America the Beautiful: The National Parks Senior Pass

Hands down, the best value in the RVing world is the National Parks Senior Pass

One of the consolations of old age is the America the Beautiful Pass which like most Federal entities has undergone a name change—it used to be called MANY years ago, the Golden Age Pass.

For $80, seniors can get a Lifetime Senior Pass. Seniors are anyone over the age of 62.

If you want the Annual Senior Pass, it’s $20, as of this posting.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What the America the Beautiful National Parks Senior Pass includes

All U.S. citizens and permanent residents are eligible for this pass which will greatly reduce your expenditures for visiting and camping in National Parks and federal land—more than 2,000 locations in all.

Each pass covers entrance fees for your RV (or whatever vehicle you are in) and all passengers at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard and day-use fees at national forests and grasslands and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Most campgrounds in National Forests give you a 50 percent discount on camping fees with the America the Beautiful pass.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get an America the Beautiful Senior Pass

The America the Beautiful Senior Pass is sold at all National Park entrances, national monuments, many National Forest ranger stations, Bureau of Land Management field, and district officers, and numerous other places.

Purchase the LIFETIME Senior Pass Here

Purchase the ANNUAL Senior Pass Here

As soon as you turn 62, just show up with documentation that you’re either a U.S. citizen or permanent resident (driver’s license, US passport, birth certificate, or green card) and that you’re 62.

Pay the fee ($80) and you’re literally set for life. Since the replacement charge is the same as a new card the procedure is just to get another one if you lose yours. So don’t lose your card! And they don’t accept pictures of the card (in case you like to digitize your paper for trips)—so keep your card handy!

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Parks Senior Pass has lots of benefits for campers

There are many other uses more important to RVers and fulltimers who spend more than the usual two or three weeks a year touring the country.

Six federal agencies—the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bureau of Land Management—all honor the America the Beautiful National Parks Senior Pass at sites where entrance or standard amenity fees are charged. 

“Standard amenity fees” are governmentese for day use, swimming, boat launch, or campsite fees which is where the pass comes into its own.

When you check-in at one of the campgrounds, look on the envelope you use to pay your camping fee at National Forest and BLM campgrounds. 

On the bottom line, there’s a place for your pass number and a 50 percent discount on the overnight camping fee. Army Corps of Engineers campsites also honors the 50 percent discount for senior pass cardholders.

Even the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) will give you 50 percent off of the campsite fees. The TVA offers hundreds of campsites among its six dam reservoir campgrounds in the Southeast available from March 15 to November 15. The length of stay is limited to 21 days during the high season (May 1 to September 30) and 30 days in the off-season (October 1 to April 30, excluding closure dates).

The America the Beautiful pass for seniors will also save you the trouble of going into the ranger station or store to get a permit for National Forest dispersed camping—just display your card on the dash in lieu of the permit. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is the Access Pass?

The site also explains, “A free, lifetime pass—available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents of the United States that have been medically determined to have a permanent disability (does not have to be a 100 percent disability)—that provides admittance to more than 2,000 recreation sites managed by six Federal agencies” is only $20. 

At many sites the Access Pass provides the pass owner a discount on Expanded Amenity Fees (such as camping, swimming, boat launching, and guided tours).

Purchase the Access Pass Here

America the Beautiful Annual Pass

An $80.00 Annual Pass that provides access to more than 2,000 recreation areas managed by six Federal agencies with up to 100 percent of the proceeds being used to improve and enhance visitor recreation services.

Purchase the America the Beautiful Annual Pass Here

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are some exceptions

The only fly in the ointment are concessionaires—private companies that contract with the Federal government to manage campgrounds in national parks and forests.

They aren’t required to accept the pass for a 50 percent discount although there are many who do. Each concessionaire has a separate agreement with NPS.

If the campsite has improvements—water and/or electric hookups—expect to pay full price for the improvements and get 50 percent off the basic campground fee only. 

Most Federal campgrounds don’t have hookups, though, so if you have solar or just like to boondock, an America the Beautiful Senior Pass will come in handy.

There’s just no downside to getting this card. Even if you don’t camp at all you’ll be able to drive through national parks without getting paying the entrance fee.

This has to be one of the best values out there in the RV world. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many other types of passes are available

If you take a look at this brochure, you’ll see many other types of passes available, including a Military Pass, a Volunteer Pass, a student pass, and many more.

Where are you going next?

RVing with Rex has posted a series of Ultimate Guides to…

These resources were written for RVers who wish to explore a national park or other location in depth and often highlight cheap and free things to do while traveling in the area. Having a tried-and-true itinerary can assist you in maximizing your time in a NPS site by showcasing the highlights including hiking trails and campgrounds in and near the park.

Selected guides include:

You can also read:

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

30 Tips for Making the Most of Your National Park Trip

Tips for making your next trip to a national park even more amazing

Mountains, seashores, grasslands, wetlands, coral reefs, and glaciers.

With sweeping vistas, stunning wildlife, and rugged landscapes, America’s national parks are truly a collection of national wonders. Whether you’re visiting for the first time or are a regular at the country’s national parks, planning ahead is the best way to ensure your trip goes off without a hitch.

Following are 30 ways to ensure that your trip to a U.S. national park is great from planning your route in advance to making sure you bring the right supplies and why it’s really important to pay attention to those safety rules. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Choose a time to visit that’s best for your park and travel style

First and foremost, make sure that the park you choose is open at the time of year that you’d like to visit. Several national parks are located in regions that can be dangerous, inaccessible, or uncomfortable if you select the wrong time. For example, you may not want to experience Death Valley National Park—the driest, hottest and lowest national park—in the heat of summer. Some parks such as Lassen Volcanic National Park are completely snowed in and unavailable in the winter.

2. Find out if the park you want to visit requires reservations

During peak seasons, many parks require timed-entry reservations that can be made in advance on each park’s website. You may not need to make that reservation in advance but checking before your trip is a good way to avoid disappointment at the gates. 

Camping in Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. …especially if you want to go camping

Because many parks have limited camping space, reservations fill up quickly especially on major holiday weekends. It’s best to start checking at least a few months in advance for camping sites and though a last-minute spot might open up, don’t count on getting lucky at many of the busiest parks.  

4. Research the best hikes

National parks offer some of the country’s best hiking opportunities and websites like AllTrails can help you find hikes that suit your abilities and sightseeing wishes. By planning your hikes in advance, you’ll be able to strategize and maximize your time in the park. For more on hiking in national parks check out these articles:

Scenic drive in Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. …and don’t forget about the scenic drives

If hiking’s not your thing, don’t let that keep you from checking out the country’s incredible national parks. Almost all the parks offer scenic drives, many of which will get you up close and personal with nature without requiring a long trek. These scenic drives make an ideal start:

6. Consider traveling during shoulder season to beat the crowds

During the busy season, crowded parking lots and so many tourists can put a damper on your enjoyment of the outdoors. Consider planning your trip during shoulder season or just before or after the busiest times for the park you’d like to visit. A quick Google search will reveal when the park is busiest and also let you know about any weather conditions that may result in closures or other limitations on your visit to the park. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Prepare yourself for the elements

Hiking even short trails at national parks requires the right equipment and weather conditions can change rapidly depending on the climate. Make sure you’ve got good shoes, essentials like a rain jacket and sunscreen, and a first-aid kit in the event of any mishaps. 

8. Bring plenty of snacks and water

Most national parks don’t boast a ton of services like restaurants which means that you’ll need to bring your own (healthy) snacks. Water is especially important, especially if you plan to hike — plan on bringing about 1 gallon per person even if you’re just going on short walks, and more if you have more strenuous activities in mind. 

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. …and don’t forget to pack out all your trash

Leave no trace is an essential principle of being outdoors responsibly and that means getting rid of all your trash—all of it! Pack a trash bag in the car and toss your waste in only approved containers. Don’t toss out food scraps, either. They may be a detriment to the animals that live in the park. 

10. Be respectful of wild animals and keep your distance

The animals you encounter in national parks are wild; they’re living in their natural habitats and they behave accordingly. Respect the full-time inhabitants in the parks. Don’t attempt to touch them or point a selfie stick at them. Don’t chase them and stay the recommended number of feet away from them. Even though they’re cute or really majestic, never touch a wild animal, no matter how small or docile it seems. Wild animals are wild and contact with humans can endanger their lives — and the lives of the human.

11. …and take good care of the land you’re visiting

National parks are protected sites and the rules exist for a reason. Stay only on marked trails, don’t take rocks or other souvenirs from the ground, and never carve into any trees or rock formations. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Consider buying an annual park pass to save money

If you’re planning to visit multiple national parks this year, consider investing in an annual park pass. Costing around $80 per year, these passes provide access to all parks managed by the National Park Service (NPS) along with parks managed by other agencies, and are a real bargain considering that many can cost upwards of $20 per visit. 

13. Check to see if you qualify for any national park discounts

Veterans, seniors, people with disabilities, and some students are eligible for discounted national park passes, some of which are good for a lifetime. Check out the NPS website for details on these discounts. 

14. Don’t forget to fill up your gas tank before beginning the drive

As with snacks, gas stations aren’t always abundant near national parks and you’re probably going to do a ton of driving. Fill up the tank before you head out and make sure to keep an eye on the gas gauge throughout your trip. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Know your limits in the outdoors and operate within them

The beautiful scenery of many national parks can also mean some pretty rugged, unforgiving terrain. If you’re not an experienced hiker, make sure to stick to shorter, safer treks, and don’t forget to bring plenty of water and a wide-brimmed hat. Don’t take unnecessary or stupid risks. And don’t expect to rely on your devices if you get into trouble; in some national parks, cell and data service is negligible. Know your limits and stay within them, especially with children.

16. …and follow all the safety guidelines

In national parks, the rules are there to both preserve the gorgeous landscapes and also keep you alive. In addition to avoiding fines and other penalties, closely following all posted safety guidelines will also prevent you from ending up in a seriously dangerous situation. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Don’t expect great cell phone service

Thanks to the remote nature of most national parks, cell phone service can be sketchy, especially at high altitudes or in really rural areas. Make sure to download offline maps from your favorite navigation app, or make use of the paper maps provided at most ranger stations. 

18. Travel the right time of the year

Whether you’re looking for great fall foliage or a warm trip in the summer, choosing the right time of year at your park is essential. Going too early (or late) can mean road and trail closures so make sure to do your research in advance. 

19. Check in with park rangers when you first arrive

Stop at the visitor center when you first arrive. Often, you’ll find interesting exhibits and artifacts that will help you learn more about the land you’re visiting. The park rangers there will have current insider information that you’ll need such as which hiking trails, roads, and areas of the park are closed and what special ranger programs are being offered during your stay. Park rangers can also help you figure out what hidden trails to try or the best place to watch the sunset (or sunrise). Consider a ranger-led hike or nature talk. While there, pick up any needed guidebooks and maps.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Practice trail etiquette

Stay on designated trails. By doing so, you’ll help prevent erosion and damage to vegetation. Do not litter, pick flowers, or use the outdoors as your personal gift shop. Be aware of your surroundings and make room for quickly approaching groups, fast-paced cyclists, or horseback riders. Take a moment to move to the side and politely let them pass.

 21. Stay at a national park lodge

If you really want to immerse yourself in a national park, consider staying on property. Many parks offer hotels and other lodging and of course camping is an option. Being in grand old lodges literally surrounds you with park history. An added benefit is that you have the early mornings and late evenings in the park. There’s nothing like waking up and seeing the Grand Canyon or Zion Canyon right in front of you.

22. Camp for at least one night—or several

The ultimate thing to do when visiting a national park is to camp under the stars. By unplugging, you’re forced to be present, you more easily connect with nature, and you engage with other people more fully. But, do plan in advance and book a site early.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Tend to campfires and cooking stoves with the utmost care 

In 2013, a hunter’s illegal fire got out of control in the Stanislaus National Forest in California. For nine weeks, this Rim Fire burned the backcountry areas of Yosemite National Park consuming 257,314 acres. In 2018, Yosemite National Park closed for the first time since 1990 due to the nearby Ferguson Fire which burned 96,901 acres. In that same year, the Howe Ridge Fire, ignited by a thunderstorm, burned more than 12,000 acres of Glacier National Park. Read more on wildfire safety.

24. Have a mission in mind…

When in nature, there’s a lot to be said for being spontaneous and making discoveries by chance rather than overscheduling yourself. But when you show up at a national park and don’t have any idea about what you want to do, you might end up not doing much. On the other hand, making a list of everything you want to do in a sprawling national park can be overwhelming and cause you to become overly concerned with time allotments. So, go with at least one mission in mind to accomplish on your trip.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

25. … But don’t forget there are wonders—and place to wander—away from the famous sites 

Rather than sticking to the most popular sites, go out a bit and hit the trails (or water), particularly those routes that are longer than three miles. They may not be listed as the park’s top must-see locations but they’re almost guaranteed to be just as spectacular, yet apart from the crowds.

26. Journal every day

Make sure to record your memories in a journal each day so you don’t forget the good times—and the bad. They’re all part of your experience and your story. Journaling is also a great way of releasing any anxiety or stress.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

27. Go with a good attitude

Remember that the national parks belong to all of us. Its part of their appeal and what makes them so special. Undoubtedly, there will be times when the places you’re visiting will get uncomfortably crowded. Meet those challenges with a smile. It’s important to remember our joint venture in these places and play well with others.

28. Passport to your national parks

A National Parks Passport is a really fun memento and a great way to mark each park you’ve visited. You pay $10 for the passport and each park will have a stamp you can put in your book. You can look back and see the exact date you visited different places.

29. Share your experience

If it’s possible, take a family member or a friend along with you on your adventure; there’s no better way to share your experience.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Leave the park better than you found it

My final piece of advice is to leave the park better than you found it. This also means knowing and committing to the National Park Service’s Leave No Trace principles. They range from minimizing campfire impacts to disposing of waste properly. By being a good steward of these national treasures, those who come after us can continue to enjoy them as we do now.

In my opinion, visiting just one national park is almost impossible. They quickly become addictive.

Worth Pondering…

I encourage everybody to hop on Google and type in national park in whatever state they live in and see the beauty that lies in their own backyard. It’s that simple.

—Jordan Fisher, American actor and musician

National Park Programs that Enhance Your Visit

Planning a trip to one or more of the thousands of federal recreation sites across America? Enjoy the convenience of a pass that covers entrance, standard amenity (day use), and other recreation fees.

It is no secret that the National Park Service (NPS) sites are absolutely amazing. From breathtaking views to incredible hikes to awesome history lessons, there’s something for everyone in these spectacular places. Many people are not aware that in addition to keeping these parks, monuments, recreation areas, historic sites, and trails in tip-top shape, the NPS also offers a variety of programs to enhance your visit to each location.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As an RV traveler, there’s a good chance you find yourself visiting NPS sites often. And if you don’t, you really should because these protected places are incredible. Therefore, it makes sense for you to learn about all of the outstanding programs offered by the NPS so you can take full advantage and make your visits as awesome as possible.

Unfortunately, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, finding out about these programs can be somewhat problematic. That’s where this article comes into play.

Below I’ve listed six amazing programs offered in the national parks. Determine which ones are useful to you and ensure to access them on your next outing to a national park.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“America the Beautiful” Pass

First and foremost, I absolutely must mention the “America the Beautiful” pass. This pass allows the holder to enter all NPS sites without paying entry fees. And this pass is your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Six agencies participate in the Interagency Pass Program Each pass covers entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees (day use fees) at national forests and grasslands and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees, and day-use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas (or up to four adults at sites that charge per person). Children age 15 or under are admitted free. The cost for this pass is $80 for 12 months. As you might imagine, it can be a huge money saver if you visit several national parks a year.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other Types of Passes

Even better than the “America the Beautiful” pass is the special passes available to seniors, military members, and people with disabilities. Senior passes are provided for US citizens or permanent residents age 62 or older and the cost is $20 a year or $80 for a lifetime pass. Military passes are for current US military members and their dependents in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force, as well as Reserve and National Guard members; US military veterans; and Gold Star families and are free of charge. Lastly, the Access Pass is for US citizens or permanent residents with a permanent disability and is also free to obtain. In addition to entry to the parks, these three passes offer cardholders discounts on most campsites.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Every Kid Outdoors” Program

Another way to obtain a national parks pass is through the “Every Kid Outdoors” program. This program gives every 4th grader (and 5th grader for 2021 only) an annual national parks pass for free. The goal of the program is to ensure every child has a chance to see the majesty of America’s national parks while making memories outside. The pass is valid from September 1st of the child’s 4th-grade year through August 31st of the following year and is available from everykidoutdoors.gov.

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Junior Ranger Program

Even if your child isn’t in 4th or 5th grade right now, there is still an NPS program that is wonderful for them. The Junior Ranger Program is tons of fun for kids ages 5–13 and gives them the opportunity to be fully engaged in their visits to the parks. To participate, simply visit an NPS visitor center and ask for a Junior Ranger book. These are usually free but occasionally you may be charged a small fee. Fill out the book as you explore the park, return it to a ranger, be sworn in as an official Junior Ranger, and go home with a park-specific badge to display on a sash, banner, or anywhere else you see fit.

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

BARK Ranger Program

Have fur babies rather than human children? If so, the BARK Ranger program might be of interest to you. Similar to the Junior Ranger Program, this program gives dogs (and kitties) an opportunity to join the NPS team by earning special badges. In this case, the badges are park-specific dog tags and are earned by learning the rules of visiting a national park.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Volunteers-in-Parks Program

Last but not least, there is the Volunteers-in-Parks program. This awesome program gives national park lovers a chance to donate their skills and time in order to help improve the parks. It is open to all individuals, but children under the age of 18 must-have signed permission from a parent or guardian. In return for their efforts, volunteers who complete at least 250 hours of work in a single calendar year will be offered a volunteer pass that gives them free entry to NPS sites.

Joshua Tree National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

If the simple things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive.

—Eleonora Duse