get a National Park pass?
The US National Park annual pass is also known as the America the Beautiful pass.
This annual pass provides entrance to more than 2,000 national parks and other federal recreation sites managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish & Wildlife Service, Forest Service, NPS, US Army Corps of Engineers.
This includes most national historic sites, national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores and lakeshores, national battlefields, national memorials, national forests, and national wildlife refuges.
It includes entry for all people in a personal vehicle. Or for parks that charge per person instead of per vehicle, the physical pass includes entry for up to 4 people, including the pass owner.
An annual pass does not include additional fees, such as parking, campgrounds, tours, rentals, backcountry permits, or other special permits.
America the Beautiful passes are available for purchase at specific US parks, depending on the type of pass you want.
To find out where to get an America the Beautiful pass in person, check out the Pass Issuance List from the NPS.
You can also purchase a pass online at the USGS online store for an additional $5 handling fee.
For most people, the America the Beautiful pass costs $80 for one year, but there are 4 types of passes that are 100% FREE!
Free US national park pass for disabled people
US citizens and permanent residents with a permanent disability are eligible for the free Access Pass.
The best part about this pass is that it’s valid for the lifetime of the pass holder. No need to reapply every year!
To apply, proof of a permanent disability and citizenship or permanent residence is required.
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 more reliable option is a state or federally issued document, such as a receipt of Social Security Disability Income (if applicable), or letter from a rehabilitation agency stating the permanent disability.
The Access Pass is available 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 through the mail or purchase it online. Both of these options require a $10 handling fee.
Free pass for US military members & dependents
On November 11, 2022, the NPS announced a revamped Interagency Military Pass that gives free entrance to national parks and other federal recreation areas, as mentioned in the beginning of this post.
A free annual pass is available to current US military members and their dependents. Military veterans are eligible for a free lifetime pass with valid photo identification. Gold Star family members are also eligible for free lifetime passes.
Prior to this announcement, only current members of the US military and their dependents were eligible for free annual passes. Veterans and Gold Star families weren’t included, so this is a wonderful enhancement to the program.
Current members of the US military will need their military ID card to apply, while dependents of a current military service member will need a DD Form 1173 or Form 1173-1 card.
Veterans will need an unexpired DoD ID card, Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC), Veteran ID card, or veteran designation on a state-issued driver’s license or ID card to receive their free pass.
Gold Star family members need to print and sign this voucher and leave it in their windshield when visiting a park. Alternatively, they can apply for a pass through the USGS store (fee applies) or in person at any park that issues lifetime passes.
Not all national parks issue free annual or lifetime passes. Check the Pass Issuance List to find the closest park that issues Interagency Military passes.
Free 4th grade pass
Students in the 4th grade (or age 10 if they are homeschoolers) are eligible for a free annual pass to US parks.
The 4th grader pass is part of the National Park Service’s Every Kid Outdoors program, formerly called Every Kid in a Park.
The pass is valid September through August of the academic year you get it.
In 2021, NPS extended this pass to 5th graders due to US-wide travel restrictions in 2020. This extension was only for 2021, so it is back to only being for 4th graders since 2022.
To get a pass, students must complete an outdoor activity, such as hiking at a local park.
After completing the activity, visit the Every Kid Outdoors website to submit a record of the activity. In return, you’ll get a voucher for the pass.
We did this in 2021 when one of my nieces was in 5th grade. We had originally hoped to visit some national parks in Hawaii, but instead stayed local and visited our beloved Acadia National Park instead – for free!
All we had to do was print her pass and show it to the park ranger when entering the park with her. It was so easy!
Alternatively, teachers and youth leaders can supervise a qualifying activity and provide printed vouchers as part of a class or program, such as Girl Scouts.
Once you have a voucher from the Every Kid Outdoors website, bring it to any park that requires paid entry to exchange for a free 4th grade pass.
NOTE: Digital copies of the voucher are NOT accepted. The voucher must be printed in order to exchange it for a free annual pass.
Free national park pass for volunteers
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 obtain a volunteer position from Volunteer.gov, you will get a document that outlines your commitment and serves 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 entrance days
If you don’t qualify for a free pass, there is one more way to visit the parks for free.
Every year, the NPS has several free entrance days for all US national parks. Here are the dates for 2023:
- Monday, January 16 to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
- Saturday, April 22 to celebrate National Park Week & Earth Day
- Friday, August 4 in honor of the anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
- Saturday, September 23 in honor of National Public Lands Day
- Saturday, November 11 in honor of Veterans Day
Reduced cost pass for people age 62 and up
If you are age 62 or above, and US citizens or permanent residents, you can get an annual pass at a discount.
There used to be a low-cost lifetime pass called the Golden Age Passport. However, the Golden Age Passport was discontinued in 2007.
NOTE: If you already hold a Golden Age Passport, they will still work.
In place of the Golden Age Passport are 2 new options: the Annual Senior Pass and Lifetime Senior Pass.
An Annual pass is $20, which saves $60 off the price of an annual America the Beautiful pass.
The Lifetime pass costs $80 and provides entry for the lifetime of the pass holder. While $80 isn’t cheap, when spread out over the years, it’s a pretty good deal.
Lastly, if you can’t plunk down $80 in a single year, you can exchange 4 Annual Senior Passes for a Lifetime Pass!
Trade in some Marriott Bonvoy points
Marriott Bonvoy had a temporary program the past few years that let you get a free annual pass by trading in 22,500 Marriott Bonvoy points. Unfortunately the deal has ended.
However, if you’re a Marriott Bonvoy member, many of their hotels and vacation homes nearby national parks are available starting at $99 per night.
You can also donate Marriott Bonvoy points to the National Park Foundation. 2,500 points equals a $25 donation. You can learn more here.
Walk your way to a free pass with the TreeCard app
TreeCard is an eco-focused reward program and credit card. In a nutshell, you earn points through credit card spend, purchasing through sustainable brands, using public transportation, and walking.
For every 50 points, TreeCard will plant a tree, up to 7 trees per week.
In addition to supporting reforestation, you can trade in your points for rewards, such as a free National Park Pass.
To earn this reward, you’ll need to connect your bank and use their positive spend tool, plus earn 8,000 points. Every 10,000 steps is 50 points, while spending or using their credit card earns varying amounts of points.
What a fun way to earn your pass, promote sustainability, and stay fit!
Where will you go with your low-cost or free pass?
Let me know where you’ll go with your free America the Beautiful national parks pass in the comments below.
Not sure where to go? Check out this post about the best national parks on the East coast.
About the author
Meg Frost is a Boston-based travel blogger that helps people embrace technology to make vacation planning and traveling wicked easy, affordable, and fun.
She holds an M.A. in Journalism from Northeastern University and B.S. in Communication & American Studies from University of Miami.
This post was originally published on April 23, 2017. It was last updated on April 25, 2023.