Seeking an outdoor-oriented vacation this summer that allowed for social distancing, Irene Goodman and a friend started making plans last fall for a trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. They wanted to rent an RV for two weeks, staying in park campgrounds along the way. But as 46-year old Goodman, a New York City-based health-care administrator, explored her options, she learned that reservations would be hard to come by and expenses would be higher than anticipated.
“To begin with, RV rental costs were 30 percent higher than last year,” she says. “Campsites were still closed in some parks, and in others we couldn’t find guaranteed reservations.”
After considering the hassle and expense factors, Goodman and her companion made a change in plans: rather than the uber-popular and crowded Yellowstone/Grand Teton combo, they would head to South Dakota to take in Badlands and Mount Rushmore.
If, like Goodman, you’re hoping to make a trip to public lands this summer, know that you may not only face crowds, but added fees, reservations and permits. Planning ahead will ensure you make the most of your vacation time and dollars.
With indoor options limited throughout the pandemic, Americans took to national parks and forests, state parks, and other public lands in record numbers last year. Yellowstone, for instance, experienced its busiest September ever in 2020, recording more than 800,000 visitors. The nation’s most popular national park, Great Smoky Mountain, saw a 9 percent jump year over a year in the month of August, hosting 1.5 million visitors.
Likewise, Adirondack State Park in New York experienced big crowds on its popular trails and roads, even without the normal influx of Canadian tourists. In Montana’s Glacier National Park, expectations are high for potentially record-breaking crowds this summer. This follows a busy 2020, even with one entrance to the park closed to protect the Black Feet Reservation’s occupants from the coronavirus. And in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, the staff is implementing a reservation system that allows visitors to enter within two-hour windows.
While almost every park ranger or manager will tell you they welcome the increase in outdoor recreation, they also acknowledge that the crowding brings with it damaging side effects. “We saw more trash, improper disposal of human waste, negative interactions with wildlife and illegal camping in some areas,” says Seth Jones, education director at the Adirondack Mountain Club. “We’re excited about new users, but it’s important to mitigate the damage.”
The answer for many public lands is a heavy dose of education and messaging about responsible outdoor recreation. Alongside that important effort, however, is the need to carefully regulate the numbers of people in parks at a given time.
In many parks, including the Willamette National Forest in Oregon, visitor growth began building in the years before the pandemic, says Matt Peterson, recreation program manager. “We used to average around 3,000 visitors per year, but in a short span of time, we had jumped to 10,000 visitors per year,” he says. “Our sites are not developed for those numbers.”
In 2017, the staff began planning to implement a permit system for use — the pandemic temporarily put that on hold, however. For 2021, anticipating the swells that it saw last year, the system will be in full effect. “The pandemic made it clear this was needed,” Peterson says. “Our permit season will run from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend and will apply to three popular wilderness areas within the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests. If you want to overnight, that will also require a permit.”
In total, 79 trailheads within the two Oregon forests will require permits, making up about 25 percent of the overall trails. Peterson says the hope is that by requiring permits on the more popular trails, it will both help spread out usage throughout the forests and mitigate some of the issues that come with overcrowding. “We’re also working with local tourism partners to help educate the public on responsible usage,” he says. “Most people want to do the right thing, but they need to know what that is.”
In Glacier National Park, visitors can purchase a seven-day pass for $35, and if they wish to drive the uber-popular “Going to the Sun Road,” it will require an additional reservation for a nominal $2 fee.
“The road is only accessible in the summer, so most visitors flock there,” says Gina Kerzman, public affairs officer. “Logan Pass is also popular, and last year we had to close it 25 times in 18 days. The park can’t handle the traffic demands, so we have to have ticketed reservation.”
If you would like to avoid the crowds, added fees or reservations, there are options. One is to take Goodman’s approach and seek out less popular parks or less utilized trails within parks. Also consider shoulder seasons, when possible, and alternative entry points or lodging sites. Most visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park, for instance, choose Estes Park as their launching-off point and fill the local hotels, restaurants and streets to overflowing. An alternative is lesser-known Lyons, Colo., about 15 miles farther afield, but full of its own recreation points and with far fewer crowds.
It’s also a good idea to always have a Plan B, whether for a day hike or an overnight. “Have a second option in mind in case your first choice is full and you can’t access it,” Jones says. “There are plenty of great trails that aren’t necessarily the most popular or well known.”
Also consider off hours or days. Weekends, obviously, see the most crowding, as do mid- and late-morning to early-afternoon hours. Setting the alarm for early-bird starts can pay off in the form of available parking and less crowding on the trails you choose.
Peterson also encourages visitors to call around to local recreation stores and tourism bureaus ahead of visits to get tips on where and how to use nearby parks, find lodging and more.
If you are intent on hitting some of the most famous parks in their high seasons, go to their websites well in advance to see what you will need to ensure entry. Also visit recreation.gov to make reservations and procure permits where needed. Many state and national parks, forests, campgrounds, and more use the site for advance ticketing.
Goodman, who is on a quest to hit all 50 states, is at peace with her change in plans for this year. “This trip will allow us to hit four states,” she says. “We feel like waiting to get to Yellowstone and Grand Tetons until things are a bit more settled will allow us to have a better experience when we finally do go.”
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments on The Post’s live blog at www.washingtonpost.com/coronavirus