One of my first gear purchases for day hiking wasn’t a pack, a water bottle or even a pair of hiking shoes. It was an annual parking pass for my car – a $35 annual Northwest Forest Pass to be exact. This was to ensure I wouldn’t get a ticket while having my car parked at a trailhead. Recreation Passes and Backcountry Permits could easily be considered the 11th Essential here in the PNW because most trailheads require one. Not having a recreation pass is just as bad as putting the wrong pass out. I once made the mistake of putting out the Northwest Forest Pass instead of the Discover Pass and it cost me $100 to park my car for my hike that day, even though I had both passes in my car! Now, I always leave both passes out on my dashboard, just in case.

If you’re an avid hiker here in the PNW, you’re probably very familiar with having to use a recreation pass at most trailheads. Often times, the problem is trying to figure out which pass is the right one to use. With all of the different passes available – the Northwest Forest Pass, the Discover Pass, the America the Beautiful Pass and the Sno-Park Permits, how is one supposed to know which one to use and where? I’m constantly questioning myself at the trailhead, trying to figure out which pass to use. For those of you who often find yourself in this same situation, this post is for you. Here’s to taking the mystery out of recreation passes used in the PNW.

Before I dive into each of the different types of recreation passes there are, how much they cost, how often they need to bought and where they’re used, I want to talk about why recreation passes exist in the first place. I have a very close friend (whom shall remain anonymous) who, for as long as I’ve known her, has always been adamant about not buying a pass. She thought the whole system was a load of BS. When I asked her if she was ever concerned about getting a ticket, her response was always, “How in the heck would they even enforce it?” Me being an adamant rule follower, I’ve always bought passes every year, not only because I don’t want to get a ticket, but because most of the money I spend on the passes goes right back to the very places I love.

Believe it or not, recreation passes do serve a very important purpose here in the PNW. Day passes, annual passes, seasonal passes and entrance fees all exist as a result of their being limited funding for public lands. Eighty to ninety-five percent of the proceeds raised by all of the passes sold goes right back into maintaining and improving the trails and facilities. These funds are used to employ backcountry rangers and trail crews who empty the garbage cans at trailheads and campsites, operate and maintain campgrounds, staff and maintain visitor centers, clean vault toilets at trailheads and in the backcountry, clear and remove encroaching brush from the trail, remove fallen trees, repair erosion, repair or replace bridges, fix old or install new picnic tables and replace old, damaged or vandalized signs. The next time you hear someone griping about having the shell out $35 for an annual  recreation pass, ask them if they like having access to clean toilets, enjoy walking over bridges instead of having to ford creeks and appreciate having trails free from downed trees and overgrown brush.

There are different passes required on public lands in Washington. Some passes are free. Some require a small fee. Some are seasonal. Some are required year-round. With all the different passes available and the regulations surrounding them, it’s easy to see how confusing it can be to know which pass to use at any given trailhead.

What it basically comes down to is this: Federal Land and State Land.

Federal Lands include everything from national forests, national wildlife refuges, national historic sites, Bureau of Land Management lands and places managed by the Bureau of Reclamation. A Northwest Forest Pass allows for trailhead parking on national forests only whereas an America the Beautiful Interagency Pass will allow you access to all of these sites.

Washington State Public Lands are everything from Washington State Parks, Department of Natural Resources lands and Department of Fish and Wildlife trailheads. This consists of more than seven million acres of Washington state-managed recreation lands including campgrounds, parks, wildlife areas, trails, natural areas, wilderness areas and water access points The Discover Pass is required to park on all Washington state public lands.

Here’s a complete list of all the recreation passes available here in the PNW, along with how much they cost, how often you’ll need to purchase them, what area of land they cover and where you can purchase each of them.

Passes for Federal Lands

National Park Entrance Fees: $30/car, $15/person walk-in or bike-in or $25/motorcycle

  • Charged at Mount Rainier and Olympic National Park
  • Good for seven days
  • Entrance fees can be purchased at park entrances or online
  • There’s no fee to enter North Cascades National Park
  • Details

National Park Annual Pass – $55

  • Provides entrance for one year to either Olympic or Mount Rainier National Park
  • Pass is only valid at the park where it was purchased

America the Beautiful Interagency Annual Pass – $80

  • aka America the Beautiful pass
  • Provides entry into any national park, forest service or other federal site charging fees for one year, nationwide
  • Can be purchased at the park or online
  • Details

America the Beautiful Interagency Senior Pass – Multiple Prices

  • $20 for an annual pass
  • $80 for a lifetime pass
  • Four annual senior passes can be traded in for a lifetime senior pass at no charge
  • Honored nationwide at any federal site charging entrance fees
  • Details

America the Beautiful Annual Pass – Military – Free

  • Provides free access to federal land for all active military personnel and their dependents
  • Details

America the Beautiful Interagency Access Pass – Free

  • Those with permanent disabilities may be eligible for a lifetime pass
  • Honored nationwide
  • Details

National Forest Recreation Day Pass and ePass – $5/car

  • Gives you access to park at a trailhead for one day
  • Can purchase several day passes ahead of time and write dates on them as you use them
  • Day passes are available at National Forest offices and visitor centers, private vendors such as REI or online
  • ePasses can be purchased online and printed at home
  • Allows trailhead parking on national forests only
  • Purchase Online

Annual Northwest Forest Pass: $30

  • Covers all USFS day-use or entrance fees in Washington and Oregon for one year
  • Available for purchase at Nationals Forest offices and visitor centers, private vendors (REI) or online
  • Allows trailhead parking on national forests only
  • Purchase Online

America the Beautiful Interagency Annual Pass: $80

Interagency Senior Pass – Multiple Prices

  • $20 for an annual pass
  • $80 for a lifetime pass
  • Available to anyone 62 or older
  • Four annual senior passes can be traded in for a lifetime senior pass at no charge
  • Honored nationwide at any federal site charging entrance fees
  • Details

Mount St. Helens National Monument

  • Managed by the USFS
  • Charges on a per-person basis
  • Honors Interagency Annual and Senior passes for named passholders
  • A Northwest Forest Pass will gain entry for one person
  • Details

Passes for State Lands

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Lands:

  • A recreation pass is required at many of Washington’s National Wildlife Refuges including: Nisqually, Dungeness and Ridgefield
  • The fee is $3/family or $15 annually
  • Fee is payable at the visitor center or trailhead
  • Other passes accepted include the Interagency Annual, Access and Senior Passes
  • Federal Duck Stamp pass is accepted as well

Discover Pass Day Pass – $10.00/car
*There’s a $1.50 processing fee per pass when purchased online or through a vendor

  • Allows visitors to park at state recreation lands for one day
  • Sold at face-value at staffed state parks and unstaffed pay stations
  • Details

Discover Pass Annual Pass – $30
*There’s a $5.00 processing fee per pass when purchased online or through a vendor

  • Allows visitors to park at state recreation lands for one year from issue
  • Discover Passes can be purchased at state parks, when renewing car tabs, online through Washington department of Fish and Wildlife’s automated system and in-person at specific retail locations.
  • Annual passes purchased at retail locations are subject to a $5 upcharge.
  • Day passes purchased at retail locations are subject to a $1.50 upcharge.
  • Passes are transferable between two cars
  • Details

Passes for Winter Recreation – Washington Sno-Parks

Winter Recreation – Washington Sno-Parks
There are more than 120 Sno-Parks (parking lots cleared of snow) available statewide during the winter months. Washington’s Sno-Park Permits allow you to park at plowed lots accessible to groomed and backcountry trails. There are both non-motorized and motorized Sno-Parks. Sno-Park permits can be purchased online from November 1st through April 30th or for an extra $2 at a number of locations statewide.

Sno-Park Day Permits – $20/day

  • Allows you to park at plowed lots accessible to groomed and backcountry trails
  • Valid at any Sno-Park location, including Special Groomed Trail locations, until midnight of the purchase date

Sno-Park Seasonal Permits – $40/season

  • Valid at all Sno-Park locations EXCEPT those designated as Special Groomed Trail locations
  • If you have a Sno-Park Seasonal Permit, you don’t need a Discover Pass to snowshoe within state parks
  • Can be purchased online from November 1st through April 30th or for an extra $2 at a number of locations statewide
  • If you’re going out two or more times, buy the Seasonal Permit

Sno-Park Special Groomed Trails Permits – $40/season add-on
This optional add-on to the Seasonal Permit allows you to park at Cabin Creek, Chiwawa, Crystal Springs, Hyak, Lake Easton, Lake Wenatchee, Mount Spokane and Nason Ridge where trails are groomed for cross-country skiers

What If You Don’t Want to Pay or Can’t Afford a Pass?

Don’t worry! There are plenty of free options available.

Volunteer
What better way to give back to the land and trails you love than to volunteer time to help maintain them? Work parties are super fun. You’ll meet other like-minded people and single-handedly play an active role in making a positive difference in the backcountry for all of your fellow hikers. In addition to the feel-good aspect of volunteering and the chance of meeting new friends, you’ll also have the opportunity to earn a free annual pass. There are a couple different ways to earn a free annual pass. One, when you volunteer two days for a WTA work party in the national forest, you’ll have the option to trade-in both of your volunteer day passes for an annual pass. Two, if you volunteer 24 hours on any combination of State Parks, DNR or Fish and Wildlife Lands, you’ll receive a free annual pass. Get Involved

Hike in County Parks
Most country parks allow free access all year-round and don’t require a fee to access the park or need a parking pass to park at the trailhead.

Fee-Free Days
Ever heard of National Trails Day, National Get Outdoors Day or National Public Lands Day? These days, along with a select few national holidays and other special days throughout the year are also known as Fee-Free Days. Fee-Free Days are designed to help introduce new people to public lands and give opportunities to those who cannot afford to purchase a pass a chance to explore the trails without having to pay for a pass or an entrance fee. Check the list of all the federal and state fee-free days for the year.

North Cascades National Park
Did you know that out of all the 419 national parks throughout the United States, only 112 of them charge an entrance fee? The North Cascades National Parks, located in northern Washington DOES NOT charge an entrance fee. Hiking trailheads within the North Cascades National Park DO NOT require a parking pass. Keep in mind, trailheads located on national lands adjacent to the park may require a pass. Park Information

Recreation Sites That Don’t Charge Day Use Fees
Did you know that not all USFS lands require a day use fee or a parking annual pass to visit them? If a trailhead in a national forest doesn’t offer some sort of developed facility like a picnic table or toilet, it typically won’t require a fee. There are three national forests in Oregon where day use fees aren’t charged: Malheur National Forest, Ochoco National Forest and Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. For more information on recreation sites that require or don’t require a day use fee, click here.


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7 comments on “What Recreation Passes Do I Need in the PNW?”

  1. Annual Discover Pass is now $35; day pass is $11.50. If you have the America the Beautiful Interagency Pass, it also covers the areas requiring the Northwest Forest Pass in WA and OR. I always check for my hikes on WTA.org as they include the passes required in their hike descriptions.

    • Hi Linda! Thanks for pointing out the increase in the Annual Discover Pass and the day pass.I’ve updated the information in my post. I agree with you – the WTA website is a WEALTH of information. I always refer to the WTA website for most of my trail information. My biggest takeaway in doing all of this research on recreation passes for this post was learning how the America the Beautiful Interagency Pass covers EVERYTHING a Northwest Forest Pass does, in addition to entries into all of the national parks. For years I’ve been buying the Northwest Forest Pass and never really considered getting the America the Beautiful Interagency Pass. After spending more time in a few of our national parks this summer, I want to make visiting national parks, especially Mount Rainier National Park, more of a priority this winter and all through 2020.

      All I want for Christmas is a America the Beautiful Interagency Annual Pass!

  2. “My biggest takeaway in doing all of this research on recreation passes for this post was learning how the America the Beautiful Interagency Pass covers EVERYTHING a Northwest Forest Pass does.”

    Actually, there is an exception to this. Day Use areas that are managed by a concessionaire DO NOT accept any form of the Federal Lands/America the Beautiful Pass. Timothy Lake in Mt Hood NF is an example. Usually it’s at lakes that are associated with campgrounds. These day use areas will accept the Northwest Forest Pass.

    Also, I believe the Discover Pass is still $10 per day/$30 for an annual if you buy it directly at the park. The extra $1.50/$5.00 is if you buy on-line or through a vendor.

    • Thank you so much for the added input and the clarification Amber! This is exactly why I wanted to write this blog post in the first place. The Recreation Pass system up here in the PNW is diverse and complex. There are always going to be a few exceptions to the rule(s), such as the example you provided of Timothy Lake in Mt Hood. I’m so happy to have started this conversation.

      That makes perfect sense about the extra $1.50/$5.00 being charged when bought online or through a vendor. I’m going to add an ** to this one in my post.

  3. I’m pretty firmly sitting in your friends camp.

    With the exception of Sno-Park passes and the facilities partially funded by them, I can’t say that I have noticed improvements in trailhead facilities, trails, bridges, etc.

    One trail that needed a bridge replaced on DNR land near me was threatened to be closed unless the dominant user groups (horseback and MTB) funded the replacement. I’m thinking that most of the funds generated by the Discover Pass are paying for rangers and their new SUVs to cruise the trailheads and write tickets.

    • I’ve seen quite a bit of improvements being made on the trails I’ve been hiking – all the trees that blew down on the new trail for Mailbox last winter were removed. The road to Blanca Lake trailhead has been repaired. I was on trail when a work crew was clearing the overgrown brush on trail in my way to Lake Valhalla from Stevens. I ran into another work crew who was also clearing brush on trail at Snoqualmie Point,opposite end of Rattlesnake Ledge. Plus all the countless work crews I came across on trail while hiking the PCT over the last two years. And that’s just what I saw this summer. A lot of the work that is done goes unnoticed.

      Rangers and work crews are the unspoken angels of our trails. They do a lot of work we never see. I read not to long ago that the main job of a lot of our Backcountry rangers is to clean poop out of the backcountry privies. Talk about a shitty job task. I’m happy to buy my passes each year for that reason alone!

      • Yes, there is work being done on trails. The thing is, that work was also being done long before the various pass programs were instituted.

        I’ve backpacked the PNW for ~45 years now. In the 70s and early 80s trail maintenance was done by paid crews. Either USFS employees or various jobs programs like YCC. Now when I see a trail crew it is most often a volunteer group operated by a primarily donation supported non-profit.

        It is merely a bit of creative bookkeeping that allows governmental agencies to “show” that a high percentage of user fees go toward trail work.

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