Tourists crowd into the Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming on July 14, 2021. Yellowstone is one of many national parks with record visitor numbers this summer.
Natalie Behring | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Cadillac Mountain in Maine's Acadia National Park is one of the best places in the country to see a sunrise.
For six months, visitors to the 1,530-foot-high summit – the highest within 40 kilometers of the entire US east coast – will be the first in the country to see the daylight and watch the rays of the sun gradually enter Frenchman Bay and its many islands brilliant shine illuminate blue and purple.
That is, when they find a parking space.
Until recently, it was not uncommon for 500 cars to compete for 150 parking spaces, says park manager Kevin Schneider.
Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, Maine.
Park officials introduced a reservation system this year to reduce traffic jams. Reservations are $ 6 per vehicle and must be purchased online in advance.
Elsewhere – Yosemite, Glacier, Haleakalā, and Rocky Mountain, and Muir Woods National Monument – use advance reservations to gain access to the entire park or popular attractions. Utah's Zion National Park weighs the same in next year for its Angels Landing hike, which sometimes requires visitors to wait hours to get to the trailhead.
Other high-traffic parks are likely to take similar action in the coming years if visitor trends continue, according to officials and travel experts.
Sunset from Taft Point in Yosemite National Park, California.
Travelers may have difficulty pre-claiming any of the limited spaces or they may be turned away if they are not aware of the pre-arrival requirement.
"They traveled thousands of miles, made tens of thousands of dollars in hotel, flight, and rental car reservations only to see their vacation ruined because they couldn't get the $ 2 ticket to Glacier National Park," said Kevin Gartland , Executive Director of the Whitefish, Montana Chamber of Commerce, recently said at a Senate hearing on overcrowding in parks.
Eager to travel and go outdoors after months of captivity, Americans have visited some parks in record numbers this year. Vacationers can also still be cautious when traveling to destinations outside of the US or unable to travel due to local restrictions.
July was Yellowstone's busiest month in park history – the first US national park to have the highest concentration of thermal features such as geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and steam vents in the world never had more than 1 million visitors a month.
Canarian Spring in Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park.
"The rise in visitor numbers to Yellowstone has accelerated rapidly over the past 12 months and we are well on our way to achieving record numbers for 2021," said Park Superintendent Cam Sholly.
Nearby Grand Teton National Park was the busiest in June, with a 20% increase in visitors compared to 2019. Visits to Zion rose 18% from 2021 through July, according to federal data. Likewise in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the national park hardest hit by human trafficking, where tourism has increased by over 7% this year compared to 2019.
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These record numbers in some parks reflect a longer-term trend. For example, visits to Glacier and Yellowstone have doubled since 1980. The number of national park visits in 2019 was around 20% higher than in 2013.
According to Senator Angus King, I-Maine, chairman of the Senate National Parks Subcommittee, there is "a tension and a paradox" in this dynamic.
The Cathedral Group in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
On the one hand, it is good that Americans are visiting public land in record numbers. But the overcrowding has led to more litter, vandalism, and traffic – all of which are draining the park's natural resources and wildlife and negatively impacting the visitor experience.
"We can accidentally love our parks to death," King said at a Senate hearing in July.
National park reservations
Reservations are one of the many methods parks consider to tackle traffic jams. Their details and restrictions vary from place to place.
For example, Glacier in northwest Montana uses vehicle reservations only for its Going-the-Sun Road, a scenic road that runs through the center of the park and is a major attraction. Tickets include entry for seven days from the date selected by the visitor. (They're $ 2 on top of the typical park entry pass.)
Visitors walk through the Logan Pass Visitor Center in Glacier National Park on July 26, 2018 in West Glacier, Montana.
George Frey | Getty Images News | Getty Images
As with other parks, spaces are limited and can sell out quickly. Around 75% of the reservations are available up to 60 days in advance, the remaining 25% only two days in advance.
In contrast, Rocky Mountain National Park in northern Colorado uses a time-entry reservation. Visitors must enter the park within the chosen two-hour time slot.
At Yosemite, reservations worth $ 2 are valid for three consecutive days to enter the park. The system may not be permanent, however – park officials said earlier this year that the "temporary" system, which went into effect in May, would help control visitor numbers to reduce health risks related to Covid-19.
Angel landing in Zion National Park, Utah.
Some travel experts expect parks to keep systems running even after the pandemic is no longer a threat.
"It was only a matter of time," said Kasey Morrissey, president of Austin Adventures, a Billings, Montana-based company that offers national park tours. "It's not that Covid is the only factor causing this.
"The parks get very, very crowded."
Not all parks
However, it is unlikely that all – or even most – parks will adopt such systems.
For one thing, not all of them have seen traffic increases. Half of all recreational visits are in the 23 most-visited parks, with "significant traffic jams" being concentrated in the top 12-15, according to Michael Reynolds, a regional director for the National Park Service.
While parks like Glacier, Zion, and Yosemite have limited parking in relatively small canyons or valleys, parks with different geography and different road systems could potentially cope better with the higher traffic, Morrissey said.
And parks are exploring opportunities beyond admission tickets to reduce traffic jams.
For example, Yellowstone, which does not require a reservation, is evaluating the feasibility of a shuttle system between Old Faithful and Midway Geyser Basin. It launched a pilot program this summer using free automated shuttles to transport people in the Canyon Village area. Visitors can book a larger number of campsites six months in advance instead of on arrival.
Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.
According to park spokeswoman Linda Veress, no timed reservations are expected in Yellowstone anytime soon.
"But it's possible for the future," she said.
While it can be "overwhelming" for would-be tourists who can't secure reservations, the systems improve the experiences for those who can get them, Morrissey said.
And there are creative alternatives, she said.
For example, Acadia visitors can hike, bike, or taxi to the top of Cadillac Mountain without a permit. Glacier and Rocky Mountain Parks waive the requirement for tourists who have a "service reservation" such as an overnight stay or a tour within the park. (However, the waiver only applies to that day.)
Upper Cathedral Lake in Yosemite National Park.
Motorists can also drive into parks before or after their entry cabins are occupied for the day. (On the glacier, for example, this would be before 6 a.m. or after 5 p.m.)
"There are certain ways around it if you can be a little bit smart," said Morrissey.