What National Parks’ Record Summer Means for Your Visit
Crowds, lines, and permits. Here’s how to visit a park this summer without melting down.
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Blame ongoing international travel restrictions, pent up demand as we exit the pandemic, booming interest in outdoor recreation, or a combination of all three. Our nation’s national parks are already setting visitation records, and it’s only the first week of summer. Here’s what that means for your visit—whether you’ve already planned one or not.
Just how busy are the parks? In May, Yellowstone National Park hosted 483,159 visitors. That’s an 11 percent increase over May 2019, previously the busiest year on record. (The park was closed May 1 through 18 last year.) As of May 31, Yellowstone had already seen 658,513 visitors in 2021, which marks 14 percent growth from that same period in 2019. That’s before summer—Yellowstone’s busiest season—had even started.
Other landmark parks like California’s Yosemite and Montana’s Glacier have implemented caps on the number of visitors they’re allowing through their gates each day. For the first time ever, you need to make a reservation ahead of time to visit them.
The increase in visitation numbers comes amid a backdrop of reduced staffing levels, ongoing maintenance backlog woes (and construction related to them), extreme weather, and even some bad behavior—fistfights over parking spots, for example—from visitors that’s reminiscent of the same problem airlines are experiencing right now.
“We expect that there will be significant increases in visitation at many parks as COVID mitigation measures are reduced, vaccination rates rise, and Americans increase their travel,” Stephanie Roulett, a public affairs specialist for the park service told me. “Many campgrounds and lodging in and around popular destination national parks are already fully booked or nearly fully booked through Labor Day.”
On top of that, rental car companies are experiencing fleet shortages after selling off most of their cars during the height of the pandemic. Buying new ones is taking longer than usual, amid a global shortage of the computer chips that control most of the functions in modern vehicles. This is particularly evident in the gateway communities near popular national parks, where reduced car supply is encountering increased demand. In Bozeman, Montana, where I live, standard sedans are renting for up to $1,000 a day right now, if one is even available.
Should you cancel your trip? Rather than looking at all of these problems and giving up, use them as a reason to plan your best national park visit ever.
Camp Outside of the Park
Two weeks ago, I took a seven-year-old kid and his mom on their first ever camping trip. His dad was one of my best friends, so I really wanted to make it special for them. There’s no more iconic camping destination than California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, and no prettier spot in those mountains than Yosemite National Park.
Arriving in Mariposa, the last town before you drive into Yosemite, we stopped at a gas station in our rental cars, only to be confronted by an attendant. “You have permits for the park, right?” she asked with a heavy sigh. It was clear she’d been doing this all day.
“No,” I responded. “We don’t need any.” She looked bewildered as we drove off towards the entrance.
You see, I’d called my friend and Outside contributor Chris Van Leuven a few weeks prior, and he helped me pick a world class camping spot on national forest land, just outside of Yosemite Valley. Before we hit the line of cars at the park’s entrance gate, we turned down a dirt road, drove for another half hour up into the hills, and camped on a mountain top with panoramic views of the park and California’s central valley. We were there for two nights and didn’t see anyone outside of a team of wildland firefighters on their daily trail run.
Splurge on a Hotel, Not a Car
To make sure that they don’t lose visitors to the rental car shortage, many high-end hotels near national parks are providing free airport shuttle services for their guests. Don’t discount just how much money this might save you.
For a ten-day trip to Glacier next month, the only rental car a friend could find was a $300-a-day Lexus on Turo (a private car rental app)—$3,000 is an awful lot of money. Putting some of that toward a lodging upgrade, rather than an SUV, is a surefire way to guarantee a better trip.
In addition to shuttle services, many destination resorts near national parks offer activities like horseback riding, cycling, fishing, hiking, and more, along with nicer dining facilities than you’re likely to find inside a park’s boundaries. You may not need that car at all.
Book Early…or Late
Parks using permitted entry systems this summer include Acadia, Glacier, Muir Woods, Rocky Mountain, and Yosemite. Those permits are going on sale in two blocks: 60 days out from the permit dates, and 48 hours in advance. Check the NPS website for more details.
Wake Up Before Dawn
In some of the parks implementing a reservation system this summer, the requirement for those reservations doesn’t start until 6 A.M. So if you get up early enough, you can get in without one. Glacier, for instance, reports that over Memorial Day weekend, a quarter of all visitors entered the park before 6 A.M. without a reservation.
Starting early is a good policy in national parks for other reasons, too. Want to see animals? They’re most active in early dawn hours. Want to go on a big summer hike? Being at the trailhead, ready to start walking at daybreak is the best way to avoid afternoon heat, storms, and crowds.
Get a Guide
Guided trips don’t just offer information and interpretation. Official operators also hold all of the permits necessary to make their guests’ trip a success. Whether its park entry or access to a special attraction, booking a guide guarantees access. Many guides also provide transportation. Combine such a trip with a stay at a resort that offers airport shuttles, and you could tick off every major park attraction on your list without having to rent a car at all.
Information and interpretation is available to all park visitors, no matter their budget. The new NPS app is free and provides everything from self-guided tours to interactive maps showing the location of important facilities like bathrooms. You can even download the information for the park of your choice ahead of time, guaranteeing access to it, even if there’s no cellphone signal.
Does all of this sound like a hassle? It is. At Yellowstone, there will be a traffic jam because a car full of visitors just spotted their first bison and stopped in the middle of the road to take pictures. In Yosemite, there will be long lines for, well, everything. In Glacier, parking lots at popular trailheads will be so full you won’t be able to find a spot.
But the hassle is worth it. Our national parks really are that special.
Allow extra time, and plan on encountering crowds. The most important advice I can give to anyone planning to visit a national park this summer is this: adjust your attitude. You’re there to have fun. Other people are too. Be patient and kind to everyone you come across, and I guarantee that your trip will be a great one.