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How To Navigate The New National Park Reservation System

When I drove into Yosemite Valley for the first time, I started to cry. The granite rising up above me on all sides was overwhelming. It didn’t seem real. “I am so grateful to be here,” I thought. “So happy to be in this place.”

I’ve been back several times since then and my feelings haven’t changed. I am so grateful. In awe. But what has changed is the number of people who are standing in similar states of awe around me. There are a lot of us. Visitors have only been increasing in most National Parks over the past half-decade, spurred on by social media and, more recently, the desire to get out of town safely during the pandemic. It is now almost guaranteed that you’ll experience a traffic jam to enter many of the more popular parks during the summer. Expect to have trouble finding a parking spot or to have to wait in a Disney-style line to get that iconic Instagram shot.

Because of this overall surge in visitation (with a serious dip last year, due to the pandemic), along with continued Covid precautions, many iconic parks have instituted reservation systems for summer day-use. Even more parks have shifted their entire camping reservations online for the first time and many attractions that have always required ticketing or reservations are filling up faster than ever.

Ultimately the reservation system should cut down on some annoyances. But first, you have to figure out how to navigate the rules and timing to obtain the reservations — which can be tricky, to say the least. Below, we’ve put together all the information you need to make your National Park trip as smooth as possible.

PART I — Reservations for Day-Use

The parks below have instituted day-use reservation systems for the first time. Certain parks, like Dry Tortugas National Park, have continuing day-use permit policies in place.

Yosemite National Park​

Yosemite went to a reservation system at the beginning of the pandemic, eased it in the spring, and is now back to the system for the busy summer months. From May 21 – September 30 you will need an advance reservation to enter the park (unless you have a reservation for camping or lodging within the park — then it’s included).

The park is releasing around 80% of the tickets in advance and then the remaining 20% seven days before each entry time at 8 am PT. The day-use ticket is good for three consecutive days and will run you a whopping $2. The National Park Service recommends being logged in and ready immediately at 8 am, as tickets are sold out almost immediately when they are released (you can find the schedule for release here).

Canceled reservations become immediately available, so if you’re desperate there is always hope. Still, it’s a complex and competitive system, but totally worth it to experience the grandeur of Yosemite. It also will likely cut down on some of the crowding and traffic that a summer visit to Yosemite has become famous for.

Make your reservation here.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Via Emily Hart

Rocky Mountain National Park, like many on this list, started utilizing a timed entry advance-ticketing system at the beginning of the pandemic. Now they are bringing it back for visits from May 28 – October 11. Starting May 1, reservations are available online on the first day of each month for the following month, with guests picking a specific time frame for entry. The park is opening up reservations up to 75-85% capacity, so this is a great time to see the Rocky Mountain splendor, possibly without fighting the notorious summer crowds.

Additional reservation dates will open on the 1st of each month through September. The park says that 25% of tickets will be held back and available the day prior at 5 pm MST, but will sell out quickly. To further complicate things, there are actually two separate reservations to make at RMNP. One is just for the infamous Bear Lake Road and another is for the rest of the park, excluding the road.

It seems convoluted, but it will be more than worth it when you are smelling the pines and looking out over an alpine lake in the park.

Make your reservation here.

Acadia

As one of the top 10 visited National Parks in the United States, Acadia has only shifted to a vehicle reservation system for specific parts of the park. From May 26 to October 19 all vehicles will need a permit to travel to the summit of Cadillac Mountain road — one of the highlights of an Acadia trip.

Vehicle reservations are $6 (in addition to the park entrance fee) and can only be obtained online. 30% of reservations are available 90 days in advance, with the remaining 70% released two days ahead of time at 10 am ET (good for the people like me, who hate commitment).

Make your reservations here.

Glacier

Via Emily Hart

Glacier National Park in Montana is a true bucket-list park. There are so many things to experience in the park, but the most legendary is probably a drive on Going-to-the-Sun Road. The nearly 50-mile road is the only road that crosses the park (and connects with three of the seven entrances) and the Continental Divide. It’s a huge attraction in itself, which leads to heavy crowding on a road that is already narrow and somewhat precarious-seeming in spots.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road is probably the most beautiful stretch of road I have ever driven. But to that end, like other park roads on this list, it requires a timed entry ticket this season. Timed entry reservations for West and St. Mary Entrances, or via the Camas Road that connect to Going-to-the-Sun will begin to be released on April 29 for entry from May 28 to September 6. The tickets are $2 each (in addition to park entrance fees) with 75% released 60 days in advance online only. The remaining 25% are also only available online, two days in advance. Tickets are available promptly at 8 am MDT and valid for seven days.

Make your reservations here.

Zion

Emily Hart

Of Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks, Zion overwhelmingly sees the highest visitation numbers. It’s also one of the most logistically complex. The road through Zion is just eigh-ish miles from the visitor center to the last stop at Temple of Sinawava (home of the infamous Narrows hike). But to access the road you have to ride a shuttle. I remember standing in line for what felt like hours for a spot on the shuttle, so I’m personally pumped about the shuttle reservation system.

This is how it works: starting March 13th the only vehicles allowed on the Scenic Drive (other than guests at the Zion Lodge) are the shuttle buses. I was able to secure a reservation in late March, the day before my visit, at 5 pm MST on the online reservation system for $1. Otherwise, tickets are released on a rolling two-week basis.

Unlike the other parks, there are limited walk-up shuttle tickets available between 1-3 pm. These are, as they say, limited, however. I wouldn’t want to get all the way to the park and risk not being able to see some of the iconic spots on the Scenic Drive (this is how you access Angel’s Landing, The Narrows, and most of the other iconic spots in the park).

More info and make reservations here.

PART II — Camping Reservations

Via Emily Hart

I love being able to pull up to a park and find an epic campsite, but of course, that isn’t usually the way it goes. First come first serve camping has been the rule in many parks until recently, but along with day-use reservations, many parks have also shifted to full or nearly all online advance camping reservation systems.

Haleakala, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, and Big Bend are just a handful of parks that you’ll need to reserve spots for. They all fill up at different rates, but I’d recommend booking now if they aren’t already accounted for. Cancellations will often be re-released immediately, so if you can’t snag a spot now, keep checking! It’s worth it to wake up under the stars and in a National Park.

More info and make camping reservations here.

PART III — Attraction Reservations

Emily Hart

Since you already have several reservation tabs open on your browser, you might also want to make some attraction reservations. While parks like Isle Royale, Mesa Verde, Denali, Dry Tortugas, Kenai Fjords, Voyageurs, Channel Islands, and Haleakala have always had advanced ticketing for park attractions, you can bet that they are filling up much faster this summer.

Clearly, there’s some extra planning involved here, but I’m telling you: it’s worth the hassle now to be able to relax and enjoy yourself later. Welcome to the Summer of National Parks, 2021!

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