Tourists crowd the Midway Geyser Basin on July 14, 2021 in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Yellowstone is one of several national parks with record numbers of visitors this summer.
Nathalie 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.
During half of the year, visitors to the 1,530-foot peak – the highest within 25 miles of the entire US east coast – are the first in the country to see the light of day, observing the rays of the sun gradually illuminating Frenchman Bay and its many islands in brilliant blues and purples.
In other words, if they can find parking.
Until recently, it was not uncommon to see 500 cars competing for 150 parking spaces, according to park superintendent Kevin Schneider.
Sunrise at Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, Maine.
Park officials have implemented a reservation system this year to reduce congestion. Reservations cost $ 6 per vehicle and must be purchased online in advance.
Elsewhere – Yosemite, Glacier, HaleakalÄ, and Rocky Mountain National Parks, as well as Muir Woods National Monument – also use advance reservations to access the entire park or popular attractions. Zion National Park in Utah weighs the same next year for its Angels Landing hike, which sometimes sees visitors waiting hours to get to the trailhead.
Other heavily trafficked parks are likely to take similar steps in the years to come if visitor trends continue, according to officials and travel experts.
Sunset from Taft Point in Yosemite National Park, California.
Travelers may have difficulty claiming one of the limited seats in advance, or are turned away if they are not aware of the requirement prior to arrival.
âThey’ve driven thousands of miles, made tens of thousands of dollars in hotel, plane and rental car reservations, only to have their vacations ruined because they can’t get that 2 ticket. $ to see Glacier National Park, “Kevin Gartland, director director of the Whitefish, MT Chamber of Commerce, said during a recent Senate hearing on parkland overcrowding.
Eager to travel and get out after months of lockdown, Americans have been to some parks in record numbers this year. Vacationers may also be wary of traveling to destinations outside of the US borders, or may not be able to do so due to local restrictions.
July was Yellowstone’s busiest month in park history – monthly visitors had never exceeded 1 million in America’s first national park, which has the highest concentration of thermal features like geysers, hot springs , mud puddles and steam vents in the world.
Canary Spring at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park.
âThe increase in the number of visits to Yellowstone has accelerated rapidly over the past 12 months and we continue to be on track to set a record number for 2021,â said park manager Cam Sholly.
Nearby Grand Teton National Park had its busiest June, with a 20% increase in visitor numbers from 2019. Visits to Sion were up 18% from 2021 to July compared to to 2019, according to federal data. Likewise in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the busiest in the system, where tourism is up more than 7% this year compared to 2019.
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These record numbers in some parks reflect a long-term trend. Visits to Glacier and Yellowstone, for example, have doubled since 1980. National park attendance was about 20% higher in 2019 than in 2013.
There is a “tension and a paradox” to this dynamic, according to Senator Angus King, I-Maine, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks.
The Cathedral Group in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
On the one hand, it is good that Americans are visiting public lands in record numbers. But overcrowding has resulted in increased litter, vandalism and traffic, placing emphasis on the park’s natural resources and wildlife and negatively impacting visitor experiences.
“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 use to combat congestion. Their details and restrictions vary from place to place.
For example, Glacier in northwest Montana only uses vehicle reservations for its Going-the-Sun Route, a scenic drive that runs through the center of the park and is one of its main attractions. Tickets cover entry for seven days from the date the visitor chooses. (They cost $ 2 on top of the typical park pass.)
Visitors walk around the Logan Pass Visitor Center in Glacier National Park on July 26, 2018 in West Glacier, MT.
George Frey | Getty Images News | Getty Images
As with other parks, spaces are limited and can sell out quickly. Approximately 75% of reservations are available up to 60 days in advance and the remaining 25% only two days in advance.
In contrast, Rocky Mountain National Park in northern Colorado uses a scheduled entry reservation. Visitors must enter the park in their chosen two hour window.
In Yosemite, reservations of $ 2 to enter the park are valid for three consecutive days. However, the system may not be permanent – park officials said this year that the “temporary” system, which went into effect in May, would help manage visitor levels to reduce the associated health risks. at Covid-19.
Angels Landing in Zion National Park, Utah.
Some travel experts expect parks to keep systems in place even when the pandemic is no longer a threat.
“It was only a matter of time,” said Kasey Morrissey, president of Austin Adventures, a Billings, MT-based company that guides tours of national parks. âIt’s not like Covid was going to be the only factor that caused this.
“The parks are getting very, very busy.”
Not all parks
However, it is unlikely that all – or even most – parks will adopt such systems.
On the one hand, not all of them experienced an increase in traffic. Half of all recreation tours take place at the 23 most visited parks, with “significant congestion” concentrated in the top 12 to 15, according to Michael Reynolds, regional director of the National Park Service.
While parks like Glacier, Zion, and Yosemite have limited parking in relatively small canyons or valleys, those with different geography and road systems can better absorb higher traffic, Morrissey said.
And parks are exploring options beyond paid admission to reduce congestion.
For example, Yellowstone, which does not require a reservation, is studying the feasibility of a shuttle system between Old Faithful and Midway Geyser Basin. He launched a pilot program this summer that uses free automated shuttles to help transport people to his Canyon Village area. Visitors can reserve more campsites six months in advance rather than upon arrival.
Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.
Scheduled reservations are not a policy to expect anytime soon in Yellowstone, according to park spokesperson Linda Veress.
âBut it’s good in the area of ââpossibilities going forward,â she said.
While it can be “overwhelming” for potential tourists who can’t guarantee a reservation, the systems improve experiences for those who can, Morrissey said.
And there are creative alternatives, she said.
For example, visitors to Acadia can hike, bike or take a taxi to the top of Cadillac Mountain without a permit. The Glacier and Rocky Mountain Parks waive the requirement for tourists who have a “service reservation” such as overnight accommodation or a visit inside the park. (The waiver, however, only applies on that day.)
Upper Cathedral Lake in Yosemite National Park.
Motorists can also visit parks before or after their entry counters are staffed for the day. (At Glacier, it would be before 6 a.m. or after 5 p.m., for example.)
âThere are some ways around that if you can be a little cunning,â Morrissey said.