Here’s how national park reservations have changed since the pandemic

Feb 2, 2021

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National parks have been a respite for United States travelers this year. As dozens of international borders remain closed and as cases continue to skyrocket, road trips and outdoor destinations have been the name of the game.

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How has the unprecedented interest in our nation’s treasures impacted national parks and visitor access?

In This Post

Yosemite National Park

Sunset lights up Horsetail Falls on the large granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California. This popular phenomena only occurs once per year, in mid-late February, when the angles are such that the setting sun hits the waterfall at just the right angle to light up the waterfall and associated spray. Photo by Getty Images.


There’s a hidden gem in Yosemite National Park that can only be seen in February: Firefall, a natural phenomenon where the angle of the winter sun perfectly strikes the upper spray of the 1,570-foot Horsetail waterfall, setting the water on “fire.”

The incredible sight is only visible for a few scant days — and only under highly specific conditions, at that. As a result, thousands of visitors flock to the park each year in hopes of catching a glimpse.

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But the COVID-19 pandemic is more of a threat than ever throughout the United States. In response, Yosemite has implemented a reservation system in order to limit the number of interested visitors passing through the area at any given time. Day-use permits for 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. access are available based on vehicle, not the number of people, and are only for visitors who are not camping in the park. 

The system just went live Monday, Feb. 1, at 8 a.m. PT, for visits beginning Feb. 8. Predictably, slots are already filling up fast.

Related: How to bask in nature’s glory from home

Eighty percent of day-use reservations are available in advance at recreation.gov, while the remaining 20 percent will be released two days in advance of the available date. For example, Feb 10 reservations will go live at 8 a.m. PT on Feb. 8.

Reservations require a $2 non-refundable fee, which is included in the $35 entrance fee required for each parked car. Annual or lifetime passholders are exempt from the car park fee, but need to pay the $2 fee.

Any cancellations are immediately available on recreation.gov, and each user can make one reservation per day.

Rocky Mountain National Park

(Photo by Brad McGinley Photography/Getty Images)

In contrast to Yosemite, Rocky Mountains National Park this winter temporarily suspended the timed-entry reservation system that had been implemented in June 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A news release in early October 2020 stated that the system had helped the park manage visits throughout the summer, and thanked visitors for complying with the regulations.

Wilderness campsite reservations for 2021 continue to follow the usual park system, and will be available online beginning March 1. This year, all reservations must be made online; campsite reservations cannot be made in person before March 15 to prevent the spread of COVID, nor will phone, mail, email and fax reservations will be accepted.

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park. (Photo by Zack Frank/Adobe Stock)

This west Texas destination has remained reservation-free, although the park remains only partially open as of early 2021. Visitors still need to pay park entrance fees, and groups are limited to a single household or up to eight visitors at once. Overnight campers still need advance reservations, according to the park website.

Yellowstone National Park

The home of Old Faithful implemented a reservation system this past winter for visitors hoping to stay at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, although most day trips remain reservation-free except for special activities. Similarly to Big Bend, Yellowstone is only partially open and all visitors are required to stay masked in indoor facilities where proper social distance cannot be maintained.

Featured photo of Big Bend National Park by Zack Frank/Adobe Stock.

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