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Big on national parks? Save $70, get lifetime pass this month

An observation deck behind the William M. Colmer Visitor Center at Davis Bayou in Ocean Springs provides a peaceful view of the bayou. Davis Bayou is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
An observation deck behind the William M. Colmer Visitor Center at Davis Bayou in Ocean Springs provides a peaceful view of the bayou. Davis Bayou is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore. tmsmith@sunherald.com/file

If you’re a senior and like to travel, there’s a lifetime park pass you might want to get. Just make sure you get it before Aug. 27, because the cost will go up by $70.

U.S. citizens and permanent residents age 62 and older have until Aug. 27 to purchase a lifetime senior park pass for $10, rather than the $80 it will cost starting Aug. 28. The $10 fee has been in effect since 1994, but federal legislation passed last year increased the fee.

There are 59 national parks in the United States and its territories, with nearly 120 more national monuments. Not all of them charge an entrance fee, such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. In fact, only 118 of 417 National Park Service sites do charge to enter it.

Mississippi’s national parks

Among the national parks in Mississippi are Gulf Islands National Seashore in Ocean Springs and West Ship Island. Other national parks in the state include Vicksburg National Military Park, Tupelo National Battlefield and Brice’s Cross Roads National Battlefield Site.

Vicksburg National Park charges entrance fees ($15 per vehicle, $7 motorcycles, $5 pedestrians and bicycles, $5 per person in a bus or church van), but the South Mississippi parks do not.

Many of the iconic parks in the West — such as Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Zion, Arches and Rocky Mountain — do have fees to enter them and the charges can pinch the wallet. For instance, Yellowstone, America’s first national park, charges $30 per private vehicle and $25 per motorcyle. The passes also allow the official holder and three additional adults to enter a site that charges a per-person fee for free.

Aside from the National Park Service, federal agencies that accept the lifetime senior passes are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation. In all, there are 2,000-plus recreation sites operated by the agencies.

The legislation passed in 2016 earmarks where the additional money brought in by the lifetime and annual senior passes will go. The first $10 million collected each year goes to the National Park Foundation Endowment, which is managed by the National Park Foundation. That cash will be used for programs and activities at parks.

Money raised through the fee increase beyond $10 million each year is destined for the National Parks Centennial Challenge Fund, which goes to special projects and programs, along with improvement of visitor facilities. However, it requires a match from non-federal organizations.

Proof of age

The passes can be purchased at parks and sites that charge an entrance fee. Those buying them must be able to show proof of age and residency. For most people, a valid state driver’s license will suffice.

Those not yet age 62, but who are on a budget and don’t want to plunk down $80 at once for a senior lifetime pass, have an option. The 2016 legislation allows them to purchase a newly created annual senior pass for $20. Those who buy an annual pass for four years can have it converted to a lifetime pass for use thereafter.

Alabama’s national parks

Alabama’s sites include Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, Russell Cave National Monument, Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site and Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site.

Georgia’s sites include Andersonville National Historic Site, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Cumberland Island National Seashore, Fort Frederica National Monument, Fort Pulaski National Monument, Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, Ocmulgee National Monument.

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