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Month-long queues: it has become almost impossible to visit popular parks in the USA

Venice faces these challenges. As is Amsterdam. And some of the most visited national parks in the United States are experiencing the same thing: CNN.

Photo: Shutterstock

Too much popularity puts US national parks in a dilemma, especially those with short, sought-after peak seasons and one-of-a-kind attractions. After all, parks want people to come. Just not too much at once. Striking a balance can be difficult.

And like those canal-riddled European attendance favorites, the US National Park Service is turning to some of the same techniques to regulate visitor flow.

How does it affect you? If you want to visit the popular park this summer, it's time to start planning.

In 2022, there will be additional fees, pre-booking, special passes, lotteries and visitor limits to keep nature from being flooded with visitors.

Travelers to national parks: we want!

The Covid-19 pandemic has ignited the desire of people who have been cooped up in small spaces for weeks and months during lockdown to venture into restorative natural wildernesses across the country.

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In 2021, they especially filled famous parks and related places:

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina and Tennessee) set an attendance record for 2021, surpassing 14 million vacation visits for the first time.
  • Also in North Carolina Cape Hatteras National Seashore for the first time received more than 3 million visitors a year.
  • Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming was marked by the largest number of vacationers in the history of the monument. It exceeded 500 recreational visits for the first time.
  • And the first national park in the United States, Yellowstone, 2021 people visited in 4. It was the busiest year on record. It's as if the whole state of Louisiana plus the city of Des Moines, Iowa, came to visit. And most of those visits occur during a few months of the peak warm weather season.

You're starting to see what these park areas are facing.

As such, NPS is experimenting with different ways to meet the needs of the crowd while protecting the fragile environment at the same time. Here are some things you may encounter on your next visit:

New entry fees

Entrance to most national parks is free. Of the more than 400 parks, monuments, and related facilities in the system, only about 110 have an admission fee of $5 to $35. However, others may join the list of paid entries. Indiana Dunes National Park will introduce an admission fee for the first time this year, starting March 31st.
Fees will vary depending on which way you enter. Walk/bike/boat fare will be $15 per person (maximum $25 per family).

The new fee income will help pay for the bike lane and other improvements, the park said.

Entries by time

The days of just peeking into the most popular parks on the spur of the moment may be gone.

Arches National Park in Utah introduces booking program for visits from 3 April to 3 October.

“By implementing a timed entry booking system, our goal is to better distribute visits throughout the day to reduce traffic congestion and crowds,” Patricia Trap, superintendent of Arches National Park, said late last year.

Park tickets are available on a first come, first serve basis. Recreation.gov. They are released three months in advance in monthly blocks according to the following schedule:

• 1 February: Booking in May (1-31 May);
• March 1: Booking for June (June 1-30);
• April 1: Bookings for July (July 1-31).

The scheme is maintained in July for visits until October 3rd. A limited number of tickets will be available the day before entry for purchase through Recreation.gov.

Additional fees or advance tickets for popular attractions

You may start facing higher fees or advance tickets (or both) for very popular amusement park rides once you're inside.

В Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, visitors wishing to see Old Rag Mountain must apply in advance for getting a day ticket. It's only $1, but this arrangement doesn't allow you to spontaneously visit Old Rag. The trial program will run from March 1 to November 30.

Lottery

Some features are so popular that NPS tries lotteries and there is no guarantee that you will win.

At Zion National Park in Utah, visitors wishing to hike Angels Landing will have to enter an online lottery in hopes of obtaining a hike permit. In fact, there are two types of lotteries: seasonal and the day before. The lottery entry fee is $6 and is non-refundable even if you don't win a seat. This comes into effect on April 1st.

The North Pines Campground in California's Yosemite National Park is so popular during the peak summer season that they've tested a camper pilot program: a lottery where winners get the chance to make early bookings. Lottery ended February 6th. There was a non-refundable fee of $10 to enter the draw.

Permits are very popular in Yellowstone National Park for over 1600 km of trails and 293 designated campsites. In addition to online pre-booking, Yellowstone is also running a lottery from March 1st to 20th. Winners get the opportunity to book in advance. Entrance costs $10; again, if you don't win, no money is returned.

New entry points

The last thing you need when traveling to nature is to be stuck in a city traffic. Limited entry points can often be pain points these days.

Southern California favorite desert Joshua Tree National Park began accepting public comments on the project for the construction of a toll west entrance stations about 800 m further than the park to replace the existing toll station.

The park hopes the new station will ease "excessive long travel outside the park" and also provide a safer working environment for park staff in the wilderness.

Campsite Size Limits

Large vans are a problem in some areas run by the NPS.

Gulf Islands National Seashoree introduced length and height restrictions for all vans in the campsite Fort Pickens in Florida and camping Davis Bayou in Mississippi. The rule came into effect on February 1.

"The current restrictions will be in place to ensure the safety and protection of the park and visitors' property," Gulf Islands superintendent Darrell Echols said in a press release. “In 2021, Gulf Islands National Seashore saw an increase in incidents that resulted in damage to park resources and visitor property. Compliance with these restrictions is expected to reduce the number of these incidents."

Planning

The general trend is that visitors have to plan their trips months and even more than a year in advance.

В Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, NPS has already begun accepting applications for non-commercial permits to raft the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park with launch dates in 2023. This is not a typo - this is for 2023. There will be 359 permits available for river trips lasting from 12 to 25 days.

The application period ends February 22. The NPS says follow-up lotteries are "held as needed throughout the remainder of the year to redistribute canceled and/or remaining river trips."
В Yellowstone are already accepting bookings for several campsites six months in advance. At Indian Creek, Lewis Lake, Pebble Creek, Mammoth and Slough Creek campsites, 80% of campsites will be available six months in advance of travel. For those who don't like to plan that far, the remaining 20% ​​of seats will be available in two weeks.

Other NPS efforts

Here is a quick overview of other parks and their efforts to deal with large tourist crowds for 2022:

  • North Cascades National Park (Washington State): It will offer online travel planning and seat reservations for the peak travel season from May 27 to September 30. It kicks off on March 3 with an early access lottery.
  • Rocky mountain national park (Colorado): This year it is moving to a new system for booking permits for backcountry camping permits during the peak season. From March 1 to April 3, customers will be able to view permit availability, book seats and pay online. Orders by phone, mail, e-mail and fax are not accepted.
  • Glacier National Park (Montana): Visitors in 2022 “can expect to use the ticket system to access portions of the park from May 27 to September 11. This will be the second year of the park's pilot ticketing system, designed to manage the high volumes of traffic in the park and avoid congestion." Visitors will need to create an account with Recreation.gov in order to receive tickets.
  • Yosemite National Park (California): Starting May 20, the park will have a temporary peak-hour booking system designed to increase attendance and reduce congestion. Park visitors will need an appointment to enter the park between 6:00 AM and 16:00 PM, seven days a week.

Escape from the crowd

Don't like these fees and early planning associated with the most popular parks?

Consider visiting more modest or hard-to-reach parks. NPS encourages people to check out their other offerings. Some ideas:

  • Congaree National Park (South Carolina): It is "the largest intact tract of old-growth deciduous forest remaining in the Southeast." You won't find another national park like this one.
  • Great Basin National Park (Nevada): It has the 4000 m high Wheeler Peak, sage-covered foothills and the darkest night sky.
  • Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Texas): About 177 km east of El Paso is the four highest peaks of Texas, canyons, desert landscapes and dunes.
  • Katmai National Park and Preserve (Alaska). Stunning views and brown bear sightings are just two of the attractions in this park southwest of Anchorage.

Go to the state level

And the last option to consider: state parks.

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There are some great parks dotted around the United States, and they can be less crowded while still offering unforgettable nature excursions. A few more ideas:

  • Cheaha State Park (Alabama): You might be surprised to find mountains so far south in Alabama. It is the highest point in this deep southern state at the extreme southern end of the Appalachian chain.
  • Crystal Cove State Park (California): Explore the beautiful beaches of the Pacific Coast and interesting tide pools in Orange County.
  • Letchworth State Park (New York): Sometimes referred to as the "Grand Canyon of the East". The Genesee River roars through the gorge above three large waterfalls.
  • Tettegouche State Park (Minnesota): The main attraction is the mesmerizing views of Lake Superior from the top of the cliff. This is a favorite place for rock climbers. A mid-week trip is recommended if you like privacy.

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