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Different parks have taken different approaches to fees, which accounts for huge differences for visitors. Some parks have free entry; others charge $15 or more. Some state parks campsites are $5 a night, others are $35.
Depending on your income, state and national park fees are either a minor annoyance for a great privilege, or a major impediment to enjoying the wilderness that your tax dollars are already paying to preserve.
Park fees always seemed odd. We don’t pay fees to go to the library, but we pay fees to enter most major parks, which can feel like a library of the natural world.
Often, fees don’t seem to make sense.
Over the weekend, I drove into Yosemite without paying anything on top of my $80 annual National Parks pass. It easily pays for itself because most of the biggest parks charge $30 or more to enter.
By contrast, an annual state park pass in California is $195.
Part of this may have to do with how much each parks system relies on fees.
The National Park Service gets only about 12 percent of its roughly $3 billion annual budget from fees, including entrance fees and camping fees, according to a 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office. (Last year, the Trump administration proposed a major increase in those fees to fund park maintenance but backed off after widespread outcry.)
By contrast, California’s Department of Parks and Recreation gets $100 million of its $400 million budget from fees, according to a report last year by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. The report had much to say about state park fees, including the disparities between them.
As the report points out, there isn’t exactly a “right” or “wrong” fee. Different parks have taken different approaches to fees, which accounts for huge differences for visitors. Some parks have free entry; others charge $15 or more. Some state parks campsites are $5 a night; others are $35.
Some of that is explained by park officials trying to “distribute park demand.” Their theory is that charging more for popular parks during peak times can discourage overcrowding while free or low-cost fees encourage visits during slower times or even cause people to visit parks they otherwise would not.
Lower fees on weekdays, for example, can encourage people to visit when parks are less crowded, but that can also penalize low-income people who may not be able to take days off to visit.
The 2017 report estimated that about two-thirds of people who took day trips to state parks didn’t pay a fee. Some people — seniors, veterans and school trips — can get fees waived.
Some parks don’t charge fees. Other parks charge fees that are avoidable.
For example: With some time to kill recently, I got into Torrey Pines for free by finding nearby street parking. Most locals know how to do this, but I became a proud San Diegan the moment I found the dependable street parking spots a short distance from the entrance. In exchange for a 15-minute walk, I managed to avoid the state park’s vehicle fees, which can range from $12 to $25, depending on demand. A win.
Then, a week later, I paid $30 to park two cars at Cardiff State Beach for a short while, because we had a group in a hurry and a dog. A loss.
So these fees can become — depending on how you want to look at it — a cost of convenience for people who want to park inside the park and right by the beach, or a sort of penalty for people, including families with strollers, who can’t find or use street parking.
Both the state and federal reports on park systems recommended that officials think more about how fees are set.
None of this factors in the time and cost of getting to parks. My trip to Yosemite last weekend was basically “free” because I have an annual parks pass, except that the gas to get there and back cost more than $100. It struck me as I was leaving the park that casinos operate free shuttles so that everyone can come gamble, but parks often put up barriers that keep people from coming to enjoy.