Golden Age Passport makes parks even more attractive and economical

Published3/14/2009 11:12 PM

Tough times, tighten the belt, stimulate. All these buzz words apply to tourism as much as any other economic force. While your travel plans may not include the Louvre and Eiffel Tower this year, there are still incredibly beautiful places to visit close to home, offering bargains to us seniors and a chance to do some economic stimulating in person.

Speaking of stimulation, it's been my contention that in downturning economies, local tourist attractions should advertise like crazy in the states surrounding theirs, the objective being to attract visitors who can afford a 100 to 200-mile trip for a few days.


It might not take much advertising, however, for seniors to get on the move toward smaller trips close to home. For years, seniors have enjoyed a special entitlement that admits them to the nation's national parks. It is the $10 lifetime Golden Age Passport, renamed in 2007 as the Senior Pass, for those 62 and older. Besides free admissions for the pass holder, the pass holder gets 50 percent discounts on such amenities as overnight camping and purchases in park stores. The biggest bonus is admission per carload of up to four persons, including the pass holder.

Moreover, the number of venues eligible have been increased to include facilities operated by the U.S. Forest Service (, Fish & Wildlife (, Bureau of Land Management (, and Bureau of Reclamation The passes are even accepted at some, but not all, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ( sites.

Probably, the national parks that come to mind first and foremost are Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and other bountiful and huge natural and wildlife areas out west, plus the historic locations like Independence Hall in Philadelphia and nature's bounty at Shenandoah Park in Virginia.

But if your yen to travel this summer is accompanied by a patriotic urge to boost a local economy, particularly in downtrodden areas, there are places of sheer beauty like the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore ( The park contains 15,000 acres of dunes, beaches, campsites amid oak savannas, swamps, bogs, marshes and prairies. The park stretches along 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline between the hard-luck cities of Gary and Michigan City, Ind.

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Kentucky represents another hard-hit area, with even more damage done by the recent ice storm. Mammoth Cave National Park ( has the world's longest cave system, with more than 365 miles of it explored so far. The park also contains more than 70 miles of backcountry trails for hikers, horseback riders, and bicyclists.

Between Cleveland and Akron sits the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (, a park that could stand as the poster child for the struggles of wresting a natural and beautiful area from the threat of development and pollution of urban neighborhoods. Indeed, the development of the park was extremely controversial, with the NPS resisting its creation for years.

The Department of the Interior leadership called it a "park barrel" initiative that would drain funds from the big western worthies like Yellowstone. Then, in 1972, the government established the "Parks to the People" policy of locating national parks in urban surroundings. Cuyahoga Valley joined the park system in 1974.

Cuyahoga Valley is a surprising area with forests, hills, spectacular waterfalls and open farmlands, with a 19th Century feel, bolstered mostly by the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad and the Ohio & Erie Canalway, a 110-mile national heritage area.


Though visiting a national park via the Senior Pass is a boon for us, the local economy where the park is located benefits many times over in lodging, restaurants, gas stations, tolls and shopping. An example of how much local areas depend on tourism is at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, straddling Tennessee and North Carolina.

This is the most visited national park in the U.S. which suffered a loss of only 400,000 visitors in 2008, to nine million, despite a $4 a gallon price for gas.

Part of the park is located in Sevier County, Tennessee, sharing the tourism spotlight with the Dollywood Amusement Park. A survey noted that the daily paychecks for tourism workers in the county in 2005 amounted to an astonishing $924,000 a day.

Regarding the Senior Pass, NPS spokesman Jeffrey Olson said holders of the old Golden Passport can exchange it for the Senior Pass at no charge. One difference between the two passes reflects cultural changes in the U.S., in that the Senior Pass admits the pass holder driving a private vehicle and three other people regardless of relationship, while the Golden Age passport admitted the pass signee, spouse and children.

Because positive identity is needed to buy a pass, they must be purchased in person at sites operated by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and the USDA Forest Service.

John Hilferty's column for
mature travelers appears
monthly. He can be reached at

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