Traffic jams in Yosemite, max capacity in Arches—our national parks are more crowded than ever before. Actually, scratch that. Some of our national parks are crowded. The truth is that total visitation to our park system dropped by five percent, down from 1.43 billion visitor hours in 2019, to 1.36 billion in 2021. (We’re still waiting for the numbers from 2022.)
But more than a quarter of all visitors went to the same eight national park units: Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Gateway National Recreation Area, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Natchez Trace Parkway, Lincoln Memorial. And half of all visitors went to the same 25 units within the national park system, which means that the top-tier parks are seeing more than their share of boots on the ground.
Over the last few years, in pursuit of crowd mitigation, many of the country’s most popular national parks have implemented pilot reservation systems. The experiments ranged from making advance reservations to enter a park, to setting up targeted systems for managing crowds at specific attractions within a park. Glacier National Park, for instance, doesn’t require reservations to visit, but it does require advance reservations to drive the popular Going-to-the-Sun Road. This reservation system has now been in practice for two years, and the vast majority of public comments are positive.
“We’ll never totally alleviate parking issues, but it helps us disperse the crowds more,” says Gina Kerzman, public affairs officer for Glacier. “People aren’t hitting the same places at the same time. We still have popular areas like Logan’s Pass, but we’re able to spread out the visitation throughout the day so there’s not a large influx of people.”
As we move into 2023, one thing is clear: these reservation systems are here to stay, at least in the short term. The vast majority of national parks that introduced reservations and timed entries over the last few years are bringing the programs back, albeit with some minor tweaks. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has also joined in with their own approach to a reservations system. So, if you want to visit one of our more popular national parks this year, plan ahead. Here’s everything you need to know about making a reservation to visit some of our most popular national parks in 2023.
Yosemite National Park
The congestion inside Yosemite in northern California is legendary, from long lines at overlooks to standstill traffic on the roads. Blame its epic terrain, an immense natural bowl that funnels the majority of the 22,000 daily visitors to the same parts of Yosemite Valley, such as Bridal Veil Falls and the Tunnel View, where you can see El Cap and Half Dome rising dramatically from the valley floor. Highway 41, leading into the heart of the Valley, can feel like a parking lot with standstill traffic in the middle of a summer day.
During the summer of 2020, amid the pandemic, the park service introduced a system requiring a reservation to enter Yosemite. That system carried through the summer of 2022 because infrastructure repairs had closed several key attractions, including the popular Glacier Point Road, which limited the capacity the rest of the park could reasonably handle.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK 2023 RESERVATION INFORMATION
- Park management announced suspension of the entrance reservation system, so the floodgates are wide open.
- The only exception is the last three weekends of February, when Horsetail Fall creates the illusion that it’s on fire, and visitors come in droves to capture the Instagram gold. For those weekends, you’ll need a reservation, and those go on sale for $2 at recreation.gov on January 13.
- While requiring reservations and limiting capacity helped with overcrowding, the park service is taking the next few months to analyze data from the program and figure out a more permanent solution to crowd control. In a press release, park management said it will review the data gathered during the last three years and hold an eight-week public comment period that runs through February 3, 2023, to discuss future management plans for the park. We’ll update this article as decisions are made.
- You will need a permit to hike Half Dome when safety cables bordering the hiking route are in place, which is typically from Memorial Day weekend to mid-October. The number of hikers is capped at 300 a day, and all permits are distributed by a lottery system. There’s one preseason lottery period in March, and daily lottery tickets are allotted during the summer. The majority of the tickets, 225 per day, are allocated during the preseason lottery in March. The other 75 tickets are released in a daily lottery two days before the hiking date. The system asks that you apply for the number of permits you want and a date range you’re looking to hike. Cost is a $10 application fee to enter the lottery, and if you win a permit, $10 per hiker.
See also a former Yosemite guide’s Favorite Hikes.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park in northeastern Colorado has been trying to mitigate crowds since the 1970s, when the park service implemented a shuttle system to the popular Bear Lake Road corridor, which leads to a series of picturesque high alpine lakes. You’d think that the park, at 415 square miles, would have room for everybody, but road access inside the park is limited. In fact, in 2009, 95 percent of it was designated as federal Wilderness with limited vehicular access.
There has also been a 44 percent increase in visitation since 2012: in 2021, roughly 4.4 million people visited the park. Between 2016 and 2019, the park tried to manage visitation to the Bear Lake Road corridor by limiting access to first-come, first-served users, which meant show up early or don’t bother. Then between 2020 and 2022, RMNP piloted a park-wide reservation system requiring timed-entry permits. That system will return in 2023, although with minor modifications.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK 2023 RESERVATION INFORMATION
- Starting May 26 and lasting until October 22, 2023, RMNP will operate under a two-permit system with two reservation options based on where you want to visit. If you’re set on hitting Bear Lake Road, you need a specific reservation, which grants access to that corridor between 5 A.M. and 6 P.M. daily. If you want to visit Bear Lake Road without a permit, you have to enter before 5 A.M. or after 6 P.M. If you don’t want to go to Bear Lake Road, and want to visit less-trafficked areas, you’re less constricted. You still need a reservation, but only between 9 A.M. and 2 P.M., and you’ll have a two-hour window to enter surrounding your reservation time. You can also enter the park before 9 A.M. or after 2 P.M. without a permit and access any part of the park other than Bear Lake Road.
- Permits for the entire month are released on the first day of the previous month. So if, for example, you want to go to RMNP on July 5, you need to get your permit on June 1 at 10 A.M. Mountain Time. If you can’t plan ahead, there is another option: 40 percent of all reservations are released and available for purchase at 5 P.M on gov the day before you want to enter. Only one reservation is needed per vehicle.
- If you’re entering the park with a guide, or have a camping site booked, you don’t need a reservation.
Glacier National Park
Montana’s Glacier is a busy park. Popular parking areas like Logan Pass, which serves the area’s signature Highline Trail and Hidden Lake Trail, typically begin filling up before sunrise. Hundreds of people hike Grinnell Glacier and Highline Trail every day; thousands hike Hidden Lake Trail. The park has gotten so crowded that management actively tries to lower visitors’ expectations in regards to access to parking spaces and solitude on popular trails, and is not-so-subtly suggesting people visit areas that aren’t in Glacier National Park.
In 2021, to address overcrowding, Glacier introduced a ticketing system for Going-to-the-Sun Road and expanded the system to include the North Fork area of the park for summer 2022.
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK 2023 RESERVATION INFORMATION
- Reservations will now also be required to visit Going-to-the-Sun Road from the West Glacier entrance, St. Mary’s entrance, and the Camas entrance between May 26 and September 10 between 6 A.M. and 3 P.M. Reservations are also required to enter the North Fork area through the Polebridge Ranger station for the same time period. You will also need reservations to visit the Many Glacier area of the park and the Two Medicine area from July 1 through September 10 between 6 A.M. and 3 P.M.
- A portion of the reservations will be made available 120 days in advance, with the first block, for May 26 through June 30, released at 8 A.M. mountain time on February 1; the July block released on March 1; August on April 1; and September on May 1. A limited number of reservations are made available daily at 8 A.M., 24 hours in advance, but will go quickly. Tickets are $2.
Haleakala National Park
Haleakala National Park, which protects the towering 10,023-foot volcano of the same name, has had timed entry for years because it’s one of the most spectacular places to see a sunrise in the entire state of Hawaii. People have actually been clamoring to see the sunrise from the top of Halaekala since the 1800s, when Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, said the view was “the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed.”
HALEAKALA NATIONAL PARK 2023 RESERVATION INFORMATION
- In 2023, as in previous years, every car entering the park between 3 A.M. and 7 A.M. needs a reservation. Those are released on a rolling basis 60 days in advance. Reservations are $1 per vehicle.
- Additional reservations are released two days ahead, but they’re scarce. In fact, I tried that method for sunrise reservations during a family trip to Maui recently and struck out. We settled for a sunset experience instead, which doesn’t require reservations, and it was pretty dope. But was it the “sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed?” Probably not.
Zion National Park
While Zion in southwest Utah is continually one of the most visited national parks in the system, you don’t need a reservation to visit the majority of it. None is necessary to ride the park shuttle or enter the park in your own vehicle. But you do need a permit to hike Angel’s Landing, the 5.4-mile trail that finishes with a ridgeline crescendo of a view.
The park established the hiking-permit requirement in April 2022 in response to trail congestion, and will continue the permit system in 2023.
ZION NATIONAL PARK 2023 RESERVATION INFORMATION
- There are two ways to get a permit: the seasonal lottery and the day-before lottery, both at gov. You pick the date, time, and group size. If you need to hike on a specific day, select that day, but if you could hike on a range of dates, choose that option to increase your chance of scoring one of these lottery tickets. It costs $6 to apply for a permit, and each permit covers up to six people. After you’re granted a permit, you’re charged $3 per hiker. Lottery tickets are released two months in advance.
- There’s also a lottery with tickets releasing starting at 12:01 A.M. and closing at 3 P.M. Mountain Standard Time the day before you want to hike. Whether you’re planning ahead or trying to score a day-before ticket, you’ll get a confirmation email that serves as your permit.
- Make sure you have that email/permit on you as you hike. Rangers will ask to see your permits at a couple of spots along the trail (the Grotto and Scout Lookout), and you need documentation to be on the trail at any time, day or night. If you’re only hiking to Scout Lookout, no permit is needed.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited park in the system, with more than 14 million visitors each year. While the majority of national parks charge an entrance fee, GSMNP has always been free to enter, thanks to a deal struck between the state of Tennessee and the federal government in 1951. Nor are there mandatory reservations to visit the park.
But overcrowding is definitely an issue, especially at trailhead parking lots, so this year Great Smoky Mountains National Park is implementing a parking fee.
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK 2023 RESERVATION INFORMATION
- Starting March 1, tags are required to park anywhere within GSMNP boundaries for more than 15 minutes. A day tag is $5, seven-day tags are $15, and an annual tag is $40. No advance reservations are needed for parking, and the tags can be purchased at gov or on site at the visitor center and at parking kiosks.
- These fees aren’t just a way to mitigate crowds, but will generate much-needed revenue. While visitation has increased drastically at GSMNP in recent years, the budget has not. According to the park service, one hundred percent of the money generated from the parking fees will be put back into the park to help increase ranger presence and maintain public facilities.
Arches National Park
Few parks have experienced overcrowding like Arches in Southeast Utah has. Between 2011 and 2021, visitation to Arches grew 73 percent, resulting in roadway congestion, facility overuse, and overcrowding on trails. To visitor dismay, the park has occasionally had to close its gates by 8 A.M. during the summer to alleviate capacity issues. Last year a temporary advance reservation and timed-entry program was implemented. The plan was to collect data during the temporary pilot program to determine if timed entries are the long-term solution. At a Moab town council meeting in July, the Southeast Utah Group Area National Parks Superintendent said the program had largely been successful in reducing congestion in parking lots and trails, and that the majority of visitor comments were supportive of the system.
The pilot program ended on October 4, 2022, and the park entries went back to a first-come, first-served basis for the fall. At that point, however, Arches had to close regularly, announcing the closures in real time on Twitter, because of a lack of parking. The park reached full capacity each weekend and several weekdays in October after the timed-entry program stopped.
After analyzing the data from the pilot program, Arches National Park announced at the end of December 2022 that advance reservations will return in 2023 with a slight expansion.
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK 2023 RESERVATION INFORMATION
- Between April 1 and the newly extended date of October 31, 2023, you have to purchase a timed entry ticket to enter the park from 7 A.M. and 4 P.M. Tickets are $2, and released on the first of the month, three months in advance on Recreation.gov. A limited number of next-day tickets will be released daily at 6 P.M. on the same site. If you can’t score a reservation, you can enter the park before 7 A.M. and after 4 P.M. without a reservation.
Other Reservations Required Inside Arches
- You need a permit to canyoneer any route inside Arches National Park. Permits aren’t limited, and you can get them the day of your adventure at the visitor center or the day before on gov ($6 per permit), unless you’re hoping to explore Fiery Furnace.
- Permits for canyoneering in Fiery Furnace are limited and often sell out up to seven days in advance. You need both a canyoneering permit and a Fiery Furnace Self-Guided Exploration permit ($6 on Recreation.gov) for that canyon.
Shenandoah National Park
Virginia’s 200,000-acre Shenandoah National Park has never required reservations. But in 2022, management ran a pilot program that required a day-use ticket to hike Old Rag, a 3,284-foot-high peak with dramatic 360-degree views from its summit. The most popular destination within the park, Old Rag has long, arduous hikes, and some of the best rock-scrambling routes in the state. The program ran from March 2022 to November 30, 2022, and limited visitation to 800 people a day.
According to Clair Comer, public-relations officer with Shenandoah, park management is reviewing the data from last year and will make a decision on the future of the program soon this year. We’ll update this article as new information is available.
Acadia National Park
Acadia, which protects a particularly dramatic slice of the Maine coastline, sees more than four million visitors a year, putting it solidly in the top 10 most-visited national parks in the country. Acadia could probably handle that kind of visitation, except that the vast majority of those visitors want to drive up 1,527-foot Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak in the park, which offers a dramatic view of the Atlantic Ocean and the islands that punctuate the coast.
ACADIA NATIONAL PARK 2023 RESERVATION INFORMATION
- No reservations are required to visit Acadia National Park, but you do need a reservation to drive up Cadillac Summit Road to the top between May 24 and October 22. Reservations will open on February 23, 2023, and be available on a rolling basis, with 30 percent available 90 days ahead of each date. The remaining 70 percent of reservations will be released at 10 A.M. Eastern time two days before a given visitor day. Vehicle reservations are $6 and can be found at gov.
- When you make reservations, you will choose between sunrise and daytime entries. Sunrise reservations give you a 90-minute window to enter the area, and daytime reservations have a 30-minute window. Either way, you can stay until 10 P.M.
- It’s a three-mile drive to the top of the Cadillac Mountain, with several scenic pullouts along the narrow, two-lane road. There’s no bus service on the mountain, and you don’t need a reservation to enter the area by foot, bike or taxi.
Muir Woods National Monument
While Muir Woods is not a national park, it is so highly visited that we include its system updates to help visitors. The area is both the beneficiary and victim of its location—just 17 miles north of San Francisco—and its splendor: it has some of the country’s most impressive redwoods, with some trees estimated to be 1,000 years old and 250 feet tall. So the 558-acre Muir Woods National Monument can get a little crowded: like people-parking-on-the-side-of-the-road and making-their-own-trails type of crowded.
Park management has generally been proactive, and Muir Woods was one of the first National Park Service units to implement a reservation system, requiring parking reservations back in 2018. That system stands today, although prices rise each year.
MUIR WOODS NATIONAL MONUMENT 2023 RESERVATION INFORMATION
- Parking reservations are $9 per vehicle. You can get a shuttle reservation for $3.50 per person, round trip. The park entrance fee is $15. Please don’t even think about skirting the reservations by riding your bike—bikes aren’t allowed on park roads.
- Reservations can be made up to 90 days in advance on a rolling basis. A limited number of reservations are set aside and available three days in advance. Same-day reservations are occasionally released but are very limited, so don’t count on them.
(Note: the Park Service is waiving entry fees for five dates in 2023: January 16, Martin Luther King Day; April 22, first day of National Park Week; August 4, Great American Outdoors Day; September 23, National Public Lands Day; and November 11, Veteran’s Day.)
Graham Averill is a North Carolina-based writer who lives close to both the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the two most visited units in the National Park system. So he knows a thing or two about crowds in the outdoors.
The post How to Get Reservations at These Popular National Parks in 2023 appeared first on Outside Online.