You could be required to make a reservation before visiting a national park this summer

Jul 13, 2020

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There’s no question that national park vacations may be one of the hottest travel trends of the year. Around the country, parklands have welcomed back eager travelers seeking wide-open spaces and a change of scenery.

But with so many travel restrictions still in place, and people everywhere gravitating toward the same type of trip, it’s probably no surprise that many parks have faced severe crowding since reopening.

That’s why national parks, like so many other destinations and attractions, have turned to restrictive reservation systems to control the influx of visitors.

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Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, introduced a temporary timed entry system in early June. Every private vehicle needs to have a reservation for every day it will be in the park, and the person who makes the reservation must be present at the time of entry. The reservation windows are for two-hour time spots.

Park superintendent Darla Sidles said, “This system will more safely manage the pace and flow of visitor use, reduce crowding and provide an improved visitor experience in alignment with the park’s safe operational capacity.”

Reservations to enter the park are released on the first of the month for the following month. So, August dates were released on July 1. A limited number of reservations are held for travelers up to two days in advance.

Clearly, booking a last-minute trip to Rocky Mountain National Park could be tricky this summer. Looking for same- and next-day reservations, everything is unavailable. Two days out, the only reservation window with any availability is between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. So, you need to be prepared for those last-minute spots to be released on a rolling basis first thing in the morning two days before arrival.

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

Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t the only public land restricting access this summer. In California, Yosemite National Park is requiring day-use visitors to make reservations in advance.

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

One month in advance, 80% of day-use reservations become available. Just like Rocky Mountain National Park, additional slots (20%) are released two days in advance. Though you should make your reservation for your planned date of arrival, the permit is valid for seven days.

For both national parks, the reservation fee is $2 and is included in the park entrance fee for travelers arriving by vehicle. If you have an annual or lifetime pass, you only need to pay the reservation fee.

And in Maine, visitors are 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, the limited number of in-person services makes buying a pass in advance much more important.

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

Other national parks are now considering similar systems. Montana’s Glacier National Park has been plagued by bottlenecks at its single open entry point, due at least in part to the continued closure of the other entrances on tribal lands. According to the Washington Post, park service officials are considering for the first time a ticketing and reservation system to control the incoming traffic.

Travelers planning national park trips this summer should be mindful that this information is subject to change with little notice. Parks without timed reservation systems, such as Glacier, could implement them with little warning. And as coronavirus cases continue to spike around the country, the National Park Service may even reevaluate what is open to the public.

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

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