National park reservation requirements are changing frequently: Here’s what you need to know

Jun 3, 2021

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There’s no question that national park vacations are, once again, one of the hottest summer travel trends. Around the country, parklands are 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 this summer, be sure to check and make sure you can get reservations in advance for your preferred park on the days you want.

That’s right: Many national parks are still requiring travelers to make reservations to visit. But the requirements are changing quickly, too. At the end of May, one popular national park did away with its reservation system for park shuttles.

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Yosemite National Park

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)

Yosemite National Park began requiring advanced reservations for day-use access to the park on May 21, 2021, through Sept. 30, 2021, covering the peak summer visitation months, in order to “allow the park to manage visitation levels to reduce risks associated with exposure to COVID-19.”

All day-use visitors, including those with annual and lifetime passes, are required to make advanced reservations (valid for three days) for Yosemite National Park during this period.

If you have an overnight reservation at the park in one of its campgrounds or official lodgings, day-use reservations are included, so there’s no need to make a reservation.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Last June, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park introduced a temporary timed entry system. The park brought back a similar timed entry system even earlier this year, with timed entry permit reservations required for people visiting between May 28 and Oct. 11, 2021.

If you plan to visit Rocky Mountain National Park between now and June 30, 2021, you’ll be able to enter the reservations system on recreation.gov to book your pass.

But things get a bit complicated from there, so pay attention. On the first day of each of the following months after May through Sept. 1, 2021, additional reservation dates for park visits in July and beyond will open to bookings on recreation.gov. But it’s best to read more on that here to understand when your particular desired dates will be available to be searched online.

Last year, the system at Rocky Mountain National Park was designed to keep visitation at roughly 60% of the park’s capacity. The plan for this year is to welcome 75 to 85% of park capacity.

Further complicating things from a reservations perspective, there will be two types of park passes available at Rocky Mountain National Park during the temporary timed entry pilot program — one permit for the Bear Lake Road corridor and another for the rest of Rocky Mountain National Park (and excluding the Bear Lake Road corridor).

As we said, it’s complicated. And clearly, booking a last-minute trip to Rocky Mountain National Park could be tricky this summer, so do your research, stay flexible and get ready to pounce when your preferred date is ready to be booked and shows up as available.

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

Glacier National Park

If you’re planning to visit Glacier National Park along the spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road this summer, be aware that temporary ticketed entry became a requirement for visitors traveling that route on Memorial Day weekend in an effort to mitigate anticipated crowds at one of the most visited national parks in the country.

Going-to-the-Sun Road entry tickets will be available for sale on recreation.gov, with tickets valid for entry through either the West Entrance or St. Mary Entrance of the park for a seven-day period. The entry tickets cost $2, which is in addition to park entrance fees.

If you have campground, lodging and backcountry reservations in the park, you don’t need to purchase the Going-to-the-Sun Road entry ticket (just be prepared to show proof of your reservation).

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

Acadia National Park

In Maine, visitors are being encouraged to buy park entrance passes to Acadia National Park online in advance this summer, as was the case last summer. 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.

Bottom line

Travelers planning national park trips this summer should be mindful that this information is subject to change with little notice. Zion National Park, for example, abruptly discontinued the use of ticketed reservations for the park’s shuttle service on May 28, 2021. And parks without timed reservation systems or required ticketed entries could implement them with little warning.

But national parks are hardly the only destinations requiring advanced reservations this summer. In fact, you might need a reservation just to hike a particularly popular trail at a state park this summer as well. So if you’re planning on hitting the road this summer, be prepared to plan ahead (far ahead) and be as flexible as possible.

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

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