Posted by: GeekHiker | January 3, 2013

Fee Thinking

I didn’t intend for my first post of the New Year to be a rant.  In fact, the first post was going to be about how I spend my New Year’s Day, tramping through the oak-dotted grasslands of the nearby Sierra Nevada foothills.  Unfortunately, when the brief paragraph that I was writing about why I’d chosen the particular park as my destination started spinning out of control into a lengthy diatribe, I figured it must be something worth writing about.

So, a rant for the New Year it is.

Owing to a multitude of factors, I haven’t been hiking much since I returned from my travels.  I’ve been regretting this, even though some of the causes were perfectly rational (notably the sharp spike in gas prices that left this unemployed bloke less than enthusiastic about driving to distant trailheads).  Nevertheless, I felt driven to start the new year doing what I do best: hitting the trail for a hike.

(I suddenly realize that saying that what I do best is “hiking” is basically saying that what I do best is, well, walking.  On dirt.  But I digress…)

I selected a little out of the way park in the hills and headed out, expecting to see a moderately full parking lot of those who, like me, would rather be out soaking up a bit of Vitamin D rather than be plopped on the couch and gorging on junk food watching a football game.

What I found instead was a completely packed parking lot.  Cars were parked in every possible spot, plus outside the entrance gate, and down the road leading to the highway.  I had little choice but to park some distance away and hike into the park.  It did little to dampen my spirits, though: the sun was bright and low in the sky, the cloudless sky was a striking blue, green grass carpeted the hillsides.  I enjoyed my travel along the trail, despite the parking difficulty.

Early in the day, I struck up a conversation with a couple of passing equestrians.  They commented on how full the parking lot was.  “Is that normal?” I asked, “I’ve never been to this park before.”  “Oh, no,” they replied, “usually you mostly just see a few horse trailers. I guess everybody had the same idea for New Year’s.”  I nodded in agreement, we wished each other Happy New Year, and headed in different directions down the trail.

As I walked, I couldn’t help but thinking that the holiday was only part of the reason so many people were there.  I kept thinking that one of the reasons that the park was so full of visitors was the very same reason that I’d selected it as my destination.

It’s one of the few in this area without a parking fee.

* * *

Just to be clear, right from the outset: I don’t have a problem with fees in general.  Public park services in as a rule suffer from wildly fluctuating, and often lacking, budgets.  As an active park user, it makes total sense that I should be willing to pony up a little cash if I’m going to make use of a facility.

Unfortunately, most of the parks around here are California State Parks, and to park anywhere in them, the fee is ten dollars.  For whatever reason, this seems high to me.  Maybe it’s because of years of hiking in the Angeles National Forest, where the day pass fee is only five dollars.  Or the fact that most National Parks charge about $10 for their entrance fee, but that entrance fee is good for an entire week.  The bigger, more popular parks, such as Yellowstone or Yosemite, charge $20 but, again, that gives you access to the park for a full seven day period.  (Don’t even get me started on the fact that the annual pass for National Parks and Federal Lands is $80, whereas the lowest level annual pass for California State Parks is a whopping $125.)

Ten bucks?  Just for a day?  I think that explains why most of the State Park parking areas I passed on the way to my hiking location were relatively empty, but the park I arrived at had a packed parking lot.  I ended up mulling over the whole idea of parks and fees as I hiked about that day, and a few thoughts came to mind:

Keep the fees reasonable.  Five bucks, in my humble opinion, is about right for a day parking fee.  Ten dollars (or more) seems a little high, especially if the trailhead lacks available drinking water or even a pit toilet.

If you’re going to charge a fee, key it to standard bills.  Some of the worst parking fees I’ve ever seen were $4, $7, and $12.  In most of those cases, I ended up driving away because I didn’t have the right amount.  Exact change is a problem: if you have a $1 bill, a $5 bill and a $10 bill in your wallet, and the parking fee is $7, you’re out of luck.  “Iron rangers” won’t break that $10 bill for you.  If you put in $6, you’ll likely get a ticket from a friendly ranger while you’re out on the trail, and if you put in $10, you’re out three bucks.  No one likes to pay more than the amount required.

What if the park can’t charge $5, and really needs to charge $7?  Then, by all means, charge $10.  Better yet, charge $10… but let me use the pass for 8-9 days (two weekends).  Think of it as a two-for-one deal.

If the park has a website, make sure the parking fees are stated clearly.  If I really want to go to a particular park, and that park charges $10 at the trailhead, I’ll probably do it.  If, however, I search the website for the fee information and find none, then pull up and find a $10 parking charge, I may elect not to visit the park, either because I’m angry at the unexpected charge or I simply didn’t bring enough cash.  Either way, the park loses out on a paying customer altogether.

Speaking of cash, it’s time to try to get parks into the modern era: credit cards.  When I visited Rainier National Park, I was amazed to find that the campground accepted camping fees via credit card.  You chose your site, went back to the machine, punched in your site number, selected the number of nights, swiped the card, and out popped your receipt.  Simple.  Now, admittedly, this may not be a practical solution at trailheads which, unlike campgrounds, are less likely to have the necessary wiring to connect up credit card transactions.  Still, there are some possible advantages that might make it worth looking into.  While there’s always the possibility of vandalism, there’s less motivation than with the “iron ranger”: busting up a credit card reader yields you nothing, whereas a pair of bolt-cutters can net you a couple hundred from the fee envelopes of the 20 cars parked at the trailhead.  Another bonus?  Remember that $10 parking fee?  One of the terrible things about credit cards is how easy they make it to spend money, but in this case it works to the park’s advantage.  Not having to dole out hard cash, maybe I’m more likely to pay that $10 fee if I can just “put it on my card”.  Another added bonus?  Need to charge slightly more, such as $12, to pay for the fancy credit-card reader?  Credit card readers mean I don’t have to have “exact change only” in the middle of nowhere.

Finally, and I don’t know if this is even possible, it would be nice to have some standard amounts.  Look, I get it: every agency that runs public lands has its own needs, budget requirements, etc.  Trying to coordinate between the multitude of agencies would be crazy.  I’m not talking about collusion here.  What I’m thinking of is more like the airlines, who don’t tell each other anything about their price structure.  But what they do do is watch each other; hence the occasional fare war.  Same basic idea.

Now, truthfully, I know this post won’t change a darn thing out in the world.  If you get right down to it, what I really dream of is the perfect inter-agency pass: a single pass, for maybe $100 a year, that gets you into any public park, anywhere.  It’ll never happen, of course.

But it’s fun to dream.




  1. by rainier nat’l, does that mean Mt Rainier? (I’m a homesick WA native, so any bits of info about ‘home’ are cherished) re: wiring, if parking meters can accept cc and be solar powered in cities, why not at a trail head? Better yet, combine hi/lo tech – an app for payment by phone, pen and paper to write the code to put on car dash 🙂 Happy new year!

    • Yes, that’s the park indeed. I need to post about my travel through there last year… at least I know one reader who will be interested!

      In terms of wiring, it’s not the electricity that I was thinking of (which could be solar-driven), but the connection for the transaction. Many, if not most, trailheads are in locations far away from telephone networks or cell towers, so the only way to carry out the transaction would be via satellite phone, an expensive prospect. An app for payment would be great, but again you’re limited to the cell connection. I have been in a campground that accepted fees by writing a cc number on a slip of paper, but that was at least collected daily. Not sure that I would want to leave my credit card info in a metal tube at a remote trailhead…

  2. You could go full-Yglesias and propose that parking rates vary with demand—but that would violate your “fees-stated-clearly” standard. Perhaps some sort of combo-deal would work: some lots have set fees, and others vary. . . ?

    In any case, I agree about the meters—there’s gotta be some way to make that work.

    • Some places do change parking fees depending on the season, levying a heavier fee in the summer months. This is particularly common at campgrounds.

      Maybe I should start looking at seed money to start a company? lol

  3. I’ve lost count how many times I put more money in the ranger than was required but I always did it willingly since i want to support the trails. I am also for anything that makes it easier to pay.

    • I’ve probably done it once or twice myself. 🙂

  4. I feel there is someone you need to write a letter to about all this!

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