Reservation requirements and maxed-out capacity: Here’s what to know before your next national park trip

Oct 12, 2021

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There’s no question that national park vacations continue to be extremely popular. Around the country, parklands are still welcoming eager travelers seeking wide-open spaces and a change of scenery.

But before you book that hotel or vacation rental near a national park, be sure to check and make sure you can get reservations in advance for your preferred park or trail on the days you want — or that you have enough time in your itinerary to wait for entry.

Many national parks are still requiring travelers to make reservations to visit. But the requirements are changing quickly, too — and travelers may find that the rise in demand means limited flexibility for visiting the nation’s most beautiful outdoor spaces.

Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, for example, has always required visitors to buy tickets for guided tours of the caves. But during a recent trip, I was told by a park ranger I’d need to arrive at least 90 minutes before the first tour if I wanted to secure a spot.

Last month, the Star-Herald reported that Wind Cave had been “extremely busy” — as is true for many national and state parks since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. With fewer staff members and reduced capacity, tickets for tours have been selling out by midafternoon.

That means travelers dreaming of exploring the unique cave system need to plan ahead and be prepared to shift gears if tours sell out as tickets can’t be purchased ahead of time. Next year, however, the park hopes to offer tickets in advance.

And for other national parks, the need for early planning is already in effect.

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Half Dome. Yosemite Valley . Photo by J. Scott Clark/The Points Guy
You need to book in advance to check out Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. (Photo by J. Scott Clark/The Points Guy)


Most recently, a pilot program has been proposed for the extremely popular Old Rag trail at Shenandoah National Park. Starting next year, the number of hikes could be capped at 800 per day, and visitors would need to get a ticket in advance for a small fee ($1 or $2) in addition to paying the park entrance fee, according to My Journal Courier.

Related: TPG’s safe travel guide — How to minimize risk on your summer vacation

In Maine, visitors are still being encouraged to buy park entrance passes to Acadia National Park online in advance. Though travelers don’t need to register for timed entry slots at this time, you will need a reservation if you were hoping to drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain — especially to see the spectacular sunrise. Vehicle reservations cost $6 and are required through Oct. 19, with 70% of reservations available at 10 a.m. ET two days in advance.

Of course, as the busy summer travel season has ended, some parks have stopped using the seasonal reservation systems implemented earlier this year. But for travelers who are now looking ahead to national park vacations in 2022, pay close attention, as many of these could reservation requirements could come into play again.

This fall, Great Smoky Mountains National Park ran a brief pilot program for timed parking reservations at Laurel Falls, an incredibly popular trail that passes the eponymous waterfall as it climbs to the top of Cove Mountain. The $14 parking fee was an attempt to control crowds at the country’s most visited park.

Glacier National Park concluded its ticketed entry program for the spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road after Labor Day weekend. Yosemite National Park required advanced reservations for day-use access to the park through Sept. 30, 2021, to “allow the park to manage visitation levels to reduce risks associated with exposure to COVID-19.”

And last June, Rocky Mountain National Park introduced a temporary timed entry system. A similar program was brought back this year, with timed entry permit reservations required for people visiting through Oct. 11, 2021. It’s likely travelers with plans to visit the Colorado national park will see some version of a timed entry system in 2022 during the park’s peak season.

Similarly, even though Zion National Park discontinued the use of ticketed reservations for the park’s shuttle service before the end of May,  a lottery system could be implemented in the future for access to the iconic Angel’s Landing hike, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The ever-changing regulations at Zion are evidence that the nation’s parklands are struggling to safely and effectively manage demand for the country’s most visited natural spaces.

It’s an issue that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic but could continue long after social distancing efforts subside.

Travelers considering national park trips this year and next should therefore be extremely mindful that reservations can be required with little notice, and that advance planning (and backup planning) can go a long way toward making sure you have a seamless national park visit.

Of course, being as flexible as possible goes a long way. If like me, you find yourself at a national park without a proverbial golden ticket, you might need to make a last-minute change to your itinerary. Search for stunning (but less popular) hikes nearby, or a state park with similar natural features but less notoriety. Be prepared to venture off the beaten path — or, in many cases, the scenic road — and know that you might just have an even better experience than you imagined.

Featured photo of Rocky Mountain National Park by Matt Dirksen/Getty Images.

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