How to Navigate the New NPS Reservation Systems
Key beta on snagging a ticket to your favorite park this year
In spite of rigid closures to comply with shelter in place rules across the country in 2020, many national parks saw record visitation numbers as nature-hungry adventurers sought safe and socially-distanced vacations. The spike in tourism led a few of the most popular parks, like Yosemite and Rocky Mountain, to implement new ticketed entry systems for day-use visitors, designed to pulse arrival dates and times and help combat overcrowding.
As vaccines continue to roll out and many states still have indoor restrictions and distancing measures in place, several of the country’s most visited national parks have announced new or continued permit requirements for the 2021 season. With day-use entries expected to sell out quickly, here’s a guide for when and how to snag one of those coveted spots.
Acadia National Park
With over 2.7 million visitors in 2020, Acadia National Park is one of the most frequented sites in the country. In the last decade alone, the park has seen visitation surge more than 60 percent, creating crowding and parking issues at some of its most popular destinations.
In 2021, for the first time ever, Acadia will begin requiring vehicle reservations for its famous high point, Cadillac Mountain, from May 26 through October 19. Travelers who want to drive the winding Cadillac Summit Road will have to choose between one of two options: a “sunrise” reservation with a two-hour entry window, or a “daytime” reservation with a 30-minute entry window. The timeframe for sunrise reservations will move as the seasons change, with May beginning at 3:30 A.M. and October beginning at 5:30 A.M.
Reservations cost $6, do not include park entry fees, and are available online at Recreation.gov. The park will release 30 percent of entry slots 90 days in advance, and the remaining 70 percent will become available at 10 A.M. Eastern Time two days prior.
Glacier National Park
Following record visitation numbers last fall, Glacier National Park announced that it will be implementing the first-ever ticketed vehicle entry system in 2021 for its historic Going to the Sun Road, which bisects some of the park’s best hikes and attractions.
Day-use visitors who enter by private vehicle or motorcycle via Camas Road, St. Mary, or West Glacier between 6 A.M. and 5 P.M. Mountain Time will be required to purchase a $2 entry reservation ticket, in addition to park entry fees. The new permits will be required from May 28 to September 6. Each ticket is valid for seven consecutive days per vehicle. Tourists with overnight lodging or camping reservations will not be required to buy this additional pass, and those arriving outside the peak hours of 6 A.M. to 5 P.M. are also exempt.
Beginning at 6 A.M. Mountain Time on April 29, these day-use passes will go on sale at Recreation.gov. Approximately 75 percent of the reservations will be available 60 days in advance, while the remaining 25 percent will open up two days in advance.
Rocky Mountain National Park
In order to help comply with social distancing regulations last year, Rocky Mountain National Park began a first-of-its-kind day-use permit requirement during the summer months. In 2021, the park announced similar restrictions for day-use visitors, but with a longer reservation window and a two-tiered permit system.
From May 28 to October 11, guests will need one of two permits—either a Bear Lake Road Corridor reservation (including the rest of the park) or a Rocky Mountain National Park reservation, which excludes access to the popular Bear Lake Road. The timed entry window for Bear Lake Road will be 5 A.M. to 6 P.M. Mountain Time, while the window for the rest of the park will be 9 A.M. to 3 P.M. Each permit will be for a two-hour entry window to help stack guest arrivals into the park. Those with lodging or camping reservations and those arriving outside of ticketed hours will be exempt from the permitting system.
Here’s where it gets complicated. On May 1, 2021, at 8 A.M. Mountain Time, the $2 day-use entry permits will go on sale for May 28 through June 30 on Recreation.gov. After that, on the first of each consecutive month, reservations for the following month will open up (i.e. on June 1, all of July will become available). The park will sell 75 percent of permits in advance and hold the remaining 25 percent for last-minute online purchase at 5 P.M. the day prior.
Yosemite National Park
In 2019, nearly 4.5 million tourists flocked to Yosemite’s stunning granite walls, choking the famous valley roads with private vehicles. Due to California’s rigid COVID-19 restrictions, the park began implementing its first permitted entry system for day-use visitors in June of 2020.
This year, ticketed entry is back, with day-use reservations required to drive into Yosemite from May 21 through September 30, 2021. Each $2 permit is valid for three consecutive days for one private vehicle and does not include regular park entrance fees. Yosemite is only open to permitholders from 5 A.M. to 11 P.M., Pacific Time, and day-use visitors will be required to leave the park before the cutoff. Guests with campground or lodging booked within the park will not be required to purchase an additional day permit.
Starting at 8 A.M. Pacific Time on April 21, 2021, the park will begin day-use permit sales for arrival dates from May 21 to June 30 on Recreation.gov. Every seven days after that, the park will release an additional rolling month of availability. Yosemite will hold a limited number of reservations to become available last-minute, beginning seven days before the desired entry date, but the park has not yet announced what percentage of permits will be held.