En español | Americans are eager to travel this summer, and it seems as though every one of them is heading for a U.S. national park. Not quite, but popular parks are attracting all-time-high numbers of visitors, continuing a trend begun last year during the pandemic.
During the recent Memorial Day weekend, Zion National Park reported five-hour waits to access popular trails, and visitors waited two hours in line to ride the park shuttlebus. Arika Bauer, local owner of Zion Adventure Photog, says of the crowds, “It is a madhouse here … busier than ever!” Bryce Canyon temporarily closed to vehicle traffic over the same holiday weekend, also with two-hour waits to ride shuttles (but it did at least have a live band for people in line). Even remote Big Bend National Park in Texas is seeing crowds, with visits nearly 50 percent above average so far this year.
Scott Gediman, Yosemite’s public affairs officer, told AARP: “We’re definitely seeing pent-up demand here.” Smoky Mountains National Park set an all-time record in April 2021, with nearly 1.2 million visitors. Dana Soehn, the park’s public affairs officer, says spring numbers have been “far more than normal” — April usually averages about 800,000 visits — “and more characteristic of summer visitation.”
To manage this crush, many parks across the country are instituting entry limits. Some, including Yosemite and Rocky Mountains are requiring reservations just to enter this summer. Glacier National Park’s passes for driving the famed Going to the Sun Road sold out in minutes for the entire month of June. Yosemite’s day-visit permits are currently unavailable until August, and many of its campgrounds are booked through summer (though additional opportunities for both are being added).
Despite this surge in demand, travelers can still find ways to enjoy the nature, the beauty and, yes, even the solitude of national parks this summer. Read on for some keys to making your 2021 experience a good one.
Research your destination thoroughly
The first essential for planning a national park visit this summer is to check early and often about park access, regulations and services. Due to COVID-19 health measures and the anticipated surge in visitors, certain park areas and services, like shuttles, may be limited, reservations only, or closed altogether.
"I've been visiting and covering parks for 25 years, and planning for this summer is definitely going to be a challenge,” says Candy Harrington, author of National Park Lodges for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. “The parks all have their own rules, and it's been a zoo trying to keep track of them all.”
Fortunately, the parks update their regulations online frequently, so information is available. But “just be sure to check again a few days before arrival to make sure there are no procedural changes,” Harrington cautions. The parks-affiliated website Recreation.gov is another good resource to research the latest park requirements and to make reservations.
Using the reservation systems for access, lodging, camping and wilderness permits is a must this summer. Yosemite's Gediman warns that “even if you have a senior pass, you'll be denied entry here without a reservation.” Parks such as Acadia (Maine), Zion (Utah) and Haleakala (Hawaii) will require advance reservations for certain areas and times, even while general park access is open. The good news is that with the reservations systems, crowding will be reduced.
Flexibility is important for making the most out of a park visit. Heading a little off the beaten track or trying out a different style of lodging will not only make your trip more enjoyable, it also may be the only possible way to do it.
With park accommodations tight, it's worth looking into the many campgrounds, hotels and private lodging options located just outside many park boundaries. This may also be the year to explore one of America's less-visited national parks, such as Isle Royale in Michigan and Congaree in South Carolina. Matt Berna, Intrepid Travel's North America managing director, recommends Kenai Fjords National Park, one of eight in Alaska.
Flexibility in timing is also key. Says Yosemite’s Gediman: “Weekends are booking up quickly,” so try for midweek visits. And while Yosemite’s day passes are almost completely booked through July, some additional tickets are being released one week in advance for most dates, and campground reservation lotteries take place just a day in advance, so keep your eye on recreation.gov for last-minute trip opportunities.
For hiking to popular destinations, early risers will have an advantage. Jason Frye, author of the Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park guidebook, advises people to “plan to arrive at the popular trailheads by sunup or a little after” and to “be on the trail by 8 a.m. at the latest.” Utah’s Arches National Park has begun closing its entry gates for up to five hours daily once the parking lots have filled (usually before 9 a.m.).
But even at peak times, at a busy park like Great Smoky Mountains, Frye says, “It’s still easy to find places of solitude. I find myself hiking to the less-visited waterfalls or pushing an extra mile down the trail to find a quiet spot.” Zion’s Arika Bauer agrees that visitors should be flexible in touring, saying, “There are so many areas of Zion to explore other than the very crowded main canyon.”
Book as far in advance as possible
This summer is not the time for a spur-of-the-moment national park trip. Betsy O'Rourke, chief marketing officer for the Xanterra Travel Collection, which manages properties in five parks, says: “Pent-up demand is real. All the parks’ hotels are already sold out for early summer. Those who are in ‘wait and see’ mode will likely find themselves out of luck.”
For people looking for help planning, organized tours can be a great option. Yosemite is allowing charter bus visits for the first time since 2019. Tour company G Adventures introduced a new collection of national park trips in which “demand has definitely been high,” says Samantha Couture, its director of product for North America.
"We think the security of having a guide and preplanned itinerary, where travelers don't need to worry about obtaining permits or dealing with transport, make these trips super appealing at the moment,” she says.
And Road Scholar has 28 trips to national parks scheduled for summer. Many are already sold out — especially those featuring iconic parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone, says Chris Heppner, the nonprofit's director of communications.
Book your car rental right away, too: Available cars are getting harder to find in hot outdoorsy spots like Montana, for instance. And agencies at the airport serving Glacier National Park in Kalispell, Montana, say they're completely sold out for the summer.