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More national parks are using reservations to control crowd size

Many parks, like Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, decided to stick with reservations to help control crowd size and protect nature from being trampled.
Visitors taking photos at the Grand Canyon National Park entrance.
Posted at 4:45 PM, May 13, 2024

Summer is around the corner, which means millions of people will be visiting national parks.

Reservations for national parks were introduced during the pandemic. But many parks, like Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, decided to stick with them to help control crowd size and protect nature from being trampled.

Now, many other parks are following that tactic this summer.

"I've been taking some time off of work," said Michael Hoffman, a hiker living in Colorado. "But it's just a fantastic way to see America, just because there's so much different topography, flora and fauna."

Hoffman made it a goal to see all 63 national parks in his lifetime. In the last nine months he's made it to 12 and is planning on several more this summer.

According to the National Park Service, there were more than 325 million visitsin 2023, an increase of 4% from the year before. Expecting an even greater turnout this year, the park service implemented new measures to manage overcrowding and safeguard the environment.

"Some of these reservation systems help spread out a little bit of the visitation throughout the day and throughout the week," said Cynthia Hernandez, a spokesperson for the National Park Service. "And they also help make sure that visitors know exactly when they're planning their visit, when they're gonna come and do that activity in the park."

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To better avoid congested trails, packed parking lots and overflowing trash cans, additional parks are joining Rocky Mountain, Arches and Glacier national parks this year in requiring day-use permits.

Some are using timed entries for visitors, particularly during peak hours, holidays and high seasons.

Yosemite National Park is reinstating a timed-entry system it instituted in 2020 but paused in 2022.

And some places require vehicle reservations for certain periods for viewing the sunrise, like at Haleakalā National Park in Maui, Hawaii.

But for planners like Hoffman, he's able to get around some of those reserved slots.

"So, when I go, I usually camp within the park, or at least try to," Hoffman said. "And the website for that has been very easy to navigate in terms of figuring out what I need for reservations, if I need entrance reservations as well at the park because I camp in the park."

In 2023, National Park Service reported more than 4 million camping reservations and 2 million timed-entry reservations were booked online, and 1.5 million permits for activities like hiking were issued.

As nearly 75% of visitors show up between May and October, and often on weekends, park officials stand by the system to help keep the experience and the parks healthy. Officials said that the demand in some parks is exceeding the capacity the infrastructure was designed for.

"And it helps reduce a little bit of the congestion, reduces a little bit of the wait time," Hernandez said. "So, it helps us know how to handle, you know, who's coming to the park and participating in this activity versus that activity."

The National Parks Service said make sure you do your research on the park you're planning to visit at nps.gov for any reservations or fees.