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Pay to Play - Recreation Passes

Photo: Passes and permits and fees, oh my! Fortunately, it isn't rocket science, you just need to know the right permit for the land you are on.

Trail passes and permits – how confusing they can be. And what a pain in the keister they are. Furthermore, how discouraging they are to the budding outdoor enthusiast. Imagine the perplexity of a casual outdoor user who arrives at a trailhead, ready to explore Washington’s fantastic wilderness, only to discover he cannot park legally without the appropriate permit and that he can’t buy that permit on location. Unwilling to abandon the day’s adventure before it even began, our would-be explorer gambles that he won’t get busted and strikes off for a fun day in the woods. Upon return, the fun of the day transforms into anger at the sight of a $75 fine neatly tucked under the windshield wiper of his car. Have we converted this visitor into an outdoor buff? Hardly.

As much as we dislike them and as much as we think there should be the means of buying a permit at every location where they are required (currently about half of the locations where passes are required give you the option of buying them) trailhead passes/permits are here to stay. Better get used to them and better know what you need.

Knowing what you need isn’t exactly brain surgery but it can be confusing so here’s our primer to help you out.

Before starting your adventure, here’s the first question to ask: Is the area I’m visiting managed by a state or federal agency?

If it's a state agency (State Park, Washington Department of Fish and
Wildlife (WDFW), Department of Natural Resources (DNR)) you  need a Discover Pass ($30), which will be valid for a year after the date of purchase. That’s simple enough, but where to get the pass isn’t always simple. State Parks often sell day and year-long passes on location. Most WDFW and DNR sites, however,  do not sell the Discover Pass on location and you’ll need to purchase a pass ahead of time at a State Park or from a retailer (e.g., Arlberg Sports, Hooked on Toys) who handles the passes.

                                                      Photo: The Discover Pass - the do-it-all permit for state-managed lands.

If you are visiting federal lands you need to know which agency manages those lands. 

National Forest and BLM lands in Washington State need a Northwest Forest Pass. A yearly pass can be purchased for $30 and is good for one year as of the month of purchase.  These passes can be purchased locally at the sites noted in the picture below. At about half of the local trailheads requiring the Northwest Forest Pass you can purchase day passes on the spot for $5. View the picture below to see which trailheads offer day passes (marked with a star).


Photo: A visual covering the information explained above. Day passes can be purchased at trailheads marked with a star.

National Park lands require a pass of their own. Prices vary from park to park, ranging from free in some parks to $12 to $20 in others and can be purchased on location at the entrance station into the park. Most passes are good for seven days. Check the National Park Service’s website (http://www.nps.gov) for the fees applying to the park you plan to visit.

The simplest pass for dealing with federal agencies is the Interagency Pass (also known as an ‘America the Beautiful’ Pass), which is good for all lands managed by the National Parks Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation, and US Fish and Wildlife. This is a good deal for those who us who spend a lot of time outdoors, but at $80 (good for a year from the month of purchase) it's also a considerably pricier than the Northwest Forest Pass and the occasional entrance fee into a National Park.

In summary, here are the Cliff Notes of what you need to pay to play:

  • Discover Pass. Good for all state lands requiring a permit. Cost: $30/year, $10/day.
  • NW Forest Pass. For local Forest Service and BLM lands requiring a permit. Cost: $30/year or $5/day.
  • National Parks: 7-day entry passes, prices vary.
  • Interagency (America the Beautiful) Pass: Good for lands managed by the National Parks Service, US Fish and Wildlife, Forest Service, BLM, and Bureau of Reclamation lands. Cost: $80/year.