(NEXSTAR) — There is no question that the more than 400 national parks, monuments, seashores, historic sites, recreation areas, and other sites overseen by the National Park Service are stunning.
But before you can visit some, you may have to pay.
Across the entire National Park Service, which includes 425 units, only 109 charge an entrance fee.
Nearly all have a park-specific annual pass, ranging from $35 to $70. Many also have fees per vehicle, person or motorcycle that vary from $5 to $35. If you’re a frequent visitor to many national parks or federal recreational lands, you may want the America The Beautiful annual pass worth $80.
At this point, you may have had a common realization: we pay federal taxes, which can be used to fund the National Park Service, so why do I need to pay to get into a national park at all?
While it’s true that your federal income taxes do in a way fund the National Park Service, your contributions are relatively small in comparison to the agency’s needs. According to its most recent budgeting information, the National Park Service received roughly $3.475 billion for 2023, and has asked for $3.764 billion in funding for 2024. That is a drop in the bucket for the roughly $21.8 billion the agency estimated it needs for maintenance and repairs across the park service at the end of 2022.
Since then, severe weather has caused damage to some parks. In August, for example, Hurricane Hilary damaged roadways at Death Valley National Park, Manzanar National Historic Site, and Mojave National Preserve.
So while the national parks do receive funding from Congress, and additional funds designated for the parks, others turn to entrance fees to support certain projects.
Under the current Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, the National Park Service is allowed to collect and retain revenue, and fee revenue has to be used to “enhance visitor experience.”
“At least 80 percent of funding from recreation fees stays in the park where it is collected, and the other 20 percent is used to benefit parks that do not collect fees or parks which generate only a small amount of revenue,” the National Park Service explains.
Fees are established based on a structure the agency uses that “simplifies and standardizes entrance fees across parks of similar types.” Rocky Mountain National Park and Zion National Park, for example, are both large and well-visited parks that have park-specific annual passes of $70, a per vehicle fee of $35, a per person fee of $20, and a per motorcycle fee of $30.
Meanwhile, Dry Tortugas National Park and Denali National Park & Preserve, which are harder to access than Rocky Mountain or Zion, charge just $15 per person (Denali also has an annual pass of $45).
Many parks also explain how they use the entrance fee funds.
At Zion, for example, fees have been used to help repair trails, upgrade exhibits at the Zion Nature Center, and more. At Joshua Tree National Park, entrance fees were used to plant over 1,000 native plants, replace deteriorating picnic tables, and bring in school-aged children to learn about the park.
In addition to protecting and preserving America’s stunning natural resources, it’s also clear the impact national parks can have on the areas around them. In 2022, tourism to National Park Service units brought in a cumulative $23.9 billion to the communities within 60 miles of a national park. That is the most visitor spending the National Park Service has reported, surpassing the previous record set in 2019 by nearly $3 billion.
So while paying a park entrance fee may be annoying at times, you’ll likely soon see your money at work while you walk around the park, use the facilities, or stop by the visitor center.
If you want to visit a park that has an entrance fee for free, you may be eligible for an annual pass available to military members, veterans, Gold Star families, or those with a medically determined permanent disability.
The National Park Service will also be waiving admission fees for parks once more this year. On November 11, in honor of Veterans Day, the National Park Service will offer its fifth free admission day of 2023. While you won’t need an entrance fee, fees are still required for overnight camping, cabin rentals, transportation, group day use, and use of special areas.