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National Forests

Do You Have to Pay to Get Into National Forests?

National Forests offer a great combination of two of my favorite things in the world: beautiful forests and free stuff.

Do you have to pay to get into National Forests? Activities like rock climbing, ATV/UTV riding, boat ramp usage, and the harvest of certain wild edibles generally aren’t free. Other activities like dispersed camping, hiking, and birding are free to the public.

In this post, I’m going to walk you through how to navigate the financial side of visiting a National Forest.

How to Determine Whether You Have to Pay

I know what you might be thinking: aren’t the National Forests free because the public owns them? Not so fast, as it’s very possible you might have to pay based on a few considerations.

What Kind of Activities You’re Interested In

First things first, the types of activities you want to do in National Forests can have a great impact on your wallet. Love hobbies that require a lot of gear or require the use of anything with a motor? Be sure to check the rules, as odds are likely that you may have some kind of fees to pay.

Here are examples of some of the activities that you can expect to require some kind of fee or permitting:

  • Rock climbing
  • ATV/UTV riding
  • Certain kinds of foraging (e.g. harvesting wild ramp bulbs)
  • Using boat ramps
  • Shore fishing at developed sites
  • Camping at developed campsites

This makes sense if you think about it: almost all of the activities on the above list require the attention and care of Forest Service employees. The only exception to that list is foraging, but in that scenario you’re removing a natural product from the forest, so it’s reasonable to expect some kind of permit or fee necessary.

Activities That Tend to be Free

What about those fellow lovers of free stuff that just want to enjoy a day in the woods? Freeloaders, you’re in luck: our National Forests support a diverse array of activities that are totally free to the public.

Think of it like this: if the activities you’re interested in generally “leave no trace” and don’t require the time and attention of Forest Service staff, you’re unlikely to require any fees.

Here are some of the activities you can expect to not require any permitting or fees:

  • Trail hiking
  • Bird watching
  • Visiting remote waters without access for vehicles
  • Winter sports on trails that aren’t maintained actively
  • Dispersed camping

In my mind, the best part about all of this is that the free activities are what you encounter when you really “open up” the possibilities of what the National Forest offers.

picture of a forest service road cutting through a forest
There’s plenty of free places to explore in National Forests

Think of it like this: people in the United States are extremely fortunate to have millions and millions of acres of Nation Forests available for use. Don’t just limit yourself to the activities and locations that the vast majority of visitors stick with. Get out there and check out all that these wonderful locations have to offer!

Everything is Local: Check the Rules for Your Nearby National Forest

While the different National Forests are all run by the same agency (the United States Department of Agriculture), the reality is that each National Forest has their own rules.

Your best bet is to go to the website for the Forest Service and find your National Forest in the drop-down list on the right side of the screen. Then find the ‘Passes & Permits’ section of the brown menu on the left.

There are usually no more than 4 or 5 options on this menu, so your best bet is just to open up every page and see what they say. I know, reading rules isn’t the most exciting recommendation, but that’s really the only option here.

Let me explain what I mean: each National Forest is unique and has its own management requirements. Take foraging for example: the different National Forests have differing needs. This makes it entirely possible for you to be able to freely gather a plant species in one National Forest, but have another location that either requires a permit or doesn’t allow gathering entirely.

What’s the bottom line? Read the rules as best you can, as it’s your responsibility to have your permits and fees in line when enjoying all that our National Forests have to offer.

Understanding the Options for Paid Forest Service Passes

So you’ve determined that your activities in a National Forest will require fees or permits and you’re wondering what your best options are. Next we’ll go over a few things to keep in mind when navigating the options out there.

Forest Service-Wide Recreation Passes

The U.S. Forest Service has a web page that outlines the various kinds of recreational passes available. Regarding annual passes, most people would be interested in the pass that costs $80 at the time of this writing.

However, people 62 or older, military veterans, and disabled individuals may have either free passes or reduced costs passes available.

Also, the Forest Service offers a free pass for those that volunteer more than 250 hours in a calendar year.

Check for More Affordable Local Options

It’s also worth noting that it’s possible that your local National Forest may have other recreational passes available. As they dont’ cover such a great number of locations, you can expect that these local passes may be available for less than the national pass.

For example, the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest offers a year-long recreational pass that is only $30. This pass doesn’t necessarily offer as many features and options as the national pass, but many people would find it more than adequate for their needs.

Stop By the Local Forest Service Office for More Info

If you’re having trouble figuring out what is best for you, you can always stop by a local U.S. Forest Service office to get help. To find a list of offices that service your local National Forest, go back to the web-page for that National Forest and look for link mentioning ‘District Offices’ near the bottom of the left-hand side navigation pane.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this post and got some helpful information out of it. Our National Forests are a tremendous resource and there are plenty of opportunities for people of all budgets.

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By Drew Meulemans

I've long admired forests and devote much energy to learning about them and exploring. I enjoy sharing what I learn and wish to inspire others to do the same.