The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fees are going up at 130 national parks, many doubling, even tripling, for first time since 2006

A bighorn sheep munches on a blade of grass in Yellowstone National Park (Photo by Erik Petersen/For The Washington Post)
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Just as summer begins, 130 national parks across the country are starting to charge visitors more to get inside, with entrance fees doubling and even tripling at some sites.

The increases are the first since 2006 and are taking effect at both the crown jewels in the park system — including Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon — and at small monuments and historic sites. Visitors entering in a car, the most common way Americans see the parks, are paying more, along with those entering on foot, motorcycle and buying annual passes.

Among the largest parks, the new prices range from $50 for an annual pass at Arches in southeast Utah (up from $25) to $30 for a car to get into the Grand Tetons in northwest Wyoming, up from $25.  And close to the Washington region, Prince William Forest raised the price of its annual park pass to $30 from $20 and the Antietam Battlefield’s per-person fee is $7, up from $4.  Motorcyclists are getting hit with some of the steepest increases; Joshua Tree in southeast California is now charging them $20, up from $5, for example.

Visitors also should prepare for higher fees to camp, shower, paddleboat and tour caves at a total of 176 parks as the National Park Service boosts fees for amenities too.

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Park officials say the increases are needed to help them get to a backlog in construction projects, many of them vital to the visitor experience. The agency’s maintenance needs have piled up for years as cuts from Congress have eroded both operating and capital budgets. Half of all paved roads in the national park system have been designated as in fair to poor condition, park officials said in a report last year. More than two dozen bridges need repair, as do more than one-third of the hiking trails — some 6,700 miles.

“Basically the money is used to enhance visitor services,” said Kathy Kupper, a park service spokeswoman, “like building a trail or picnic area, or an education center.”

Almost every park that now charges fees is raising them, but about two-thirds of the system of 407 parks, historic sites and monuments is free and will stay that way.

About 292 million people visited national parks last year.

Park officials note that entrance fees across the system have not changed since 2008, and that the majority have not increased since 2006. Higher prices were banned since then, largely because the park service wanted to keep prices low and boost visitors during the recession. Parks Director Jonathan Jarvis lifted the ban this year, telling park superintendents last fall to begin the public meetings and outreach that must go with any increases. The fees vary widely, as do the increases.

About 70 parks started charging higher fees in the spring. The rest will be phased in gradually, officials said, some not until 2016, when the park service celebrates its centennial. Some proposals could change in the coming months, but Kupper said Jarvis has “pretty much approved all of the requests.”

The park service says the money expected to be raised is just a fraction of the $11.5 billion needed to repair and maintain roads, trails and park buildings.

At public meetings around the country in recent months, “Most of the feedback was, ‘We understand and people were not up in arms about it,'” Kupper said.

But a few proposals had to be rescinded or scaled back because of public pressure. Facing strong opposition at public meetings and from some elected officials, the park service canceled plans last February to start imposing fees along the entire 185 miles of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

As a compromise, the entrance fees at Great Falls Park in Maryland are going up. The per-vehicle entrance fee jumped to $10 from $5 earlier this year. A three-day pass for vehicles, now $5, is going to $15 for seven days between the District and Seneca Creek; visitors entering the park further west could pay $15 in 2017 under a proposal under consideration.

Fees “are part of the equation in making sure our parks have great visitor services,” said Emily Douce, budget and appropriations specialist for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Overall, people understood that once the public process went through.”

Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this story