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Know the West

The days of $10 senior National Park passes are ending

And seniors are rushing to get one before they’re gone.


As Cathy Morin neared her 62nd birthday last month, she knew she was just about to qualify for one of the country’s best bargains. For just $10, senior citizens can buy passes that give them lifetime entry to national parks and other public lands as well as discounts on campgrounds and other amenities.

Around her birthday, she learned that she’d have to move quickly to take advantage of that deal. The pass has cost $10 since 1994, but in December, Congress voted to increase the price to $80. On July 10, in the middle of their busiest season, the National Park Service announced the new price would start on August 28. So at the end of July, Morin hustled over to a U.S. Forest Service office about 10 miles away from her home, Conejos Peak Ranger District, which is part of the Rio Grande National Forest in southwestern Colorado. “You might as well save $70,” says Morin, a retired former hospital worker. “Once you’re retired and on a limited income, that looks like a really good deal.”

She’s one of about 2.5 million Americans who are expected to get the passes at the lower rate this year, more than three times the number who bought them last year, according to Kathy Kupper, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service.

Most seniors get the passes at a national park they are visiting. But seniors can apply online or by mail too (there’s an extra $10 processing fee). As the days tick down to the deadline, demand has surged. On any given day last year, public land agencies received about 100 online applications. Now they’re getting about 10,000 a day, according to Kupper. The government switched to a new online system to try to handle the onslaught. Parks that are used to getting maybe 25 requests a year for passes are getting that many in a day, Kupper added. The National Park Service printed and shipped out 400,000 extra passes, but some parks have run out.

The passes can be used at more than 2,000 sites, including wildlife refuges, national forests and places run by the Bureau of Land Management. They’re good for any people traveling in the same passenger vehicle as a passholder or for three additional adults.

The U.S. Geological Survey, which processes the requests for passes, is overwhelmed. Currently, it takes 12 weeks for people who apply to receive the passes. In the meantime, the receipts are good for entry and discounts.

Morin has tested this. The Forest Service office where she applied was out of passes, so they gave her a receipt and told her to use that until the card arrives in the mail. On the first two weekends after she purchased her pass, she went camping at Forest Service campgrounds. On one trip, she and some friends enjoyed a river trip on a wild stretch of Colorado River outside of Grand Junction. Since she didn’t have the pass in hand yet, she showed her receipt. Her camping fees were cut in half. As a result, she has already saved more money than she spent on the pass.

Vistors take a boat ride in Glacier National Park in Montana. Seniors rushed to get a discounted National Park pass before the price goes up to $80 this year.
NPS / Jacob W. Frank

At Rocky Mountain National Park, cars packed with seniors have been showing up at the entrance station, and then each passenger requests a lifetime pass, says park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson. All the interest increases the already long lines to get into national parks during the most popular time of year. At many parks, lines for passes snake through visitors’ centers. If you lose or have the pass stolen, you have to buy a new one so some folks are planning ahead and buying two at once.

The Park Service hopes all qualified Americans take advantage of the deal before it’s gone. But Kupper says if you don’t turn 62 until next month, you’ll still get a bargain: “Ten dollars is a fantastic deal; $80 is still a fantastic deal.”

Morin agrees, but she’s glad she got hers for $10. She’s dreaming about all the use she’ll get out of it: fishing, boating, gathering mushrooms and hunting elk and deer on Forest Service and BLM land and taking in the amazing scenery and hiking in national parks.

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.