You might need a reservation just to take a hike this summer — here’s what to know

May 17, 2021

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It’s not getting any easier to plan a spontaneous getaway, even if you plan on spending the entirety of your trip outside — even at a national park.

Last year, popular parklands such as Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado began implementing timed entry systems — and this summer, travelers should still expect to plan in advance for trips to some of the nation’s busiest national parks.

Rocky Mountain National Park still requires visitors to reserve a day pass, either with or without access to Bear Lake Road corridor. At Yosemite, travelers must book a permit to visit between May 21 and Sept. 30. At Glacier National Park in Montana, you’ll need to buy a $2 ticket to enter Going-to-the-Sun Road (in addition to the park entry fee) and for travelers hoping to drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Maine’s Acadia National Park — especially for sunrise — you’ll now need a reservation.

Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy

But it’s not just the nation’s busiest parks that are looking for ways to limit capacity. Across the country, travelers may find that reservations are now required in advance, even if all you plan to do is take a hike.

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“I tried to make reservations … a few weeks before [when] I booked [my] trip,” said TPG writer Chris Dong. “Nothing was available … the whole calendar was blank.”

No, Dong wasn’t trying to score a seat at the hottest restaurant in New York City. He was trying to make park reservations to hike the famous Kalalau Trail at Hā’ena State Park on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. But, ultimately, he was forced to choose a different hike.

Right now, travelers who are looking to reserve entry and a coveted parking spot to Hā’ena State Park will find only four days available through the remainder of June. And these slots are likely to book up fast.

A quick glance at AllTrails, a popular app with trail guides and maps, tells a similar story.

For the Hanakapi’ai Falls trail, also along the Na Pali Coast, eager hikers are bartering and begging for permits in the reviews section.

“Looking for a parking pass and permit for my brand new fiancé and myself for tomorrow,” wrote one user, who also shared her phone number. “Willing to pay a premium for the experience.” Another was attempting to trade one date for another. For weeks, most of the reviews for the hike are requests for permits and parking passes.

It’s a trend that’s cropping up at state parks, national forests and other wilderness areas all over the country.

Related: Why you’ll need to prebook all your fun this summer

Here on the East Coast, I often look to the Adirondacks when I plan trips to hike or backpack. And now, I’ll need to make reservations to visit the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR), where a pilot program is being tested from May 1 to Oct. 31.

Basil Seggos, the commissioner of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), said in a statement that the reservation system was designed to “protect visitors and … natural resources, while also ensuring equitable access” in light of “the increasing number of visitors to trailheads accessed through AMR, exacerbated in 2020 by New Yorkers looking for a nature break as a respite from COVID-19.”

The reserve is home to popular trails to Round Mountain, Pyramid Peak and even some of the best-known high peaks, such as Gothics, Haystack and Mount Marcy. The reservation requirement applies to visitors who want access to any hikes that begin on AMR land, whether or not they plan on parking.

Even where reservations aren’t required, travelers still need to prepare for packed parking lots at trailheads. After all, the interest in outdoor-focused travel hasn’t waned. According to a recent TPG report, travelers who are planning a vacation this summer are, by and large, sticking with road trips, visits to national and state parks, and beach getaways.

Even where permits aren’t new or tied specifically to COVID-19 capacity concerns, travelers should brace for an unprecedented surge in demand.

So, if you’re thinking about spending any time in the great outdoors, be sure to plan ahead. Check to see if the park, reserve or trail requires a reservation (again, this has long been true for some particularly popular trails to destinations such as Hanging Lake in Colorado or Havasu Falls in Arizona).

For destinations where only road access or parking permits are restricted or limited, see if you can get dropped off at the trailhead or take a shuttle. This might be especially important if you’re planning a trip to a destination where rental cars are in high demand and may, as a result, be unavailable or prohibitively expensive.

And, with so many things during these unusual times, always have a backup plan. Even if you’re able to get reservations or parking for your preferred hike, be prepared to change your itinerary if the trail is unreasonably busy.

Feature photo of the Adirondack Mountains in New York by robertcicchetti/Getty Images

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