America the Beautiful National Park Pass – Pros & Cons

We purchased our first America the Beautiful (ATB) Interagency Annual National Park Pass when we went to Assateague National Seashore in 2016.

It cost $80.00 and the entrance fee to the park was $15/car, so that was covered. Right after that purchase, we went to a few other National Park areas:

  • Wright Brothers National Historic Landmark & Museum
  • The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Mammoth Caves National Park
  • Oakridge Laboratories National Park


We were only able to use the ATB Annual Pass at one of these, which was the Wright Museum which was $15/person entrance fee.

The others didn’t charge an entrance fee, and being new to the pass I thought, “Why make and sell a National Park Pass that isn’t really used?”

  First, let’s go over the types of National Park Pass available, as the ATB Interagency Pass might not be the right one for you:

How Much is a National Park Pass?

That depends. There are a handful of card types for different:

  • Free Annual Pass for U.S. Military
  • Annual 4th Grade Pass – US 4th graders get a free Annual Pass as part of the Every Kid in a Park program
  • Senior Pass – $80 Lifetime Pass – good for entrance fees and 50% camping at many participating federal camping areas.
  • Access Pass – Free pass for permanent residents with permanent disabilities
  • Volunteer Pass – free to volunteers with over 250 hours with federal agencies that participate
  • Annual Pass – $80  yearlong pass for everyone else – good for entrance fees. Does not cover “Expanded Amenity fees” such as camping, boat launching, parking, special tours.

Organizations Included

Even though the Interagency Pass is referred to as the “National Park Pass”, it doesn’t just included access to National Parks. In fact, there are six federal agencies that participate (hence the term “interagency”).

The six agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program are:

  1. National Park Service
  2. U.S. Forest Service
  3. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  4. Bureau of Land Management
  5. Bureau of Reclamation
  6. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Assateague National Seashore

Interagency Annual Pass for the Full-Time RVer

Pros

Since those first few stops, we’ve really discovered the pass’s value. If you’re a National Park hopper like we are, and you’re visiting a lot of parks and National Lands during your travels, this pass is a no-brainer.

The annual pass lasts a year, and you can hit a lot of parks in that time.

Here is the list of savings we saw from using the Annual pass for just 7 months of use:

We’ve found that a lot of places we want to go accept the card that we weren’t expecting, in California when we wanted to use the boat ramp to kayak on Lake Sonoma the ramp fee was waived with the Interagency Annual Pass. In 4 years, we have saved over $280 in entrance fees to Interagency Sites, making the economic justification for this pass a no-brainer.

Cons

In the table above you may have noticed the “Total Spent” category is $102. But didn’t I just tell you the Annual Pass is $80?

Yes, the Annual Pass is $80 but that ONLY covers entrance fees and ONLY at participating parks and areas.

Extras like camping, boat launching, parking, and special tours are not included.​

​Also, some facilities and activities on Federal recreation lands are managed by private concessionaires. The concessionaires charge for their services as any private company does and the Pass is not valid for their services.

Additionally, we found a couple places where there was no entrance fee to the park, but if you wanted to see what you came to the park to see it was considered a “special tour” and thus charged extra. For an example, take Mammoth Caves National Park in Kentucky.

Mammoth Caves National Park

We went to Mammoth Caves National Park in Summer 2016 – to see the Mammoth Caves, of course – and we had to pay $12 for a self-guided tour into the main cave closest to the Visitors Center. To see any of the caves was a special tour ranging from $20-40 per person, and this was the cheapest one which really only got you to see one small section of the 400+ mile system.

​The lady at the counter said that they didn’t charge an “entrance fee” to the park, and that was all that the National Park Pass would get me.

I would argue that it was the caves that made the park what it was, and I was charged an entrance fee to walk into them disguised as a “self-guided tour.”

Mammoth Caves National Park

Oak Ridge – Manhattan Project National Historic Park

Similarly, when we went to Oak Ridge – Manhattan Project National Heritage Park there was no entrance fee into the museum and visitor center, but to actually see Oak Ridge you had to pay to take the tour via bus. This I thought was more fair than Mammoth Caves, but the underlying theme was there:

No Entrance Fee, but to really see what you came to see is probably going to be more $.

Overall

Could it be better? Well,…possibly. If you’re paying the $80 to see the parks, paying extra to really see them doesn’t seem right at first. Especially if they are touting a “No Entrance Fee.” ​

BUT…
We’ve learned and experienced a lot since purchasing our first Interagency Annual Pass. 

For the instances where additional fees were charged to get beyond the Visitor’s Center, we  understand that some places require more care and funding than others. While I’m not sure about the particulars, I have heard in talking with NPS employees that then Annual Pass funds are distributed in a different way to the parks than daily admissions.

It also depends heavily on the type of attractions – like requiring staff to guide visitors through a dark cave and make sure they stay safe and don’t disturb the ecosystem.

Importance of Funding the National Parks

Overall, we’ve realized that it’s a lot more complicated behind the scenes. Additionally, funding for the National Parks has been on the chopping block recently, including a 17% reduction in in budget for the National Park Service for Fiscal Year 2021 (National Parks Traveler.org, Feb 2020)

Is the Interagency National Park Pass Worth It?

Is it worth it? Absolutely. In just 7 months, it had paid for itself twice over. We’ve been pleasantly surprised at what it DOES get us, like our visitation to the Oregon Dunes and Lake Sonoma, and day access to National Forests and more.

Oregon Dunes

On top of everything, the National Parks, Forests, Historic Sites, and Monuments have been some of the most memorable and enjoyable places we’ve been on our travels.

We happily pay the $80/year to support these parks and help preserve what they seek to protect!

Glacier National Park

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Mortons on the Move

We are Tom & Caitlin Morton. We gave up the stationary life for one where we are constantly on the move. We live in a fifth wheel RV and travel with our two pups, Mocha and Bella. We enjoy hiking, biking, boondocking, videography, and upgrading our RV to suit our off-grid mobile lifestyle. Our goal is to share educational, entertaining, and inspiring content with our readers and viewers.

View Comments

  • We already have a lifetime Senior America the Beautiful Pass. Should we also get an Interagency Lifetime Senior Pass?
    Is this duplicating?
    Thanks.

    • That would be duplicating! It's the same pass. You're all set :) Thanks for the comment - you reminded me to come back and update the Senior pass price (prices went up last year). Happy travels!

  • The information you shared is quite useful and when purchasing the pass to enter Shenandoah National Park ($30), we wondered if we too might recoup the cost. Herein lies the PRO you missed. Regardless of whether we ultimately visit enough parks this year to cover the $80, we've all contributed to a great cause and directed our spending where we want it to go - to help maintain our National Parks for us and generations to come.

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