The United States National Park System was created in 1956 to protect the unique places in America.
The system includes over 400 national park sites, monuments, memorials, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, and parkways that preserve and interpret the natural, cultural, and historical heritage for current and future generations.
But who has free access to these public lands?
This article will outline which groups have free access to national parks and how to apply for membership:
Are National Parks Free for Veterans?
If you’re a veteran seeking access to National Parks, there are some perks.
Not only do you get free National Park admission, but you and your dependents are also eligible for a free Interagency Military Lifetime Pass.
However, the Military Lifetime Pass is only good for free admission.
It does not cover other costs such as transportation, special recreation permits, reservations, or tours.
For this program, a veteran is defined as an individual who has served in the US Armed Forces, National Guard, and Reserves.
Additionally, any individual who can present any of the following forms of identification when entering a national park to receive the Interagency Military Lifetime Pass:
- Valid, unexpired Department of Defense:
- DD Form 2 Retired, which is the form of identification issued by the Military that includes your photograph and signature;
- DD Form 2765 Department of Defense/Uniformed Services Identification and Privilege Card; or
- Next Generation USID replacement
- Veteran Identification Card
- Veteran Health Identification Card
- Military ID
- State-issued US driver’s license or ID card with Veterans designation for military service
Are National Parks Free for Seniors?
Even though the National Park Service does not provide free passes for seniors, they offer a discount.
The Senior Pass is $20 per year, and the Senior Lifetime Pass is $80.
A Senior Pass is available to any citizen or permanent resident of the United States who is 62 years of age or older.
There are over 2,000 parks and other recreational areas managed by six different federal agencies, all of which the senior pass will grant access to. Entrance fees to tens of thousands of parks and reserves across the country are also covered by the pass.
Finally, if a pass holder brings a guest into a park or facility that normally charges an admission fee, that guest enters at no additional cost.
Are National Parks Free for Kids?
National parks are free for kids. Children under 15 are admitted free to all national parks with no entrance fee.
The only exception is for special activities and events that require a fee, such as camping reservations, guided tours, and boat rentals.
Are National Parks Free for 4th-5th Graders?
The Every Kid Outdoors Program provides free entrance to public lands for fourth-grade students and their families.
It is a joint effort between:
- Department of the Interior
- United States Army Corps of Engineers or USACE
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA
- US Forest Service
Together, they encourage fourth-grade students to visit national parks, wildlife refuges, marine sanctuaries, and forests.
The program enables children to explore America’s incredible natural wonders, learn about conservation and stewardship, and develop an appreciation for the country’s natural resources.
To qualify for free admission under this program:
- Those in the fourth grade in the United States, or its equivalent in a homeschool setting, are eligible for this pass.
- It is available to fourth-grade students starting the school year and expires on August 31, when the school year ends.
- Students can’t transfer this pass to anyone else. If you misplace your pass, you can get a new one by going to the website and signing up again.
- Educators are permitted to obtain one paper pass for each fourth-grade student.
- The park will not accept or exchange electronic versions of this pass for a physical pass card.
- There are no refunds for previously purchased passes.
Are National Parks Free for Natives?
Native Americans do not have free access to national parks for recreation purposes.
However, they can enter the parks for traditional purposes without paying the entrance fee.
For example, a tribe may request access to the park to practice religious rituals or hold an ancestral ceremony.
Are National Parks Free for the Active-Duty Military?
Suppose you’re an active-duty member of the United States military.
In that case, you can access a free annual pass for National Parks.
Current Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force members, as well as Reserve and National Guard members, can get this Pass. You’ll need your photo ID when you go to obtain the Pass.
You can pick up your Pass in person at any federal recreation site or order it online from the USGS Online Store.
Though the Pass is free, processing and shipping fees will be charged for online orders.
Are National Parks Free for Métis People?
In Canada, Métis people can visit Parks Canada National Historic Sites and Parks in Alberta for free, but they must have their Métis citizenship card with them. Adults are required to have the card to receive free access.
The card must be presented at the time of entry, so you must keep your card with you at all times.
As a Métis citizen, you can visit all Parks Canada National Historic Sites and Parks in Alberta for free. There are no age restrictions on this policy, so everyone qualifies.
Does Anyone Else Have Free Access to National Parks?
Free Access Days
If you are not disabled, don’t have a military ID, or don’t meet any other requirements for free entry to the National Parks, you can still get into the parks for free on certain days.
The National Park Service has set aside several days throughout the year where admission is free to everyone.
These days, admission is automatically waived, so there’s no need to do anything extra. The only thing required of you is to physically appear.
Here are the Free Access Days:
- January 16: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
- April 22: First day of National Park Week
- August 4: Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
- September 23: National Public Lands Day
- November 11: Veterans Day
A permanent disability can be a debilitating condition that significantly limits one or more major life activities.
Suppose you have been diagnosed with a permanent disability. In that case, you may be eligible for a free lifetime access pass to all national parks and recreation areas in the United States, including all federally operated sites such as national forests and monuments.
To prove your eligibility, you’ll need to provide supporting documentation.
In addition to a government-issued photo ID like a passport or driver’s license from the United States, applicants must submit one of the following to prove their permanent disability:
- Evidence from a certified medical professional, including a statement that specifies the nature of the individual’s limitations and that they are the result of a disability
- Federal government-issued paperwork, such as those from the Social Security Administration, the Veterans Affairs Department, or the Supplemental Security Income program.
- Documentation from a state department confirming disability
The Interagency Pass must be obtained at a federal recreation area before permitted entry.
It is important to note that passes are not distributed at national park locations. To find a location to obtain interagency passes, visit the National Park Service’s website.
You can also apply for an Interagency Access Pass by mail or purchase one from the USGS Online Store. However, there is a fee for shipping and processing.
National Park Volunteers
The National Park Service offers a free annual Volunteer Pass for people who volunteer at least 250 hours with Interagency Pass Program-participating federal agencies.
Contact your agency’s volunteer coordinator or manager if you’re interested in applying for this Pass.
They will be able to tell you whether or not the program applies to your volunteering activities and how to apply for the Pass if it does.
Gold Star Family Members
Family members of a US service member killed in action while serving their country are considered Gold Star Families.
They will also qualify for a free Interagency Military Lifetime Pass. This can include deaths that occurred during wartime, international terrorist attacks, or military operations conducted outside the United States.
Members of Gold Star Families can get a free Interagency Military Lifetime Pass by downloading and printing a voucher, which they can then give to park staff in exchange for the pass.
The voucher can be left on the vehicle’s dashboard at unattended facilities.