Pick an Outdoor Pass – Any Pass (?)

One of my local heroes dropped me a suggestion a few days ago. Hal Mason wrote, “I recently looked at the passes available to Washington residents that are needed to get out in the outdoors. What a confusing mess. It might be a welcome thing to many people to have some clear information about what passes are required where. Might be impossible to sort out but worth a try.” Thus, the following attempt to make sense of your outdoor access options.

This “pay for play” on public land has long intrigued me. In the ‘50s, few passes were required. Public lands were managed with our tax dollars, along with all other public services we expected from our government in exchange for tithes to those we elected to look after our public business. Somehow over the decades – even as our population and tax revenues grew – “government” support of our lands dwindled. We have faced an ever-increasing number of ever-rising fees to play on our own land. While I understand some of this, most of it remains a mystery to me. There is a book in there somewhere.

Be that as it may, today’s reality is that we need passes and/or permits to recreate on our public ground. They have different uses and purposes, but we are regularly reminded that both “permits” and “passes” have been established to make certain our public lands are maintained to such a level that we are assured of a quality outdoor experience on them.

Consider passes first. Understand that passes are for access, and many of the areas you access may have separate fees for camping or backcountry use. Also understand that most agencies – recognizing fees are hardships for some – have “free” days or times.

To park on your public ground managed by Washington state agencies, the Discover Pass is the only one you must purchase – $30 for the Annual Pass and $10/car for a Day Pass. This pass allows you to park in Washington State Parks, and on Department of Natural Resources and Department of Fish and Wildlife lands. It gets you access to seven million plus acres of state-managed recreation ground. Buy your Discover Pass online, at retail outlets, at most state parks or when renewing your car license tabs. (Some outlets add a small handling charge to purchases.)

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Vehicle Use/Access Pass is provided at no additional charge with your hunting or fishing license, and provides access to ground managed by DFW.

Access to your ground managed by federal agencies is a bit more complex. For purchase or more detail on the passes below, see

The America the Beautiful Annual Pass costs $80 and gets you into any national park, Forest Service or other federal fee site for one year. Purchase at a park or online.

The best bargain around is the Interagency Senior Pass. For $20 (must purchase in person at a park or fee site), any US citizen 62 or older will get a lifetime pass honored nationwide at any federal site charging entrance fees.

Free Annual Passes provide access to federal land for all active military personnel and their dependents, for volunteers after 250 hours, to all 4th graders in America and to eligible folks with permanent disabilities. Some are annual and some are lifetime passes honored nationwide.

Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks Entrance fee is $25/car ($10/person to walk or bike in), good for seven days. Rates vary for motorcycles. Annual Pass is $50 for either park, but is only good at the park where it was purchased. North Cascades National Park charges to fee.

All US Forest Service trailheads in Washington and Oregon with toilets, picnic tables, or so on charge a fee – go online to and click on “plan a visit” for details.

The National Forest Recreation Day Pass and ePass is $5/car for a day of trailhead parking. (These can be bought ahead and dates filled in as needed.)

The Northwest Forest Pass is an annual $30 pass good at Forest Service day-use or entrance fee sites. The pass is available at USFS offices and visitor centers and online at the link above.

Mount St. Helens National Monument is managed by the Forest Service and charges a per-person fee of $8 per person (under 16 kids are free). Certain annual and senior passes are honored.

A number of our National Wildlife Refuges (such as Nisqually, Dungeness and Ridgefield) also require a recreation pass. That charge is generally about $3/family ($15/year), purchased at the visitor center. Your other federal passes or Federal Duck Stamp pass will often work, too.

So, what about those permits? Permits are generally for backcountry/wilderness travel in quota areas. They serve to control the amount of foot traffic in fragile environments – as well as limit overall numbers of travelers to preserve quality experiences. Some permits are free, and others come with small fees. Check with individual parks for more information.

Washington Trails Association has plenty more info on all of this – as well as Sno-Park information – at

I hope this helps!

Happy summer! Pick a pass – any pass – and get out there.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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