State Parks. National Parks. US Forest Service trails. National Wildlife Refuges. Department of National Resource lands. City Parks. With all of these in our PNW backyard, how do you know what pass or fees are required to park?It can definitely be confusing keeping all of these fees and permits straight–I know I’ve definitely goofed and accidentally used a Discover Pass in places where a Forest Pass is required in the past. But I’m here to hopefully prevent you from these mistakes!
Some people really grumble about all of these fees–“My taxes already pay for the parks, why should I have to pay again?” Look, no one *likes* paying taxes. I don’t get excited when I see how much is taken out every paycheck. However, the budget for our parks, both state and national, get slashed to ribbons constantly. If you want to keep trails clean and well-managed, and our parks full of interactive programs and learning, volunteers only go so far. Money from these passes definitely helps keep our parks going–so don’t be that person who tries to game the system!
Going to a Washington State Park, Department of Natural Resource Land, or Fish & Wildlife Trail?
Then you can either pay a day-use fee of $10, or purchase an annual Discover Pass for unlimited access for one year for $30. I go for a Discover Pass–it’s convenient to not have to make a stop to purchase the day-use pass, and on the off chance I don’t go three times in one year, my money goes to helping the parks anyway. The pass is good for two vehicle license plates, and must be displayed in your vehicle. These passes do not include the cost of camping–that’s additional. You have a few options for purchase–one option is to have it tacked on to your vehicle registration fees, in which your pass will be mailed to you (ditto for online purchases or those made over the phone). Another is to go through licensed vendors, including the Seattle REI, which was my chosen route. A full list of vendors is available here, but hours are not listed, so if you want to pick one up in the early morning as you depart for the trail, be warned. Online purchases and those made through vendors may include additional fees. There are currently 28 sites (including Wallace Falls State Park) that have automated machines that can dispense day or annual passes. These kiosks are similar to city paid parking meters, and will take credit card (not sure if they accept cash or not). A full list of these sites is here. Lastly, some state parks will let you purchase passes, annual or day, at ranger stations. Again, I purchased mine at the Seattle REI just to save myself the hassle of hoping the trail will have an open licensed vendor nearby or a staffed ranger station.
What if I Don’t Have a Car?
If you are one of those lucky Seattlies who can get by without a car (oh how I envy you), ZipCar has your back. They have 100 vehicles, many with roof racks and AWD that come with their own Discover Pass loaded to go. They even have high-clearance vehicles for use, which I might have to take advantage of for some trails as I own a sedan. You need to be a Zipcar member for more information–has anyone tried this perk out yet? Those who have a rental car will have to stick with a day pass, for now.
I’m Going to a US National Forest Trail, What About Me?
Similar to the Discover Pass, the annual pass for US Forest Service lands is $30. However, day passes are only $5, so if you are the type who likes to get their money’s worth, that means at least six trips to these trails are required in a year’s time. Unlike the Discover Pass, you can use the annual pass in Oregon as well as Washington, which is handy. The pass does not have a space for license plates to be recorded, so it is easier to share (or if you get a new car midway through your pass), but officially the pass is supposed to be “interchangeable between vehicles in the same household.” The only instance where the pass does not cover all occupants in the vehicle is at Mt. St. Helens National Monument, which charges entry per person. Annual pass holders get one person exempt from the $8 entry fee, but the rest of the vehicle (over age 16) must pay.
While day passes can be purchased and printed online from home the day of your intended hike, annual ones cannot. The vendor options for Forest Passes seem far more plentiful compared to Discover passes–their website lets you narrow your vendor search by city, vendor name, or even by national forest. I typically use my Forest Passes in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, and I remember some gas stations advertising from the road that they sell forest passes. Public service centers and ranger district buildings, typically close to their respective areas, also sell day or annual passes, but hours are seasonal at many, so again, waiting until the morning-of the hike can be dicey. For those who want peace of mind, you can go to most REI locations or other outdoor stores ahead of time.
Can’t I Just Get One Universal Pass for Everything?
No. Not quite (more below).
I know. Think of it this way–it’s like trying to use a Nordstrom gift card at REI. Two different stores, two different sets of employees, two different pots of money. You might not get caught every time you use the wrong pass (or no pass), but 1) C’mon, it’s for our parks, and 2) Is a big ticket really a risk you want to take? I’ve seen tickets for as much as $99 for using a Forest Pass at a Discover Pass Location–that’s enough for three years’ worth of annual passes.
Okay Fine. What About Trips to National Parks?
Entry to National Parks depends on the park. North Cascades National Park is free (holler!). Olympic, Mt. Rainier, and our neighbor to the south Crater Lake all charge $25 entry, which is good for seven days (hike-in or bike-in visitors pay $10). Like state park fees, this is for entry only, not camping or backcountry permits.
This is Super Complicated.
I know. While I said above there is no universal pass for ~ALL~ trailheads and wilderness areas, there is an interagency pass that is good for US Forest Service lands, Bureau of Land Management lands, National Park Service sites (including National Parks) and other federal sites, so if you have that and the Discover Pass, you’re pretty much covered (except for state parks outside of Washington). It’s called the American the Beautiful Pass, and runs $80 (unless you are a senior, disabled, a veteran, a fourth-grader, or a seriously dedicated volunteer). The pass is good for two people (only one must be present to use it) and covers up to 3 passengers in a vehicle with a passholder (at most sites) and is good for one year.
$80 for One Year?!
I know, it sounds steep. This is the first year I’ve purchased one, but my rationale was I have a Crater Lake and Olympic National Park trip planned this summer–that’s $50, and then the pass covers everything an annual Forest Pass would, which is $30–$50+$30=$80, so I’m spending the same amount of money–one impromptu trip to Rainier and I ‘save’ money! For those with big roadtrips planned, I highly recommend this route. You can keep the card in a wallet or use the vehicle hangtag provided at sites that look at parking instead of entry booths. Like the above passes, district offices of National Forests and vendors including the Outdoor Recreation Information Center at the Seattle REI sell these passes in person, or you can go online or over the phone (you will need to account for processing and time to be mailed to you). If you’re not planning on doing any National Parks, you can stick with the Forest Pass.
Fine, I Own All These Passes.
Great! I recommend not keeping them in your glove box, as none are replaceable in case of theft. I keep my passes in my pack, so when I prepare for an upcoming hike I can double-check which pass to bring and it is ready go. Washington Trails Association is pretty good about posting which pass is needed at which trail, so when you check trail conditions (you do check trail conditions, right?) you can verify which pass is needed. When in doubt, Google is your friend.