The new Discover Pass requirement goes into effect July 1, 2011, which is very exciting for those of us who love both the outdoors and red tape. I understand, however, that the mishmash of existing land management agencies and pass requirements may represent a confusing jumble for those who aren’t hobbyist regulation trackers. Here is a brief explanation of the recreation passes available here in the Northwest, and where they’ll get you.

The question to ask when determining what pass you’ll need is, “Who manages the land?” Federal lands include sites managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Army Corps of Engineers. State lands include sites managed by the Washington Department of Parks and Recreation, Washington Department of Natural Resources, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.


  • Northwest Forest Pass ($30 annual or $5 day)



This is your most basic pass option, allowing trailhead parking in national forests in Washington and Oregon. For sites charging a per-person fee, this pass provides access for the passholder, but anyone else in their vehicle will need to pay the per-person fee. To determine whether your site requires a per-person fee or just the vehicle pass, check the Forest Service website’s page for that location, or call the ranger station. The day pass is good for one calendar day and expires at midnight. You can buy several day passes in advance and write the dates in as you use them.



  • America the Beautiful Interagency Pass ($80 annual)

This pass covers the entrance fee and standard amenity fee at all Federal recreation sites across the country, including national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges, national historic sites, Bureau of Land Management sites, and sites managed by the Bureau of Reclamation. At sites charging a per-person fee, this pass will provide access for the passholder and 3 additional adults (16 and over; children under 16 are free). In addition to the $80 Annual Pass, a lifetime Senior Pass is available to U.S. citizens and permanent residents age 62 or over at a cost of $10, and a lifetime Access Pass is available for free to U.S. citizens and permanent residents with a medically determined permanent disability. The Annual Pass does not cover fees for “extras” such as campgrounds, boat launches, and guided tours, but the Senior and Access Passes provide a 50% discount on some of these services. Note that Army Corps of Engineers recreation sites do not accept the Interagency Annual Pass, but many of their locations do accept the Senior and Access Passes for discounts on camping. There is no day pass available for Federally-owned land other than national forests; any entrance fees for day use at these locations must be paid on-site to the staff or iron ranger.

  • Discover Pass ($30 annual or $10 day)

This is the new one for us here in Washington. Beginning July 1, 2011, a Discover Pass will be required for entrance to all Washington State lands, including state parks, Washington DNR lands, and Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife lands. However, if you have rented a camp site or cabin at a state park, you do not need a Discover Pass to enter the park; your camping reservation stub or camping fee receipt will serve as your permit for the duration of your stay.


  • Washington & Oregon Recreation Pass ($100 annual)

This provides all the benefits of the Interagency Annual Pass, plus access to 26 Oregon state parks, 23 Washington state parks, and 6 Army Corps of Engineers sites. See the Forest Service’s Passes and Permits website for a listing of the state parks and ACE sites this pass covers. Editor’s note: This pass will eventually be replaced by the Discover Pass, but for now, they both exist.




The Northwest Forest Pass, Interagency Pass, and Washington & Oregon Recreation Pass can be purchased online at Discover Your Northwest, by phone at 1-800-270-7504, or in person at Forest Service offices and a number of private vendors. The Discover Pass can be purchased online from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, by phone at 1-866-320-9933, or in person anywhere hunting and fishing licenses are sold.

So what’s the upshot of all this? If you get outdoors frequently and visit a variety of different recreation areas, or if you simply don’t want to have to think about where you’re going, the Interagency Pass combined with the Discover Pass is a $110 investment that will get you onto any State or Federal land in Washington (excluding those pesky Army Corps of Engineer sites) for a year from the month of purchase. If you don’t go out as often, you’ll have to do some homework to figure out what day passes are available or required for your trip.

But the frugal outdoorsperson need not despair! There is such a thing as a free hike. Most county parks are free, though there are exceptions. Federal lands have fee free days (the remaining Federal free days for 2011 are September 24 for National Public Lands Day, and November 11-13 for Veterans Day). The Discover Pass legislation states that the State of Washington can declare up to 12 fee free days each year, but they have not yet been announced. Finally, some trailheads in national forests do not require a pass. A pass is only required at trailheads that offer some form of developed amenity, such as a picnic table or toilet. To find out if your trailhead requires a pass, go to the Forest Service’s list of sites and look for your trailhead. The trailheads on the list require a pass, trailheads not listed do not.


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