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What’s the Point of the New National Park Reservation System?

If you want to head to some of the most popular national parks anytime soon, it may take some planning. Failure to plan may result in being turned away at the gate. 

Several parks have adopted a new reservation system. So what’s the point of the new national park reservation system?

Let’s examine the system and how it could affect your travel plans. 

What Sparked the New National Park Reservation System?

Many national parks have experienced a record-breaking number of guests each year since 2020. Year after year, many parks have exceeded their previous year’s attendance. Great Smoky Mountains National Park shattered their previous record with a whopping 1.5 million guests.

The massive increase in park attendance has caused frustration for guests and park officials. Larger crowds mean more traffic to deal with and an increase in wear and tear on the park. Officials needed a way to provide a fantastic experience for as many as possible despite the increased demand. 

Many parks tested the waters with reservation systems over the last couple of years. They’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t. 

The reservation system will limit crowds entirely or in some of the most fragile and popular sections. However, how each park uses the system varies.

Which National Parks Require Reservations to Visit in 2022?

It might surprise you to hear that a handful of national parks have implemented a reservation for 2022. If you hope to visit a national park this year, keep reading. Here’s a list of which national parks require a reservation.

Pro Tip: Avoid the crowds by not going to these 5 National Parks to Avoid in 2022.

Acadia National Park

One of the highlights of visiting Acadia National Park is driving up Cadillac Summit Road. You can’t beat the view from the top. However, you’ll need to make a reservation to drive the route.

From May 25 through Oct. 22, you need to purchase a $6 vehicle reservation. The park releases 30% of the vehicle reservations 90 days ahead of the date. The remaining 70% of reservations get released at 10 a.m. two days in advance. 

However, while driving up Cadillac Summit Road is an incredible experience, you can do many other things in the park without a reservation. Driving the scenic route can have you forgetting about any sadness of not scoring a Cadillac Summit reservation. 

Arches National Park

When officials realized that some visitors were waiting in line for several hours to get into Arches National Park and struggled to find parking, they knew something had to change. 

Over Memorial Day weekend 2021, the park did a timed-entry pilot program. The park was satisfied with the results and has decided to adopt the system from April 3 to Oct. 3.

Those visitors who can snag a reservation can enter the park during their designated time. They can stay for as long as they like, but they must enter during their allotted time or forfeit their entry. 

The timed entry passes are only valid for a single day. The new system can make it extremely difficult for those who want to spend multiple days in the park during their trip.

Glacier National Park

In 2021, Glacier National Park adopted a ticketed entry system for Going-to-the-Sun Road. Guests needed either a ticket or enter before 6 a.m. or after 5 p.m. 

The park adjusted the length of each reservation from seven to three days for 2022. Visitors will also need a one-day ticketed entry to visit the North Fork area of the park.

You can get tickets from May 27 through Sept. 11. Visitors can reserve their tickets 60 days in advance. However, you better be quick because they go fast. 

Haleakala National Park

Haleakala National Park in Hawaii began using a reservation system on April 7, 2021, to limit vehicles at the park’s summit. 

The sunrise is a popular activity in the park, and so the park implemented a ticketed-entry system from 3 to 7 a.m. If you want to watch the sunrise from the summit, you’ll need to book a reservation 60 days in advance. 

Make sure you log in before the tickets go on sale. This will help you get a one, as they sell out quickly.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Starting May 27 and ending Oct. 10, you’ll need a timed entry reservation to enter Rocky Mountain National Park. 

You can get tickets on the first of the month preceding the date you want to visit. Additionally, 25 to 30% of the permits will be held and made available the day prior at 5 p.m.

The park will offer two different permits: one for the Bear Lake Road Corridor and one for the rest of Rocky Mountain National Park. Make sure you do your research to know which will meet your travel plans.

Shenandoah National Park

After doing a visitor-use study, Shenandoah National Park has decided to implement a day-use ticket system for Old Rag Mountain. Everyone must have a ticket, including hikers on the Saddle, Ridge, and Ridge Access trails. 

This is a pilot program running from March 1 until Nov. 30. The park hopes to use data they collect during the pilot program to help adapt a more permanent system in the future.

Zion National Park

For those wanting to hike the Angels Landing Trail, you’ll need to enter a permit lottery starting April 1. You can enter the lottery up to three months in advance or up until one day before the trip. 

The park offers three different windows for hiking the trail. Permits cost $3 per person, plus a $6 nonrefundable application fee.

How Long Is This New Park Reservation System in Place For?

None of the parks implementing the reservation system have given any indication when they’ll discontinue it. 

As long as the massive demand for tickets continues, you can ensure the reservation system won’t go anywhere anytime soon. So if you don’t want to make a reservation, avoid these parks during the peak season.

Benefits of the National Park Reservation System

While the new national park reservation system can be frustrating, it does have some pros. Let’s take a look at a handful of the benefits of this system.

Crowd Control

If you’ve tried to visit a national park in the past couple of years, you likely saw there were more crowds. There’s been a massive increase in interest in the national parks. This has caused overcrowding at many national parks. 

Most parks can’t handle the large influx of guests. A reservation system controls the chaos by not overcrowding the areas and services.

Reduced Damage to Natural Spaces

The more feet walking on the trails and stomping through the national parks, the more wear and tear they experience. 

Minimizing the number of guests in the park each day helps reduce damage to natural spaces like hiking trails and open fields. 

The park’s top priority is preserving the wildlife for future generations. If crowds damage the land, then the NPS has no choice but to implement a plan to minimize the damage.

Improved Experiences in the Parks

Visitors come to the national parks to hike and experience breathtaking landscapes. However, they often find crowded trails, lines, and circling packed parking lots. 

Park staff want guests to have a better experience while visiting any national park.

Using timed-entry reservations ensures guests spread out over the day and lessens the big rush of visitors in the morning. This naturally creates a better guest experience and helps everyone have a memorable experience.

Keep Wildlife Safe

The parks protect the animals that call it home. Overcrowding can cause issues for the wildlife. Fewer visitors at a time can help protect natural habitats and improves the experience for the animals. It also keeps the people and wildlife safe.

Pro Tip: Want to party in a national park. Before you do, find out Is It Legal to Drink In National Parks?

The Reservation System Is Meant to Help

We can see both sides of the coin in the NPS reservation system. While the system can cause frustration for those looking to take a trip on short notice, it improves the park’s longevity and its wildlife.

 It can make planning a trip hard, but making a reservation can improve guest and animal experiences. We’ve had a situation or two where we had to make last-minute plans because we couldn’t snag a reservation at a particular national park. 

How has the new NPS reservation system affected your travel plans? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

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  1. C. Morgan says:

    Unfortunate, but necessary.

  2. Micheal Whelan says:

    This should control use of the parks. They are now off our list of places to visit as we don’t plan our day trips but do them as we get the urge. No problem there are a lot of other places.

  3. Marilyn Chandler says:

    We have been going to the National parks for 40 years and now we can’t camp there…they not only have reservations and won’t let you in even though there are spots available, (We checked agin in the morning) how that can help is beyond me…and they closed some campsites.
    There should at the very least be a dozen sites open for drive ups. When we travel we don’t always know the date we’ll be somewhere so how can we get a reservation.

  4. Doug says:

    We spent a week at Many Glacier Campground the summer of 2021. Reservations were required and our visit was great but… every night there were, on average, 6-8 empty sites. The host told us that they had to wait until the next day before they could report an empty site to the park employees. Making the site available again online was up to the employee and often times it just didn’t happen. One site, directly across from us was empty the entire time we were there! If a reservation system is put in place they need to do a better job and managing no shows and cancellations. One of the most popular campgrounds in America shouldn’t have empty sites every night.

  5. Doug says:

    @Marilyn Chandler, I completely agree!

  6. Bob says:

    You made an error. I’m sure Great Smoky Mountains NP had 15 million visitors, not 1.5 million. Heck we had 4 million visitors a year in Yosemite when I was a ranger 30 years ago.

  7. Bob says:

    @Marilyn Chandler, many state parks have gone to reservations only too. Such as my home state of MN. I asked why and was told a poll had been taken and families want this. Apparently Mom and Dad with little kiddies are too afraid to travel not knowing for sure they will get a campsite. I’m 72 and been camping all my life. Way more than the average person and have never had a reservation. So since I’ve been to all the parks, except that new one, many times I have now abandoned them to the Afraid Generation 😨 Boondock in our national forest or BLM land.

  8. Bob says:

    @Doug, you’re asking people to do their job. Something I’ve found lacking in modern America.

  9. Doug says:

    @Bob, right?

  10. Nan says:

    @Marilyn Chandler, I’ve been a camp host at a national park. Not all parks are reservation only, although more and more of them are moving into using My husband and I have been hosting now for five years. When I heard the campgrounds at our favorite park were going to be reservation only I was overjoyed. We experienced a few seasons of walk-in camping and it wasn’t fun. Reservations meant no more fistfights between campers over sites, no more wondering just how bad things were going to get before law enforcement started hauling people off to the local jail, no more headaches of someone banging on my trailer door at midnight claiming someone had poached their site, no more people in cars, trucks, and motorhomes circling the campground repeatedly while fantasizing that an empty camp site was going to magically appear. I love the reservation system. So do paid park staff, especially the law enforcement rangers. It’s eliminated multiple headaches.

    It operates in real time so you can go online, see if it’s available, and reserve immediately. If you’re in the general area of a national park and would like to camp there, you can go online and find out if anything has opened up — I’ve talked with campers who made their reservation less than 20 minutes before they got to their site. If you want to be spontaneous, both the Corps of Engineers and the Forest Service set up their campgrounds so some sites are always walk-in (first come, first serve). So do many state, county, and township parks.

  11. Nan says:

    @Doug, If a site has been reserved (which means it’s been paid for) it might look empty but it’s considered occupied in the system, which you’re suggesting was true where you camped. Which means it’s not available to anyone else even though it looks like it should be. There is a reason for waiting until the following day to report possible unoccupied sites. At Pictured Rocks we had people make a reservation for several days and not get there until the second or third day, we had people check in after midnight, and we had some sites where they were on the daily report as reserved but no one ever did show up. We also had some car campers who would be gone all day but would return well after sunset. One camper last season slept in his van for most of a week; never set anything out at the site. He got reported to the host as a possible homeless person who was squatting, but, nope, when we checked he had a reservation. He was just a minimalist when it came to camping.

  12. Scott Wardwell says:

    Being a local living within two hours of Acadia, the spur-of-the moment trip up Cadillac Mtn for a sunrise photo trip is a thing of the past with the Park Service’s partitioning of Acadia into East and West Berlin.

  13. Mike says:

    @Bob, I think it is important to realize that what may seem like people becoming more afraid is often that their situation isn’t what you experienced 40 years ago. I suspect you weren’t afraid because you could find alternatives easier. With so many more people, that’s far less certain.
    And regarding your other comment about people not doing their jobs – try looking through the lens of staff-to-visitor ratio now compared to your days as a ranger.

    Do you really want to be the “grumpy old man?” 😀

  14. Carol Carnicom says:

    Thank you for this information. I have visited so many of these National Parks in years past when all you had to do was show up. It is kind of sad that we can’t do that anymore, but I certainly understand the steps being taken to preserve the land and the wildlife.

  15. Carol Carnicom says:

    @Marilyn Chandler,

    That is true for us also. Since weather, health, and finances are always a consideration, we can’t make reservations, so no more visiting these parks for us. We have also been in campgrounds where most of the sites are reservation only and empty the whole time. There is certainly something wrong with that picture.