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Paying to Play
Passes required to use public lands in the Methow

link to information about northwest forest annual pass link to info about interagency volunteer pass (Click each pass for more info) Any of these passes will let you park and play for the day at National Forest trailheads, picnic and other recreation sites that require a pass (see list below). Camping in a developed National Forest campground is a separate charge. NOTE: The Washington & Oregon Recreation Pass is discontinued as of July 31 but those purchased before then will be honored until their one-year expiration date. The Golden Age and Golden Access Passports are no longer issued but they are still accepted and still good for life if you have one.

(scroll down for state)

Ahhh, August. The month of summer heat, family vacations and now -- permit paranoia -- that headache-making confusion over what should be laying on your dashboard and/or hanging from your rear view mirror when you park and recreate on state and federal land. Hearsay has it that one local hiker spotted a car parked at a trailhead that had about a dozen pieces of paper on the dash. We can sympathize.

Our aim here is to clarify where you need permits, what they cost and where you can get more information. We make no promises, but here are two general statements to get us started:

Number one: A federal pass is required for parking and day use at some National Forest trailheads, picnic areas and recreation sites in Washington and Oregon. The pass is valid for any vehicle the purchaser occupies. A separate fee is charged for using the campgrounds marked as fee sites (day use pass not needed).

Number two: A state pass is required to have your motor vehicle on state parks, fish and wildlife and natural resources lands, even if you are just driving through. The permit is vehicle specific - they cannot be transferred among vehicles.

That was the easy part. Scroll down to read about the state's new Discover Pass and keep reading here to learn about the federal pass program.

Northwest Forest Pass: If you are able-bodied and under age 62 you need to buy a $30 annual or $5 one day Northwest Forest Pass to use the areas that require them in Washington and Oregon. (Keep reading for a list of local trailheads.)

Interagency Annual Pass: If you are able-bodied and under age 62 and plan to travel on federal lands beyond Washington and Oregon, you could save money by purchasing the $80 Interagency Annual Pass.

Interagency Senior Pass: If you are 62 or older you need an Interagency Senior Pass or Golden Age Passport (no longer issued but valid). Senior passes cost $10 and are good for your lifetime.

Interagency Access Pass: If you are blind or permanently disabled you need an Interagency Access Pass. This pass is free when you present the required documentation.

Interagency Volunteer Pass: Earned by volunteering 500 hours of your time working for federal land management agencies.

The passes for those of us who are considered old or infirm by our government are good nationally and also give us half-price discounts on campsite fees and perks at national parks. Sorry, youngsters under 62, you have to buy one of the others.

Parking or camping (where it's allowed) outside of recreation sites and campgrounds is free. You can also picnic in a campground for up to 1/2 hour for free.

Where to buy:

Methow Valley Ranger District office, 24 W. Chewuch Rd. Hours are 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday (closed noon to 1pm for lunch). 509-996-4000

Local businesses, including Methow Cycle and Sports and Winthrop Mountain Sports in Winthrop, and the Valley Do-It Center in Twisp sell day and annual Northwest Forest Passes. The Mazama Country Inn in Mazama sells day passes only. These businesses do not charge additional vendor fees.

Passes also are available by calling 1-800-270-7504 or online at .

If you arrive without a pass, you can buy one at the site. You'll find a bulletin board with instructions and a metal tube dubbed an "Iron Ranger" where you can deposit your fee.

Penalties: You park without a pass, you go hiking, you return to your car, you find a ticket on your windshield -- a $75 ticket. And, yes, there are people whose full-time job it is to patrol trailheads for compliance.

Here is one reason Jennifer Zbyszewski, recreation, wilderness and facilities program manager for the Methow Valley Ranger District, wants you to buy a pass instead of risking a ticket: 90 percent of the money raised through the sale of Northwest Forest Passes comes back to the Methow Valley to fund trail work. Money raised through fines goes into a general fund with no direct benefits for the Methow Valley.

Trailheads Requiring Passes:

Chewuch River Hart's Pass Highway 20 Twisp River
Andrews Creek
Lake Creek
All parking at Hart's Pass
and Robinson Creek

Blue Lake
Bridge Creek
Cedar Creek
Canyon Creek
Driveway Butte
East Creek
Easy Pass
Rainy Pass
Rainy Pass Picnic Area

Eagle Creek
Gilbert to North Lake, Copper
Pass and Twisp Pass
South Creek
Scatter Creek
Twisp River Horse Camp
War Creek
Williams Creek

(day passes for South Creek and Scatter Creek available at Gilbert)


photo of rick lewis, pearrygin lake state park ranger - link to more infoRick Lewis, managing ranger and long-time employee at Pearrygin Lake State Park.

The state Discover Pass became reality on July 1, 2011. The reaction has been everything from anger to shoulder-shrugging acceptance. There also has been plenty of confusion and frustration about yet another required fee for using public lands, in this state parks and lands under the jursidiction of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

"Essentially, state parks has been put into survival mode," says Rick Lewis, managing ranger at Pearrygin Lake State Park. "We really hope that people understand the position we're in."

As it stands now, the legislature has decreed that the entire state parks agency needs to become self-sufficient by July 1, 2013, Lewis explains. Even before that drop-dead date, money the legislature historically provided has been drastically cut for the past several budget cycles.

Mike Phillips, state parks budget analyst for the Eastern Washington region, explains the loss of money from the state's general fund: "In six years we've gone from $98 million to $17 million agency wide" -- a drop of $81 million. "This biennium they've given us $17 million to help wean us off the general fund," he adds.

The $30 Discover Pass was created to raise $60 million over the next two years to replace the lost funds, Phillips says. "We also made major cuts starting July 1, 2011 of positions and in other areas throughout the agency... A lot of people think state parks is just doing this to increase their revenue... It's not agency driven."

Phillips is resigned to reality and says the legislature is taking away money to pay for other priorities but lawmakers are "allowing us to continue as an agency" and are "allowing us to implement the Discover Pass as a way to raise funds."

discover pass logo - link to more infoThe Washington State legislature created the Discover Pass to replace funding cut from the state budget. Click the logo for more info.

Lewis, who has been a ranger at Pearrygin Lake State Park for 21 years and in charge for 11 years, hopes to maintain the present level of service. "Our rangers have always been very resourceful," he says. "They've used BandAids, rubber bands and duct tape to get along until the next budget cycle, hoping things get better."

Lewis runs a bare bones operation. David McWalter is his only assistant ranger. Libby O'Daihmin, a Methow Valley native, is senior park aide. Tim Evans, another Methow native, handles maintenance. Lewis adds that he has just enough park aides to clean the six full-service bathrooms, three rental cabins, two offices and group camps, plus collect garbage and recycling. Those aides also clean 171 fire pits every week.

There are two campground host couples at the park who cover the east and west campgrounds. The volunteer hosts mow all the lawns in addition to taking care of reservation information every morning. They tag the reserved camp sites, post the list of open sites, walk and talk with campers, pick up trash and report any problems to the rangers. Another volunteer does pruning and weeding. And every spring McWalter oversees a crew of about 75 volunteers who do an early season cleanup.

There are 30 state parks in the Eastern Washington Region. Pearrygin Lake, Steamboat Rock and Lake Chelan are the popular big three in terms of bringing in revenue from campground fees, according to budget analyst Phillips. Historically, money generated through fees for camp sites, hookups, boat launches and trailer dumps has gone into a slice of the budget called the Parks Renewal and StewardshipFund. It still does. But as the Legislature starting cutting funds, a new program was started that lets drivers renewing their licenses make a $5 donation to support state parks and that option has brought in enough to almost double the fund, says Phillips.

If the new Discover Pass program can bring in $30,000,000 a year, the state parks agency's budget woes should ease. Put another way: 1 million of the 5,568,379 non-commercial vehicles registered in Washington state will have to have a Discover Pass.

What you need to know about the state's Discover Pass:

The passes are required to have your motor vehicle on state lands under the jurisdiction of the state park system or the departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife. That includes just driving through those lands unless it is on a road managed by someone else, such as county roads or state highways.

In state parks the pass covers day use. Camping fees are a separate charge.

The parking permits issued with hunting and fishing licenses will be recognized only for parking on WDFW land through March 31, 2012.

There is no more free camping on these state lands unless you do it without a motor vehicle or are exempted from the pass requirement (

Annual passes are $30; daily passes cost $10. An additional $5 transaction and vendor fee is charged when passes are purchased at local businesses (the vendor gets $2 of that).

The passes are vehicle specific, meaning you have no choice but to write a license plate number on it that makes the pass valid only for that specific car, truck, motorcycle or recreation vehicle.

Discover Passes are available locally at Pearrygin Lake State Park, Pardners (cash or check only) and the Outdoorsman in Winthrop and at Bryan's and the Valley Do-It Center in Twisp.They can be purchased online at, by phone at 866-320-9933 and starting this fall when you renew your driver's license.

The fine for not displaying a valid pass is $99.