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With summer fading into the background and pumpkin-spice lattes slinking back into the limelight, we’re reminded that the onset of autumn is a prime time to visit America’s national parks. After all, road and foot traffic is back to sane, post-summer-holiday levels, and winter hasn’t yet had a change to pummel pristine hiking trails with snow, making for optimal exploring conditions.

Plus, though some of the higher-elevation parks begin to partly close roads in mid-to late September, many of America’s finest public preserves remain open and accessible well into October. From Going to the Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park to Tioga Road in California’s Yosemite National Park, fall is an epic time to plan a cross-country road trip and hit as many parks as you can. (And if you’re jonesing to do so in an RV, we have a guide for that as well.)

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. (Photo by the author/The Points Guy.)

Building a vacation or road trip around national parks also happens to be one of the most economical ways to have fun, experience nature and learn about history, geology and geography. For less than the cost of a single-day pass to Disney World, you can score a pass to visit over 2,000 federal recreational sites for an entire year. Ready for some hilarious math? Let’s dive in.

Do the Math

The $80 America the Beautiful annual pass not only grants you and everyone in your vehicle free access to all 60 national parks, but national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees (day-use fees) at national forests and grasslands and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and US Army Corps of Engineers. (The cost drops to a cool zero dollars for current US military members and dependents in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, as well as Reserve and National Guard members.)

If you’re a US citizen or permanent resident age 62 or older, you can opt for a $20 annual pass or pony up the $80 for a lifetime senior pass.

olympic national park
Washington’s Olympic National Park. (Photo by the author/The Points Guy.)

Free passes are also available for US citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities; volunteers with 250 service hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program; and US-based fourth graders (including 10-year-old home-schooled and free-choice learners) with a valid Every Kid in a Park paper pass.

Now let’s take a look at daily or weekly fees you’d be charged if you paid for visits ad hoc This is just a small sampling of some of the most trafficked parks:

  • Grand Canyon National Park: $35 for a single, private, noncommercial vehicle and all its passengers (valid for seven days).
  • Yosemite National Park: $35 for a single, private, noncommercial vehicle and all its passengers (valid for seven days).
  • Grand Teton National Park: $35 for a single, private, noncommercial vehicle and all its passengers (valid for seven days).
  • Glacier National Park: $35 for a single, private, noncommercial vehicle and all its passengers (valid for seven days).
  • Acadia National Park: $30 for a single, private, noncommercial vehicle and all its passengers (valid for seven days).

In other words, if you’re planning on visiting more than any two of these parks in a year, not getting the $80 annual pass just doesn’t add up.

Grand Teton National Park
Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. (Photo by the author/The Points Guy.)

Bottom Line

Essentially, the break-even point for justifying an annual pass is approximately three park visits. That said, owning an annual pass tends to increase one’s usage of the parks. There’s some mental magic that goes on when you view your purchase as a sunk cost. If you’ve already prepaid for access to over 2,000 federal sites for a year, you might as well visit as often as possible — after all, your realized per-park cost dwindles with each additional visit.

Every national park that collects entry fees will sell you an annual pass. Simply pull up to the pay station and ask. The pass is valid for 12 months from the month you show up rather than expiring at the end of the calendar year, and it’s valid through the end of the month of purchase the next year, so you’re really getting over 12 months of value. Or, if you’d like to be even more efficient, you can buy one online ahead of your trip.

Know before you go.

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