Summer is just around the corner, which means many Americans are deciding how they want to spend the warm days. And for many, that means the great outdoors!
But for those planning a trip to one of the hundreds of U.S. national parks, don't expect to just drive up and start camping. For many national parks this year, you'll need to plan ahead and make reservations.
Part of this is about preserving the parks. National park attendance increases nearly every year and has done so since record-keeping began in 1904. Visitor levels peaked in 2017, when more than 330 million visits were logged in the country's park system. Those numbers have dipped in the ensuing years, but 2021 still saw more than 297 million visits — enough to put a strain on the underfunded system.
To combat overuse and overwhelmed staff, Fodors reports that the national park system has implemented new ways to manage the tide of visitors and prevent nature from being overrun.
"The reservation system is intended to enhance the visitor experience, from parking availability, decreased wait times and, most importantly, to preserve our environments and natural habitats," Yosemite Public Affairs Officer Scott Gediman told the travel website.
Not all national parks require reservations or preplanning, though it's good to get all the information before you hit the road. Here's what you need to know about the most popular parks.
Acadia National Park (Maine)
A timed entry system costs $6 to drive on the Cadillac Summit Road in Acadia National Park from May 25 to Oct. 22. Try and book 90 days before your trip, when 30% of the tickets are released on the recreation.gov website. The remaining 70% are released two days in advance at 10 a.m. Eastern time.
Arches National Park (Utah)
Visitors to Arches National Park who arrive between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. will be allowed in on a timed entry system from April 3-Oct. 3. The best time to check for tickets is on the first day of the month three months before you want to arrive on recreation.gov.
The day before, a limited number of tickets is available at 6 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time. But the park's website warns, "These are expected to sell out quickly and we encourage visitors to plan ahead."
Glacier National Park (Montana)
A $2 ticket is required from May 27-Sept. 11 to drive on Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road. You won't need a ticket before 6 a.m. or after 4 p.m., though. Tickets can be purchased on a rolling basis up to 120 days before you enter (this is also true for the North Fork part of the park) at recreation.gov.
Haleakalā National Park (Hawaii)
Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)
Between May 27-Oct. 10, Rocky Mountain National Park has two options for tickets: for those who want to access the Bear Lake hiking area between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m.; the other without the hiking access between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. The park will begin to release passes on May 2 for dates between May 28-June 30. Other months will have ticket releases on the first of the prior month, with 25% to 30% of the tickets released at 5 p.m. the day before. Find tickets at recreation.gov.
Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)
Yosemite National Park (California)
Yosemite National Park is an old hand with ticketing, thanks to the Half Dome hike that draws many adventurers. What's new this year is you need a reservation to access any part of the park during peak hours. Get a three-day pass at recreation.gov, which allows you consecutive day entry. More tickets will be released May 13.
Zion National Park (Utah)
Angel's Landing hikes at Zion National Park require a reservation, with tickets given out as part of a lottery. It's $6 to apply, and only a small number of reservations will be given out the day before you visit. The lottery opens April 1, July 1 and Oct. 1, and will run until February 2023. You can apply for a permit here.
By no means is this a complete list of the parks that require ticketing or advance planning; each park is different in terms of cost and number of tickets given out. And of course, some places like Everglades National Park have ticketing for things like camping or particular activities. Whatever your choice, planning over spontaneity is definitely the best path forward.