The number of people visiting U.S. national parks set records last year, with travelers preferring outdoorsy destinations that make social distancing easier in these COVID times. Tennessee/North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) led the nation with 14.1 million visits, breaking its own 2019 record by 1.5 million. Parks from Maine’s Acadia (4 million visitors) to Montana/Wyoming’s Yellowstone (4.9 million) also set new highs.
To manage last year’s crowds, the National Park Service (NPS) introduced reservations systems in about a dozen popular parks — a strategy it will use in some parks again this year, says Kathy Kupper, an NPS public affairs specialist. It was effective, she notes, and received well by visitors; 91 percent of those surveyed supported the restrictions put in place at GSMNP.
Some of the 2022 reservations systems have been announced; others are still in development. They will limit access to popular trails and roadways or introduce timed-entry programs, and a few may cap maximum visitors per day (as Yosemite National Park did last summer).
“We recognize that people have popular parks on their bucket list to visit, and we want to help them have the best possible experience at those parks,” Kupper says. The best way to track availability in parks, she adds, is to check their websites or use the new NPS mobile app.
Here’s a rundown of the reservation systems already announced for nine popular parks this coming busy season. Keep in mind that even if you have a Senior Pass giving free access to all parks, you’ll still need a reservation where required — and you’ll need to book lodging, camping and many wilderness and backcountry areas separately. If you prefer making your reservations by phone to booking online at Recreation.gov, call 877-444-6777.
Should no reservations be available at the park you want to visit, Kupper offers this advice: “We try to remind people there are 423 parks in the National Parks system, and encourage them to look at some they maybe have never heard of that might be closer than they think.” (Of those sites, 63 are officially designated as national parks.)
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Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer specializing in outdoor adventure, with credits in dozens of publications, including Afar, National Geographic Traveler and Outside.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 2, 2021. It's been updated to reflect new information.