Attendance at national parks in the U.S. has been growing for years, but it has simply skyrocketed over the past two as people looked for outdoor activities and places to visit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For instance, Acadia, Arches, Glacier, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, and Yellowstone National Parks all set visitor records for attendance last year.
The problem is increasing attendance consequently means growing crowds, more traffic congestion, and an overall lack of parking. And that’s for the visitors who can get into national parks. In recent years, staff at some parks has even had to close park entrances early because the park was at capacity for the day, which means they were forced to turn away hopeful visitors.
Several national parks used a reservation system last year as a means to limit crowd size and minimize traffic jams. This year, some of those parks will be using their reservation systems again, while others will be piloting similar systems.
Here’s a rundown of national parks that have announced they will require visitors to reserve a time to hike a popular trail, drive a scenic road, or even just enter the park in 2022.
1. Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia National Park, which the National Park Service (NPS) calls the “Crown Jewel of the North Atlantic Coast,” is a 47,000-acre recreation area on Maine’s Atlantic Coast. Visitors to the park can see and enjoy 27 miles of historic motor roads, 158 miles of hiking trails, and 45 miles of carriage roads.
Acadia saw a surge of visitors in 2021. For instance, the NPS reported that nearly 800,000 people visited Acadia in August alone. What’s more, preliminary attendance numbers show that 4.1 million people visited Acadia in 2021, which set a new attendance record.
One of the park’s most-popular attractions is the Cadillac Summit Road, a 3-mile drive to the top of the highest peak in the park: Cadillac Mountain. To mitigate traffic concerns, the NPS has announced that visitors will need a reservation for the drive this year, from May 25 through October 22.
Visitors will be able to choose one of two types of tickets: sunrise or daytime. Sunrise reservations will have a 2-hour entry window while daytime reservations have a 30-minute entry window. Both types of reservations will cost $6, in addition to the park’s entry fee.
Interestingly, only 30 percent of the vehicle reservations will be made available 90 days ahead of each date. The remaining 70 percent of the reservations will be released at 10 a.m. Eastern 2 days in advance.
It should be noted that vehicle reservations are not required to gain access to other areas of the park.
You can learn more about vehicle reservations for Cadillac Summit Road here.
2. Arches National Park, Utah
Attendance at Arches, which is just 5 miles outside Moab, Utah, has grown steadily each year for a decade. Indeed, from 2009–2019, visitation at Arches grew more than 66 percent, from 996,312–1,659,702, the NPS reports.
Through the end of December 2021, 1.8 million visitors had traveled to Arches, setting a new attendance record, the NPS notes. The previous record number of visitors in 1 year was 1.6 million which occurred in 2019.
Now, in a plan intended to ease traffic and crowding, park officials have announced Arches will use timed-entry tickets this year. It should be noted that the system is a pilot, and it will only be used temporarily.
Here’s how it will work. Beginning April 3 and running through October 3, all day-use visitors entering the park between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. will need to have purchased a timed-entry ticket in advance.
The tickets, which cost $2 in addition to the park’s entry fee, will be available the first day of the month for visits 3 months later (so, for example, May reservations will be available on February 1). A limited number of tickets will become available 1 day in advance at 6 p.m.
You can learn more about the timed entry pilot at Arches here.
3. Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park, called the “Crown of the Continent” by the NPS, is known for its rugged mountains, spectacular lakes, and more than 700 miles of trails. One of the park’s most popular attractions is the Going-to-the-Sun Road, an almost 50-mile scenic road that makes its way through the park and crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass.
As of December 1, 2021, 3 million visitors had traveled to Glacier. Consequently, 2021 was the second-highest year for attendance at Glacier.
Last year, to alleviate traffic congestion, Glacier used a reservation system for access to its Going-to-the-Sun Road. The park has now announced it will use the system again this year.
From May 27 to September 11, one ticket will be required per vehicle to access Going-to-the-Sun Road from the West Entrance, St. Mary’s Entrance (starting late June, when the road reopens), and the new Camas Entrance. The park has also added a second ticketed entry option for its Polebridge Ranger Station to visit the North Fork area.
The tickets, which will cost $2 in addition to the park’s entry fee, will become available up to 60 days in advance on a rolling basis.
You can learn more about the details to access the Going-to-the-Sun Road here.
4. Haleakalā National Park, Hawaii
The view is so breathtaking — and popular — that the NPS had to implement a reservation system to limit crowd size and traffic congestion years ago. Once again, you’ll need a reservation if you want to enter the park from 3–7 a.m. to catch the sunrise from Haleakalā.
Reservations, which cost $1 per vehicle in addition to the park’s entry fee, become available 60 days in advance and are only good for 1 day. A limited number of reservations are held for last-minute visitors and become available 2 days in advance.
You can learn more about how to make a reservation to watch the sunrise at Haleakalā National Park here.
5. Muir Woods National Monument, California
Named for legendary conservationist John Muir, Muir Woods National Monument preserves one of the last remaining ancient redwood forests in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some of the redwoods are nearly 1,000 years old and more than 250 feet tall.
Muir Woods, which is managed by the NPS and is only 12 miles north of San Francisco, was the first NPS unit to implement a permanent reservation system in 2018, to “reduce stress on the redwood forest ecosystem and improve visitors’ arrival and parking experience,” the NPS explains.
The park uses its own reservation system at gomuirwoods.com. You can use that system to make a reservation to visit Muir Woods as well as make a parking reservation.
You can learn more about planning a trip to Muir Woods here.
6. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
About a 2-hour drive from Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park is home to 76 mountains, each over 10,000 feet high. The park is also known for its 355 miles of hiking trails, where you can see bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, and other wildlife.
Rocky Mountain is also one of the most-visited national parks in the U.S. In 2019, the park had 4.7 million visitors, making it the third most-visited national park.
Last year, to address visitor crowding and traffic, Rocky Mountain used a timed-entry reservation system. Based on its success, the park will use the system again this year.
From May 27 through October 10, visitors will need a Park Pass or pay the entrance fee for their vehicle as well as purchase a timed-entry permit or a reservation with a service, such as an in-park camping reservation, horseback riding reservation, or seat on a commercial tour.
There will be two reservation options. The first is park access as well as access to the popular Bear Lake Road from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. The other option is park access without Bear Lake Road access from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The timed-entry tickets will become available on May 2 at 10 a.m. for visits May 28 through June 30. After that, tickets will be offered on the first of the month for visits the following month.
Initially, 25–30 percent of the permits will be reserved and then made available for visits the next day at 5 p.m. through Recreation.gov. Those ticket reservations are expected to sell out quickly, so park officials encourage visitors to plan ahead as much as possible.
You can learn more about timed-entry reservations at Rocky Mountain here.
7. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Shenandoah National Park, which extends along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, includes more than 200,000 acres of protected lands. Whether you’re driving along the park’s Skyline Drive or hiking its network of trails, including a section of the long-distance Appalachian Trail, you’ll see cascading waterfalls, scenic vistas, and wooded hollows — not to mention songbirds, deer, and black bears.
The park, located just 75 miles outside Washington, D.C., had 1.6 million visitors in 2020, many of whom wanted to hike up Old Rag Mountain.
This year, “to improve the visitor experience and protect fragile resources at Old Rag,” the park will test using day-hiking tickets for Old Rag Mountain. The reservations, which cost $1 in addition to the park entrance fee, will be required for hikers who want to use trails in the Old Rag area from March 1 through November 30.
The tickets will be available starting February 1 at 10 a.m., and they can be purchased 30 days in advance for 1-day only access.
Only 800 tickets will be available for each day. Of that number, 400 will be released 30 days in advance and the remaining 400 will be released 5 days in advance.
You can learn more about Old Rag day-use tickets here.
8. Zion National Park, Utah
The number of people visiting Zion National Park rose steeply in recent years. Although the park received 2.8 million visitors in 2011, that number shot up to 4.5 million in 2019, according to the NPS.
The hike to Angels Landing, which is a 5.4-mile-long trail with an elevation change of 1,488 feet, is one of the park’s most-popular trails despite its difficulty. In fact, more than 300,000 people hiked it in 2019, according to park officials.
In recent years, overcrowding on the trail has created a safety hazard because the trail is very narrow and runs along the edge of a sheer cliff.
To reduce overcrowding, and consequently make the trail safer, the NPS will require hikers to obtain permits for the Angels Landing hike, beginning April 1. The park will use a lottery system to distribute permits.
There are two types of online lotteries, and both cost $6 to enter. Groups who do win the lottery will also be charged $3 per hiker.
The first is a seasonal lottery. In this lottery, prospective hikers will be able to pick seven ranked days and times or windows of days and times they want to hike. The seasonal lottery opens April 1 for hikes June 1 through August 31.
The second type of lottery is the day-before lottery. Hikers hoping to win that lottery can apply for a permit beginning at 12:01 a.m. the day before they hope to hike Angels Landing. The day-before lottery will open each day at 12:01 a.m. and close at 3 p.m. Mountain Time, beginning March 31.
You can learn more about applying for a permit to hike Angels Landing here.
9. Yosemite National Park, California
People travel from around the world each year to visit Yosemite for good reasons.
After all, Yosemite, located in California’s rugged Sierra Nevada mountains, has numerous deep valleys, giant meadows, vast sections of wilderness, and an abundance of wildlife for visitors to see. While people also travel to see Yosemite’s ancient sequoia trees and towering waterfalls, the main attractions, undoubtedly, are the majestic granite cliffs El Capitan and Half Dome, which are visible from scenic Yosemite Valley far below.
Now, about those crowds. Almost 4.5 million visitors traveled to Yosemite in 2019. While visitation fell in 2020 as a result of COVID-19-related park closures and travel restrictions, it surged again in 2021. In fact, Yosemite logged almost 3.3 million visitors last year, making it the eighth most-visited U.S. national park in 2021, according to the National Park Service.
In a plan intended to “spread visitation out and reduce chronic congestion in the park,” the National Park Service has announced that Yosemite will once again use a reservation system during peak months and hours.
Beginning May 20 and running through September 30, visitors will need a reservation to enter the park between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. — every day of the week. It must be noted that visitors entering the park after 4 p.m. will not need a reservation because crowds begin to ease in the late afternoon.
Here’s how you can make a reservation. The $2 non-refundable reservations will begin being offered March 23 on the recreation.gov website at 8 a.m. Pacific. Each reservation, which will be valid for three days, is valid for one vehicle and its occupants.
You can learn more about making reservations to visit Yosemite this summer here.
While you’re thinking about national parks, be sure to visit our U.S. National Parks category, including these articles: