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Canadian National Park Passes: When and Why You Need One

Category: Plan + Prepare

When you purchase a Canadian National Park Pass, not only are you paying the price for admission to a jaw-dropping show of nature’s splendour, the revenue from the pass also helps support other key park programs.

Bow Lake, Icefields Parkway, Banff National Park.
Bow Lake. This stunning glacier fed lake is located on the Icefields Parkway, Banff National Park. It is a photo hotspot, stopping here does require either a park day pass or an annual pass.

When do you need to purchase a National Park Pass? 

A good rule of thumb is that you need to pay for park admission any time you stay longer than when it takes to fill up your car with gas and visit the facilities. 

If you plan on hiking, biking, skiing, snowshoeing, fishing, swimming, paddling, picnicking, going for a family photo op along the shores of Lake Louise, downhill or cross-country skiing — you get the idea — you need to purchase a pass.

Athabasca Glacier, Icefields Parkway
YUP – even stopping to admire the Athabasca Glacier requires a park pass. Photo date: 2008

Two options for buying National Park Passes

  • Both of the following options cover seven individuals in a single-vehicle.
  • BONUS – As of 2018, admission is free for youths under the age of 18! 
Annual canadian national park pass
An annual Discovery Pass is the best value if you plan on visiting with your family more than once.

Option 1: Daily admission passes

  • Recommended if you are only going to visit once.
  • Covers the cost of one day spent in a Canadian National Park

Option 2: Discovery Pass 

  • Recommended if you will spend more than six days in any Canadian National Park in a given year.
  • Keep in mind; there are three Canadian National Parks just within a three-hour drive from Calgary.
  • Admission to Canadian National Historic Sites. Examples of these are the Cave and Basin National Historic Site in Banff National Park & Rocky Mountain House Historic Site, located in Rocky Mountain House. The

Cave and Basin -photos taken over the past 15 years.

Pictures above from Rocky Mountain House Historic Site, 2009 and 2019

Purchase your pass at these locations:

Tips: Make sure the pass is visible in your vehicle whenever you stop. I hang our pass from the car’s rearview mirror.

Pop-Up Park Pass Checkpoints

Parks Canada staff have pop-up park pass checkpoints throughout the year. They are usually situated at the more popular park destinations. If you don’t have a pass, you will be required to pull over and pay for one before you continue to your destination. You can avoid this potentially embarrassing moment of having all other park uses know why you are pulled over – simply stop at the park gates or purchase a pass at one of the external participating locations.

Parks Canada pass checkpoint, Banff
Park Pass Checkpoint. Road to Lake Minnewanka.

Your price of admission supports the following:

  • Funding for infrastructure
  • Maintenance of trails, roads, parking, scenic viewpoints, picnic areas, washrooms, and townsites
  • The safety of the furry, feathery, and finned residents of the parks, through programs like Wildlife Guardians and volunteer interpretive programs, such as the Caribou Ambassador Program in Jasper National Park.

What is NOT included:

  • Camping & reservation fees
  • Firewood 
  • Overnight backcountry permits 
  • Hot spring access 
  • Guided tours – either by Parks Canada Interpreters or private licensed guides and tour companies
  • All Park Pass fees help pay for rescues. 

“This is going to cost a fortune,” I said to my husband.

In 2011, my oldest son experienced an unexpected ride in a sling under a helicopter from the Lake Louise area. While we were snowshoeing, he wandered off the trail to look at animal tracks, he claims he didn’t touch the tree, but he may have. Regardless, a large chunk of ice, also known as a snow bomb, fell from a tree and knocked him unconscious.

Snowshoeing, Lake Louise, Banff National Park
My son was looking at animal tracks, and wandered off the trail. He claims he didn’t touch the tree, but he may have. Getting this photo was certainly an accident as well, but it helps tell the story.

Long story short:

  • A Banff Mountain Safety team arrived via Rescue helicopter.
  • They assessed and prepared my son for transport.
  • My son and one of the rescue crew were slung out under the helicopter to a waiting ambulance. 
  • The Ambulance first went to the Banff Mineral Springs Hospital, the Children’s Hospital in Calgary.
  • We braced ourselves for a huge bill
  • We never got a bill.
waiting for an ambulance transfer.
Waiting for the hospital transfer.


The fee for purchasing an annual park pass helps fund rescues in the parks.

My son?

He suffered a major concussion, whiplash and has one wicked helicopter story to tell.

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