Knowing what permit or pass you need to get to beautiful nature areas in Washington can be harder to navigate than the backcountry itself. We’ll take an in-depth look at the different access passes you need to enjoy unlimited adventures in the outdoors just outside your front door.
Maintaining our public lands, your lands and my lands costs money, lots of money. While entrance and access passes don’t cover the entire budget for National Parks, National Forests, State Parks and all other public lands, it does help and it does make a difference.
There are several different passes around, for all the parks and lands managed by various agencies – this can get confusing fast. Here in Washington State, where we have such a incredible variety of parks and recreation sites, some of them sitting right next to each other, sharing borders and trail heads, knowing what you need to access the region is tough.
It can be quite a bummer getting to your trail head thinking you’re ready to go and realize you don’t have the right pass to park and hike. The fines are not horrendous, but it’s an inconvenience that can be easily avoided.
Here’s the TL;DR
The Washington State Discover Pass is $32 annually and unlocks access to all state managed public lands, specifically Washington State Parks.
The America the beautiful Interagency National Park pass is $80 annually and unlocks access to all federally managed public lands, including National Forest recreation sites.
That’s all you need for the most part.
Get the Discover Pass anywhere you can get a fishing license or get one when you renew your tabs for you car.
Get the National Park Pass at REI or at the gate to your favorite National Park.
Combined they cost you $110 annually, which is less than your Netflix subscription and, from my perspective, it’s the best $110 you can spend each year.
Let’s dive into some more detail
The Washington State Discover Pass
The Discover Pass is $32 annually and covers all state managed land.
- More than 100 developed state parks
- More than 350 primitive recreation sites, including campgrounds and picnic areas
- Nearly 700 water-access points, nearly 2,000 miles of designated water and land recreation trails
- More than 80 natural areas
- More than 30 wildlife areas
Yes, it’s just $30, plus a transaction fee at some locations – a good deal, I say.
Of course, if you are REALLY only going ONCE a year, you could just get a day pass for $10. But you see how the math here works greatly in the favor of just getting the annual pass.
You can get your Discover Pass at some sporting good stores, like REI, as well as places that sell hunting and fishing licenses and all outlets that let you renew your tabs for your car in person. You can also order it online at discoverpass.wa.gov and add it to your car tab renewal. The website will prompt you at checkout when renewing – how convenient.
Also of note: The Discover Pass is transferable between two vehicles. Simply write both plate numbers on the pass. Remember, the pass can only be used on one vehicle at a time.
The America the Beautiful Interagency Pass
The National Park Pass you can get at REI and is your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Each pass covers entrance fees at National Parks, National Forests and National Wildlife Refuges as well as standard amenity fees (day use fees) at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees and day use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas (or up to four adults at sites that charge per person). Children age 15 or under are admitted free.
If you only visit Olympic or Mt. Rainier National Park once, you can pay the day use entrance fee which is $25 per car and you’re good to go for seven days. Mt. Rainier also has an annual pass, just for that park, which is $50. North Cascades National Park does not have an entrance fee, but to park at some trail heads you still need a National Park or National Forest Pass.
Northwest Forest Pass
If you only plan on visiting National Forest land and recreation sites you could just get a Northwest Forest Pass.
it’s $30 annually and is honored at all Forest Service operated recreation sites in Washington and Oregon where a day use fee is required. It allows the pass holder and any accompanying passengers in a private vehicle use of the recreation facilities. And allows the pass holder use of recreation facilities at per-person sites. Other members in the party must pay the per-person fee. The pass is interchangeable between vehicles in the same household. Here is a full list of locations the Northwest Forest Pass covers in Washington and Oregon.
Other passes and permits we didn’t include here
The above passes don’t include fishing or boating licenses, overnight camping permits and other special use permits like day use wilderness and backcountry permits for areas accessed controlled like the Wonderland Trail or The Enchantments. Special exhibitions will require additional entrance fees.
Also of note: Mount St. Helens is actually not a National Park but a National Volcanic Monument. It’s part of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and therefore covered by your National Park Pass. If you want to climb Mt. St. Helens you need a special climbing permit.
Further things to consider
In an effort to promote recreation on public lands, both State and Federal land agencies promote fee free days each year. If you plan very carefully you can avoid fees altogether. Just don’t blame me if you go on a fee free day and the parking lots are overfull and the trail crowded.
I’m here to tell you to get you annual Discover Pass and your annual National Park pass. You’ll always have access to almost all the areas you ever wish to go. Confusion solved. For just one cheap annual cost of $110. That was easy, right?
And finally: Any of this is subject to change. Consult the respective websites for additional information.