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America the Beautiful

November 9th, 2008

America the Beautiful Annual PassI know a lot of fulltimers swear by various camping club memberships to keep their camping costs down throughout the year, but at Hitek Homeless, our focus is on avoiding camping fees altogether. That being said, sometimes it is just more practical to stay in an established campground overnight and some sort of discount card sure would be nice.

Recently, we stopped over in a national forest and it was getting too late to be out looking for a campsite in the dark. The fees posted for this campsite were $5/day. You can’t beat that with a stick, right? Wrong! For the first time, I noticed that our America the Beautiful pass would allow us to camp for HALF PRICE somewhere.

Now, I happen to think this interagency pass is an excellent deal for folks that want to check out the national parks as they travel, so we picked one up while visiting the Wright Brothers memorial in Kitty Hawk, NC. At the time, we joked about buying an $80 pass to avoid paying an $8 entrance fee. But, you’ve got to remember that the interagency pass takes an all you can eat approach to entrance fees. It will get you and up to three other people into just about every federal area where they charge an entrance fee for free. This includes national parks, monuments and historic sites, forestry service, bureau of land management, bureau of reclamation and fish and wildlife sites as well as federal recreation lands.

Replica of Wright Bros. Flyer

The pass is good for a year, but try to buy it at the beginning of the month rather than the end as we did. I was a bit annoyed to see our pass punched to expire thirty days earlier than it would have if we’d bought it the following day. If you happen to be sixty-two or older, you qualify for a Senior pass which is $10 and does not expire. If you are permanently disabled, you qualify for an Access pass which is free and never expires.

You could buy a pass on the internet, but if you’re going to buy a pass with an expiration date, why bother when you can buy one from so many places where you’ll begin saving money immediately? Actually, if you’re planning to use it primarily as a camping discount card, go ahead and buy it on the internet, as many of the places where you can receive a camping discount do not sell passes.

Oh, yes, I did mention camping discounts, didn’t I? Here’s a treat for those of you that like camping on the water. All Corp of Engineer campgrounds accept the interagency passes and give a 50% discount on their camping rates. I was a bit disappointed to see that the COE had raised their rates significantly since our copy of Camping With the Corps of Engineers: The Complete Guide to Campgrounds Owned and Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was published. The COE is starting to approach the price of commercial campgrounds in a lot of cases, but 50% off puts it back in the bargain bin.

As long as we’re talking about federal lands, here’s a fun link to maps of the various federal lands. Pity they don’t cover state forests, parks and wildlife management areas as well, but at least the federal lands have more or less similar policies from state to state.

Oh, and lest I be castigated by completeists, I’d better mention the Volunteer pass. If you’re the kind of person that likes doing volunteer work, you can earn a ‘free’ Interagency pass by volunteering 500 hours to the federal agencies in the America the Beautiful program. Now, if you’re like me, 500 hours really seems like a lot of time for a pass with an $80 value. The one bright spot in this otherwise dismal news is that you could potentially volunteer these 500 hours as a campground host and get a free campsite and perhaps a small living stipend while working towards your ‘free’ interagency pass.

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16 Responses to “America the Beautiful”

  1. Rene says:

    Hey we hadn’t heard of that pass, thanks. But $80? I’m not sure how long that would take to pay for itself, math dummy that I am.

    Like you, we prefer to stay in public lands, but sometimes you gotta hook up and conveniently do things like laundry and clean the tanks real good. So we found that our Passport America club membership is a great deal. It paid for itself in less than three visits to RV parks, and we’ve had full hookups for as low as $10 a night. Granted, most of the member parks aren’t located in the most convenient areas, but we’re all about going off the beaten path anyways. Also, some parks are kinda trailer parky, but most are OK enough for a few nights.

  2. johnny says:

    Like all membership style passes, it will depend on how you use it. Kitty Hawk is an example of a very small national monument with a $4 per person entrance fee. Still, it paid off 10% of the pass on something we wanted to see (mostly so I could hit the gift shop for a puddle jumper).

    Grand Canyon National park costs $25 per vehicle! The same with yellowstone. The entrance fee to Carlsbad Caverns is $6/adult on top of any ranger led tours you’d like to take.

    The interagency passes aren’t really camping passes, so much as they are tickets into any federal site without having to pay the day use, per person or per vehicle fees.

    I don’t mind when we find that they save us 50% on a camp site, but it’s not the reason we bought the pass. It’s for fun!

  3. Sean says:

    We’ve held an Interagency Pass (or it’s predecessor, the Golden Eagle pass) now for more than a decade. There is no question that it is a great value — we’d spend more than that just in National Park entrance fees each year, and the pass waives the “recreation fee” charged now in many National Forests for otherwise free “dispersed” camping.

    But I question your assertion that this pass provides a 50% camping discount anywhere. In four years of fulltiming, we’ve never seen a discount offered on a campsite to holders of this pass, and that includes COE, whose campgrounds we frequent.

    Note that the other two passes you mention — the senior/disabled variants, formerly called Golden Age and Golden Access passes, DO indeed provide a 50% discount on campsites. However, that discount does not apply to the annual interagency pass — the discount is intended only for seniors and disabled. That said, only one member of your party needs to hold an Age or Access pass for the discount to apply.

    FWIW.

    -Sean
    http://OurOdyssey.BlogSpot.com

  4. johnny says:

    Sean, I realize that the annual pass does not cover half price camping at most places that accept it, but take a look at the COE site here:

    http://www.swf-wc.usace.army.mil/canyon/Recreation/Passes.asp

    They specifically mention half price camping while talking about the annual pass.

    As for the forestry service campsite we stayed at half price… I can only say that the signage on the iron ranger mentioned the interagency pass. It did not specify annual, access or senior.

    Perhaps we are incorrect, but until a park ranger comes along and shakes us down, I can’t see any reason to pay full price at a COE site when their own website backs me up.

    As for the forestry service… if they’re going to put up signs that make it appear that they are following the COE’s example, I’ll keep paying half price anywhere there is a non-specific sign until a ranger tells me otherwise.

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’ll be happy to pay full price as soon as a ranger comes by and tells me that they put up an incorrect sign!

  5. Sean says:

    Johnny,

    Sorry for the delay — I just now noticed your response.

    The COE page you linked is old, and incorrect. I see that it is under a specific park (Canyon Lake), and it appears that whoever maintains that park’s page has simply not updated it.

    Current COE pass policy is here:
    http://corpslakes.usace.army.mil/visitors/passes.cfm

    On that page, it says they do not honor the standard inter-agency pass at all. This is consistent with our experience, since many COE parks actually have a check-in or gate kiosk.

    Not trying to be argumentative, just to save you (and your readers) from a fairly hefty federal citation. You might get away with this at Canyon Lake, on the grounds that the park’s web page, as you’ve shown, clearly states the incorrect information. But I surfed around to several other Corps park pages and they do not have the incorrect information, and the main COE recreation website is very clear.

    Whether or not a ranger or other peace officer will actually cite you for shorting the camping fees is a matter of some debate. But be aware that they can, and sometimes will, send you the citation in the mail, months after you’re already gone — one of the reasons you’re required to put your license plate # on the fee envelope. (Holders of Senior and Access passes have a place on the envelope to put their pass number, which the office can check in the database when only half the fees have been deposited.)

    FWIW.

    As far as USFS sites, you’re probably covered if the on-site sign, as you wrote, actually specifies 50% fees for inter-agency passes. I’ve personally never seen this myself — it usually mentions Senior and Access passes explicitly. Note that “Access Pass” is easy to confuse with the standard inter-agency pass, but the “Access Pass” is only available to persons with an established permanent disability. The USFS pass policy, which clearly specifies that standard passes do not cover “expanded amenity fees” such as campgrounds, is here:
    http://www.fs.fed.us/passespermits/annual.shtml

    Again, the citation can catch up to you in the mail months later. Note also that failure to pay fees is technically a criminal offense, and a testy ranger can actually write the citation as a misdemeanor rather than an infraction. So being “shaken down” may not be your only worry. Again, FWIW.

    -Sean
    http://OurOdyssey.BlogSpot.com

  6. johnny says:

    Sean,

    As Jenn was doing some research for her new site, she found that the COE site had been changed to very explicitly deny discount prices for the standard America the Beautiful pass. I had looked this up several times in the past and kept seeing the original wording.

    Since we didn’t buy the pass intending to use it for camping discounts, I’m not particularly upset, but the policy does irk me a bit considering the cost, expiration and benefits differences between a standard pass versus a senior pass.

  7. Laura says:

    For the record, Potter’s Creek Campground at Canyon Lake has an entrance kiosk which is always staffed except overnight when the entrance is locked up tight. I’m not as sure of the other Army Corp campgrounds on the Lake but I think they’re staffed too. I’ve never tried to use my America the Beautiful pass there but there is definitely nothing posted to indicate it would be accepted there.

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