With more than 100 state parks, the Washington State Parks system offers a bit of everything – fun places to play on the beach, dramatic shorelines, open meadows, waterfalls…pretty much anything natural you can think of. However, unlike your average city or county part, state parks come with a cost. You need a Discover Pass to visit, which comes at the cost of either a $10 day pass or a $30 annual pass. You can often buy these right at the parks from automated stations, but what if you’re not sure if the parks are worth it (they are)? Or what if you don’t have room in your budget for a pass?
Never fear! There are a few ways to visit Washington State Parks for free.
Check Out Washington
My favorite option involves our local library because I love libraries and how they have adapted to modern times by becoming resources for just about everything, not just books. In this case, several Washington library systems have partnered with the state parks to offer the Check Out Washington Pass. Libraries currently participating in the program include the Pierce County Library System, Spokane Public Libraries, the Spokane County Library District, and the Mount Vernon City Library. But don’t take my word for it as the program might expand if it does well. Check the website for an up-to-date list.
What’s especially cool about Check Out Washington is that it’s not just the Discover Pass. It’s an entire backpack that you check out. Within said backpack is a folder that contains a Discover Pass, field guides for some of the state parks (mine came with some materials for local state parks, like Dash Point State Park, which we visited and it was awesome), and bird and plant identification booklets. Mine also came with a map showing state parks near my local library, which is handy if you’re new to the system. And, special bonus, you get a set of binoculars, which are a surefire hit with kids as well as significant others who enjoy aiming them right at your face and making you super self-conscious about any flaws they might be seeing at 100X (or whatever the magnification might be…I don’t think they were actually 100X, but my imagination was pretty sure they were).
The same day we got ours, we set out to explore Dash Point State Park, which is very close to us. I’d only been once before, and it was before I had a kid. State parks expand in appeal about a million times when you have a small child. Yes, they’re great if you’re out for a hike or birdwatching session or going fishing without kids, but with kids, you realize how many amazing little wonders are in natural places. We spent a good 30 minutes just throwing rocks and sticks into a stream off a small bridge. Good times. We’ll be back to explore Dash Point some more as well as other state parks in Western Washington for sure and we’ll probably use the Check Out Washington pass again too because having a kid isn’t cheap!
Throughout the year, all Washington State Parks offer free days. On these days, you can use any of the state parks for free for the day (so that doesn’t include camping or rental facilities). You can find a list of free days on the Discover Pass website. If the weather is really nice, be warned you might not be the only person with the idea to go to a park, but rest assured there’s plenty of room to spread out even at the more popular parks.
Use Public Transportation
Perhaps a little-known secret is that the Discover Pass more or less is a parking pass. No car, no fees.
So this means if you can find a place nearish to a state park to park, you could hike in. Some parks are also close enough to public transportation to get there that way. You don’t even have to stare at public bus maps to try and figure out which parks these are – Adventure Awaits, Washington State Parks’ blog, has completed a series (here are links to part 1 and part 2 of the series) about parks you can reach via public transportation.