What Pass Do I Need?
If determining which pass or passes to purchase for hiking this year makes you dizzy, you're not alone. To help, WTA has answered some frequently asked questions.
Before diving into the questions, you'll also want to open up our Recreation Pass Info page, a one-stop shop to learn about all of the major passes needed for public land in Washington. Looking at these two pages side-by-side will help in choosing the right pass for you.
You'll also want to consider which agency manages the land where you want to hike - in particular, whether it is managed by the federal government or the State of Washington.
- Federal recreation sites include: national forests; national parks; national wildlife refuges; national historic sites; Bureau of Land Management lands; and places managed by the Bureau of Reclamation. An America the Beautiful Interagency pass gets named passholders into all of these sites; a Northwest Forest Pass allows trailhead parking on national forests only.
- Washington state lands include: Washington State Parks; Washington Department of Natural Resource lands (state forests, natural resource conservation areas (NRCAs), natural area preserve (NAP)); and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife lands (state wildlife areas). These areas require a Discover Pass.
Q. What is the Discover Pass?
A. This is a fairly new pass, passed by the Washington legislature in April 2011. Due to the State of Washington's enormous budget deficit, without a new source of funding, many state parks and state recreation areas faced closure. The Discover Pass ($30/year; $10/day) will keep these areas open, but do know that most vendors will be charging $35/year; $11.50/day for these passes. Learn more at discoverpass.wa.gov.
Q. Can I buy one pass that will work work on all state and federal lands?
A. Such a pass is not available at this time.
Q. I plan to hike a lot - on the national forests, at the national parks and at state parks. Which passes should I get, and what will it cost me?
A. You should purchase the America the Beautiful Interagency Pass ($80) and the Discover Pass ($30). This will get you into all federal and state lands in Washington.
Q. I don't want to think about where I am going to go. I just want to go.
A. You will also want to purchase the America the Beautiful Interagency Pass ($80) and the Discover Pass ($30) - then check at the trailhead to see which one you need.
Q. Most of my hiking is along the I-90 corridor. Can I get by with one pass?
A. That depends on where you plan to hike in this region. Public lands are managed by both state and federal agencies along this corridor. Mount Si and Tiger Mountain, for instance, are managed by the Department of Natural Resources and require the Discover Pass ($30). Twin Falls and Squak Mountain are state parks and also require the Discover Pass. Further up the pass is Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest where you need a Northwest Forest Pass ($30). There are also several trails on King County park lands, and these will remain free.
Q. I'm not sure where I want to hike this year, but I'll go hiking about 6 or 7 times - certainly the Mountain Loop Highway, maybe visit Mount Rainier or Olympic National Park. I'm not sure. I don't want to buy passes that I don't need, but I don't want to be left high and dry. Please help!
A. This is where you'll need to start learning which agency manages the land you hike on - and we suggest jotting the numbers down to see how the cost of the passes add up. Most trails along the Mountain Loop Highway are within the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, but there are exceptions, so you'll want to make sure before you head out. At the very least you will need the Northwest Forest Pass ($30). For $50 more, you can get into all federal lands with the America the Beautiful pass. You would need three separate visits to Olympic or Mount Rainier National Parks ($15/week) to make that additional cost worthwhile.
Q. What's the deal with Mount St. Helens? Is it per person or per car? Will my Northwest Forest Pass work there?
A. Mount St. Helens National Monument is a bit of a wild card in the whole pass system. Folks that plan to make one or more visits there may find that the America the Beautiful pass is the way to go, especially if they are planning to go to a national park and do other hiking in the national forests. The U.S. Forest Service manages Mount St. Helens and charges on a per-person fee basis. Entry to the Coldwater or Johnson Ridge sites are $8 per person for those 16 and older (free for kids). The Monument honors the America the Beautiful and Senior passes for named pass-holders, and a Northwest Forest Pass will gain entry for one person.
Q. I'm a senior. Are there special passes for me?
A. The Interagency Senior Pass (formerly the Golden Eagle pass) is the best deal around. This is a lifetime pass that costs only $10 that is honored nationwide at any federal site charging entrance fees. It is available to anyone 62 or older. Unfortunately, there is no similar pass for Washington state lands at this time.
Q. I like hiking in the desert area of Central Washington during the spring. Who manages these lands? What pass do I need?
A. This depends where you plan to go and when you plan to go. Much of the hiking in Central Washington is in State Wildlife Areas. These are managed by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. There are also a good number of state parks. Hikers in this area should purchase a Discover Pass ($30/year).
Q. I live in the Portland/Vancouver area, and I hike on both sides of the Columbia. Will the Washington and Oregon Recreation pass be the ticket for me?
A. No. This pass is being eliminated by the agencies, but it probably wouldn't have been a good option anyway as it only provided access to Washington State Park boat launch sites.
Q. I only plan to go out one or two times. Can I just go the route of a day pass?
A. Yes. A day pass for hiking on national forest lands is $5 and state lands is $10. It costs $15 to enter Mount Rainier or Olympic National Parks, and that pass is good for a week. The problematic part of day passes is actually purchasing them. In most places, they are not available at trailheads (the exception is state parks where they are sometimes available). You either need to stop at an open ranger station on the national forests or purchase however many you need beforehand at a place like REI (many vendors like WTA that sell Northwest Forest Passes do not sell day passes). You can purchase a day pass for state parks and other state lands at most sporting goods stores that sell hunting and fishing licenses. With vendor fees, these will cost about $11.50/day. They will also be available for $10 from staffed state parks.
Q. Ugh! These fees infuriate me. I already pay taxes for these public lands, and I don't feel like I should pay extra. Is there anywhere I can go without forking over more money for passes?
A. Fortunately, there do remain a number of places hikers can go without paying additional fees. North Cascades National Park is one, as long as your hike originates on national park property. The Olympic Coast (managed by Olympic National Park) is free, except in some instances where hikers enter though tribal land. Most county parks are free, though there may be some exceptions. There are also a growing number of trails on lands managed by land trusts that do not require an entry fee. Finally, there actually are a number of trailheads in national forests that do not require the Northwest Forest Pass. The Northwest Forest Pass is only required where the trailhead offers some sort of developed facility, like a picnic table or toilet. Want to figure out if your desired hike requires the pass? Go to this page, and check to see if your trail is on the list.
Q. Is there a way for me to earn a free pass?
A. Yes. When you volunteer on two days of WTA work parties in the national forest, you can trade your volunteer day passes in for an annual pass. Similarly, if you volunteer 24 hours on any combination of State Parks, DNR or Fish and Wildlife lands, you will be able to receive a free annual pass. The details of this, however, are still in a bit of flux.
Q. Are there going to be any fee free days?