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National parks and forests bring back reservation systems to control crowds

A number of federal parklands will require reservations or timed-entry permits to visit this year. Starting April 1, visitors who want to hike to Angels Landing in Utah's Zion National Park must secure a permit from an online lottery. (iStock)
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On the morning drive from my treehouse at Yuquiyú to El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, I looked the part of the Prepared Hiker. I wore durable shoes with thick treads and no exposed toes. My backpack bulged with bug spray, sunscreen and enough water to irrigate a small farm. A brimmed hat was perched on my head. And yet as I approached the main gate, I realized I had forgotten what is becoming the most critical item on a day trekker’s checklist: knowing a park’s special entry requirements.

“Se Requiere Reservación/Reservations Required” read the bilingual sign, puncturing my plans like a thorn in a hydration bladder.

From inside the rental car, I checked recreation.gov for the next available reservation, but on a holiday weekend, the park was fully booked. I ended up in Luquillo, tramping to the beat of reggaeton on the beach instead of hiking to the croaks of coquí in the U.S. Forest Service’s only tropical rainforest.

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Really, I should have known better. When I visited Puerto Rico last February, the pandemic had been upending norms for nearly a year. Travelers seeking refuge in nature were flocking to public sanctuaries run by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and overwhelming the strained staff and fragile environments. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, more than 375,000 people hiked Laurel Falls Trail in 2020, an additional 110,000 pairs of feet from the previous year.

In 2021, Yellowstone National Park set a record in July for the most-visited month in its nearly 150-year history, with almost 1.1 million recreation visits. Also last year, Acadia National Park in Maine received more than 4 million visitors for the first time. In response to the stampede, officials introduced reservation systems to help them control the number of people who can enter the park or access specific roads or trails in a single day.

“The nationwide trend of changing visitation patterns before, during and after the pandemic requires continual innovation and effective ways to manage visitor use to ensure that these special places, and the benefits they generate, persist for current and future generations,” Stephanie Roulett, a public affairs specialist with the National Park Service, said by email. “As a result, parks are exploring many different tools and techniques that are most effective for their situation to help them improve how visitors get to and experience popular park resources and features.”

In some cases, such as Yosemite’s entry reservation system and the Great Smoky Mountains’ parking fee at the Laurel Falls trailhead, the arrangements were temporary and expired after the busy season or pilot period. Several reservation requirements, however, will return this year, and a few new ones will debut. Many parks could also revive their measures, depending on the crush of crowds or the virus’s trajectory.

For the most part, the rules apply to visitors who arrive by car and plan to exit before closing time. Vacationers who enter by bicycle, foot or public transportation, or who booked an overnight stay at an on-site lodge or campground, are exempt. The permit is typically per vehicle, not per passenger. Many of the reservations are free or cost a few dollars, plus a nominal service fee by recreation.gov. Guests must pay the park entrance fee on top of any secondary charges.

Roulett said that, depending on the park or activity, visitors should start planning months to weeks in advance, especially if their trip falls during peak season. She recommends the National Park Service’s Trip Planning Guide, Find a Park resource and its new NPS app, which consolidates all 423 park units in one mobile tool. For national forests and other public attractions, Rodney Foushee, a communications officer with the U.S. Forest Service, suggests searching under “Tickets & Tours” or “Permits” on recreation.gov, the official booking site for a dozen federal agencies.

A few general tips: Some parks ask visitors to display the parking permit on their windshield, so it’s a good idea to print out your confirmation in advance. Cellphone service can also be spotty or nonexistent in a park, so download the receipt on your phone before setting out for the day. For timed-entry tickets, be punctual, because you don’t want to miss your window. And don’t forget your mask: Many federal sites require face coverings for indoor venues and enclosed public transportation and mandate or recommend them for crowded outdoor areas.

Here is a sampling of parks and their reservation requirements for the new year.

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  • Acadia National Park, Maine: Between mid-May and October, the park will require timed-entry reservations for visitors who wish to drive Cadillac Summit Road, the three-mile scenic route to the top of the park’s highest peak. Thirty percent of the reservations will become available 90 days ahead of the arrival date, and the remainder will be released two days in advance. The fee is $6 per vehicle.
  • Glacier National Park, Montana: From May 27 through Sept. 11, day-use visitors will need a $2 per-vehicle ticket to access Going-to-the-Sun Road at the West Entrance, the new Camas Entrance and the St. Mary Entrance. (St. Mary opens closer to late June.) A separate pass is required to explore the North Fork area via the Polebridge Ranger Station. Tickets could become available as soon as March.
  • Muir Woods National Monument, California: The year-round reservation system for cars and shuttle bus passengers was established in 2018 to reduce traffic and noise in the old growth redwood grove. The parking pass starts at $9 for a vehicle up to 17 feet long. The shuttle, which runs weekends and holidays, costs $3.50 per person age 16 and older; all visitors must reserve a seat on the bus, which boards in nearby Mill Valley. Booking is available 90 days out, with a few spaces reserved for three days in advance.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado: Last year, parkgoers needed a $2 timed-entry permit per vehicle for select times between May 28 and Oct. 11. Two types of reservations were available. One permit covered the Bear Lake Road Corridor, which included the entire corridor plus access to the rest of the park, and was valid from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. The second permit was for the rest of park, excluding the corridor but including Trail Ridge Road, and applied to visits from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Officials have proposed a similar system for May 27 through Oct. 10, with bookings opening on May 2. More details to come early this year.
  • Arches National Park, Utah: The park unveiled a pilot timed-entry system for visits from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., April 3 through Oct. 3. The $2 per-vehicle tickets will become available on the first day of the month for visits three months ahead. For example, tickets for April entries went on sale shortly after the New Year’s holiday; the next date is Feb. 1 for May reservations. The last round will take place on July 1, for three days in October. The park will also release a handful of tickets the day before.
  • Shenandoah National Park, Virginia: To relieve congestion on trails to Old Rag Mountain, the park will test day-hike ticketing. Officials are hammering out the details, but the new system could go into effect in March and cap the number at 800 daily visitors.
  • Haleakala National Park, Hawaii: To greet the sunrise on Maui’s highest peak, visitors arriving by car will need a reservation between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. The Haleakala National Park Summit Sunrise reservation, which was introduced in 2017, is available up to 60 days in advance and is valid only for the booked day. The $1 per-car permit also allows guests to park in the four sky-high lots — Summit, Haleakala Visitor Center, Kalahaku and Leleiwi — during the predawn hours. In the winter, the sun starts its ascent a few minutes shy of 7 a.m.
  • Zion National Park, Utah: Hikers headed to Angels Landing, the dramatic 1,488-foot-tall rock formation, will need a permit starting April 1. The park will distribute permits through seasonal and day-before online lotteries. The first seasonal lottery kicked off on Jan. 3 and will close on Jan. 20; the permit applies to hikes from April 1 to May 31. Lotteries for other periods are scheduled to open on April 1, July 1 and Oct. 1. The last-minute lottery runs from 12:01 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mountain time. Visitors pay $6 per application (includes up to six people) to enter either lottery, plus $3 per person if they nab a permit. The program is scheduled to run through at least February 2023. Visitors do not need a reservation to enter the park.
  • El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico: On Dec. 20, the tropical rainforest reinstated its $2 per-vehicle ticketing system for La Mina Recreational Area, along Route 191. Visitors can choose morning (8 to 11 a.m.) or afternoon (11 a.m. to 2 p.m.) entry. Tickets are available 30 days in advance, in addition to a handful of passes released 24 hours beforehand.
  • Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, Colorado: The Mount Evans Recreation Area, which includes Mount Evans, a member of the 14ers club (peaks that are at least 14,000 feet tall), is closed for the season. When it reopens at the end of May or early June, visitors will need timed-entry reservations to access the highest paved road in North America. Last year, the fee was $10 per car, plus a $2 reservation fee; the pass was valid for three days.
  • Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada: Through May 31, the Bureau of Land Management park about 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip will require timed-entry permits for the Red Rock Canyon Scenic Drive between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Book up to a month in advance or two days in advance. The day pass for the 13-mile drive costs $15 per vehicle, plus a $2 processing fee.
  • Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington state: After closing for more than a year because of the pandemic and a renovation project, the Ape Cave Interpretive Site reopened last May with a new feature: a timed-entry requirement. The $2 per-car reservation covered visits from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the attraction’s tourist season, May 18 to Oct. 31. The booking was good for a two-hour adventure in the Lower or Upper Cave of the third-longest lava tube in North America. Officials are finalizing dates and details for this year.
  • Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon: The Multnomah Falls area, which includes the 1925 Multnomah Falls Lodge, hiking trails and the spring-fed water cascade, requires timed-entry tickets from late May through mid-September. The per-person pass costs $1. Last season, tickets were released two weeks before and two days ahead of the arrival date.

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PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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