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Huge demand for seniors' lifetime national park passes ahead of 700 percent fee hike

An America the Beautiful Lifetime Senior Pass is shown at Bull Dog Canyon in the Tonto National Forest in Fort McDowell, Ariz., Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017. Seniors are snapping up so many lifetime passes good for national parks and other federal recreation sites ahead of a big price increase later this month that government agencies have started a rain check policy. The America the Beautiful Lifetime Senior Pass available to buyers 62 and older costs $10 but is going up 700 percent to $80 on Aug. 28. (AP Photo/Matt York)

KATE SILVER, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST

It's become a common sight at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia: People drive up to the entrance station, buy a pass and then turn around and leave, not bothering to even enter the park.

"I've been with the Park Service since 1998 and this is the first time that I've seen it like this," says Rick Moore, the park's revenue and fee business manager.

The quick turnaround is for good reason: Travelers are purchasing the America the Beautiful senior pass for people 62 and older for $10 before the price goes up 700 percent. As of Aug. 28, the lifetime pass will cost $80, because of legislation passed by Congress in December 2016. This will be the first price increase since 1994.

Across the country, park personnel are working hard to keep up with demand. The National Park Service says that it has received more than 250,000 requests for passes this year. That's more than seven times its previous record of 33,000 requests. Because of the spike, some federal recreation sites have run out of passes and have started giving rain checks to visitors. As online and mail applications are backlogged for what could be months, the Park Service says that sites will accept an order confirmation with photo ID for entry.

While the price increase is significant, the senior pass still offers extensive savings for those who frequent the sites, considering that many parks charge $20 to $30 per vehicle. (Although there are also hundreds of sites that have no entrance fee.) The $80 cost is the same as the America the Beautiful annual pass, which expires after one year.

The senior pass gives the holder plus vehicle passengers (up to three adults) unlimited entry to more than 2,000 sites managed by the Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Park Service also offers an annual senior pass for $20. If purchased four years in a row, it can be traded for a lifetime pass.

At Shenandoah National Park, Moore says that from March 31 through Aug. 10, the park sold 18,178 of the passes. "It's significantly higher than normal," he says. "I would estimate that we're probably close to double what we usually do." In recent months, he's put in orders for 17,000 additional passes, and has even shared those passes with other parks that have run out. His supply is dwindling as the park waits for 3,000 passes to arrive. But Moore isn't worried.

"Our plan is not to tell people, 'Sorry, you're out of luck,' " he says. "We're going to do our best to accommodate folks until close of business on the 27th."

If you haven't purchased your $10 lifetime pass yet and you're a U.S. citizen or permanent resident 62 or older, here's what you can do.

- Apply by mail. Fill out an application and send it in, along with a $20 fee ($10 for the pass, $10 for processing). It must be postmarked Aug. 27 or earlier.

- Apply online. Visit yourpassnow.com/ParkPass/park/senior/SeniorPassInfoCollect to apply online before Aug. 28. Cost is $20 ($10 for the pass, $10 fee for processing). Because the system is backlogged, you may not receive the pass for months, but you will be able to use your confirmation at the different sites.

- Purchase it in person. Visit one of the federal recreation areas where passes are issued to purchase the $10 pass before Aug. 28. Be sure and call ahead to see if passes or rain checks are available.

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Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.