Na­tional Parks Pass is the best $80 ever

USA TODAY International Edition - - LIFE - Christo­pher El­liott Spe­cial to USA TO­DAY

When I tell peo­ple I have a Na­tional Parks Pass, they usu­ally ask: Is it worth the cost?

My an­swer? Yes, the $80 a year I spend on my Amer­ica The Beau­ti­ful card, which of­fers un­lim­ited ac­cess to the Na­tional Parks, is worth ev­ery penny.

I’m not big on prod­uct en­dorse­ments, but if you’re a fan of Amer­ica’s na­tional parks, this is a must-have pass, de­spite re­cently pro­posed fee in­creases.

If you’re a fre­quent vis­i­tor, you’ll save money. You’ll also visit more of­ten, in­stead of wor­ry­ing about the cost of a sin­gle park ad­mis­sion.

Plus, if you’re trav­el­ing with kids, the pass be­comes a key learn­ing tool in their ed­u­ca­tion.

Here’s what you get

The Na­tional Park Ser­vice, which is­sues the Amer­ica The Beau­ti­ful card, bills the pass as your ticket to more than 2,000 fed­eral re­cre­ation sites. Each pass cov­ers en­trance fees at na­tional parks and na­tional wildlife refuges, in­clud­ing stan­dard amenity fees or day use fees at na­tional forests and grass­lands, as well as lands man­aged by the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, Bureau of Recla­ma­tion and U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers.

The Amer­ica The Beau­ti­ful pass cov­ers en­trance for a driver and all pas­sen­gers in a per­sonal ve­hi­cle at per ve­hi­cle fee ar­eas, for up to four adults at sites that charge per per­son. It doesn’t charge ad­mis­sion for chil­dren age 15 or un­der.

For my fam­ily, that’s a no-ques­tions-asked pass to the most beau­ti­ful parts of the coun­try.

Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park? Come on in. Grand Canyon Na­tional Park? Door’s open. Yosemite Na­tional Park? Green light.

And not just the mar­quee na­tional parks, but also the smaller ones. Re­mem­ber, the pass cov­ers 2,000 fed­eral re­cre­ation sites, in­clud­ing day use fees at na­tional forests. For us, that means un­lim­ited ac­cess to our clos­est for­est, Prescott Na­tional For­est.

More fre­quent na­tional park vis­its

In­stead of hav­ing to worry about each sep­a­rate ad­mis­sion – which can be sub­stan­tial – you’re free to fo­cus on ex­plor­ing these nat­u­ral gems. So when I drove up to the gate of Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park last week and dis­cov­ered my Na­tional Parks pass had ex­pired, I didn’t hes­i­tate.

“It’s the best $80 I’ve spent in my life,” I told the park ranger, hand­ing her my credit card.

“You should work here,” she said. I would, but I have this jour­nal­ism thing I have to do.

That’s what I love about the Amer­ica The Beau­ti­ful card. When you’re stay­ing in a place like Moab, Utah, you don’t even think about whether you should visit Arches Na­tional Park to­day or to­mor­row. You can go ev­ery day. And you do.

Our clos­est na­tional park is Grand Canyon. It is ar­guably the crown jewel of Amer­ica’s na­tional parks sys­tem. My kids love to take out-of-town visi­tors to the park for what they like to call The Big Re­veal.

Here’s how we do it: We drive up to the South Rim, to the vis­i­tor cen­ter. Then we walk to Mather Point, the clos­est and per­haps the most scenic place from which to view the canyon. Then we get our cam­eras out and take pic­tures of the ex­pres­sion on their face as they see the Grand Canyon for the first time. It’s price­less.

We’re hop­ing to spend a month in south­ern Nevada this fall, which of­fers easy ac­cess to the North Rim. I’ve never been to the North Rim, which closes for the sea­son Oct. 15. It’s just some­thing we have to do.

Ed­u­cat­ing your kids and you

To me as a fa­ther, the big­gest ben­e­fit of the Na­tional Parks pass is the ed­u­ca­tional value of this un­lim­ited ad­mis­sion card. Each na­tional park has a wel­come cen­ter or visi­tors cen­ter with ex­hibits that de­scribe the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of the park. Even if your kids only browse through it and watch the movie, they’ll learn some­thing. That “some­thing” is one of the build­ing blocks of a great ed­u­ca­tion.

If you’re an adult, you’ll learn some­thing, too. Vir­ginia’s Shenan­doah Na­tional Park has a ter­rific ex­hibit on road trips, which, as a travel jour­nal­ist, I found fas­ci­nat­ing. In Tuzi­goot Na­tional Mon­u­ment in Ari­zona, there’s an ex­hibit on early na­tive Amer­i­can cul­ture – plus, you can walk among the ru­ins of an an­cient civ­i­liza­tion.

You never know what you’re go­ing to learn on your next visit to a na­tional park. On our drive through Utah, we hap­pened to see signs for Capi­tol Reef Na­tional Park, one of the lesser known parks in the state. We didn’t hes­i­tate to de­tour be­cause we knew we had the Amer­ica The Beau­ti­ful pass.

And that’s where we learned about the Water­pocket Fold, an al­most 100mile long warp in the Earth’s crust, that makes this park so unique. I also dis­cov­ered the area’s fas­ci­nat­ing history and an ex­pla­na­tion for all the fruit trees. If you don’t know what I’m talk­ing about, you have to visit and discover it for your­self.

The more you get to know Amer­ica’s na­tional parks, the more time you want to spend in them — and the more you be­come in­ter­ested in pro­tect­ing them. My kids, who are not very po­lit­i­cal, were deeply con­cerned when the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion shrank two Utah na­tional mon­u­ments, Bears Ears and Grand Stair­case-Es­calante. As a dad, I try to pro­tect them from the mad­ness of to­day’s pol­i­tics, but I have my lim­its. I agree with my kids. We need more, not fewer, na­tional parks.

So to any­one who wants to know if the Na­tional Parks Pass is worth the cost, I say: Oh, yes. And how! You’ll discover more about Amer­ica’s amaz­ing na­tional parks, your kids will learn some­thing, and so will you. Best $80 you’ll ever spend.

Christo­pher El­liott’s lat­est book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Trav­eler” (Na­tional Ge­o­graphic). He edits the fam­ily ad­ven­ture travel blog Away is Home. You can follow his ad­ven­tures on Twit­ter or Face­book.


Erysse and Iden El­liott hang out in Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park in 2018. This breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful des­ti­na­tion is only a short drive from Den­ver.

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