Photo by Shutterstock
Photo by Shutterstock
Yosemite still has plenty of summer slots available—just don’t delay much.
Despite reports to the contrary, Montana’s Glacier National Park is not sold out, and there’s still time to reserve entry and shuttle tickets for Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Zion. Here’s everything you need to know about the national parks requiring reservations this year.
Last spring, many of the 63 U.S. national parks closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic. In the following weeks and months, as social distancing in the great outdoors became increasingly accepted as a safe way to recreate, they began reopening, often with limited visitor capacity or requiring advance tickets or reservations. Many parks had (and still have) more limited services: Visitor centers and dining venues might be closed or have reduced hours, staffing may be reduced, and fewer in-person services may be available like guided hikes or ranger talks.
The good news is that for summer 2021, all 63 national parks are open and only a small handful (six, as of now) require advance reservations of some kind:
Yes, these are some of the more popular parks in the National Park System, but plenty of must-see parks like the Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains don’t require advance reservations—though many parks still recommend them. Aside from the six we are breaking down for you, be sure to research any national park before you go as the entry requirements differ from one park to the next and may have changed even since last year.
Additionally, parks may still require masks, even outside, when maintaining a safe social distance from others isn’t possible. Expect other COVID-19 health and safety protocols to remain in place.
Here’s a cheat sheet for the parks that require reservations and how to try for last-minute slots as they become available.
In California’s Sierra Nevada, Yosemite National Park is home to the tallest waterfall in North America (Yosemite Falls), some of the largest trees on Earth (sequoias), and granite monoliths like Sentinel Dome, among other natural wonders. In 2019, nearly 4.6 million visitors descended on the park, a number that fell to 2.3 million in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Because of the public health crisis, Yosemite closed to the general public in mid-March 2020 and reopened nearly three months later on June 11, 2020. When the park reopened, it required visitors to reserve a permit in advance. That reservation system lasted until October and is being brought back for summer 2021.
If you want to drive into Yosemite any time between May 21 and September 30, you’re going to need an advance reservation. As of May 12, reservations for all of those dates are available to be booked via recreation.gov, and last we checked, there are still a fair number of summer dates open for booking—though who knows how long that will last. (Prior to May 21, you do not need a reservation to visit Yosemite). If people cancel, those reservations immediately become available online.
Yosemite also sets aside a limited number of reservations that can be booked exactly one week before the arrival date. So, for instance, if you want to go on June 18, you can log onto the system on June 11 to try for a spot. Bookings open up at 8 a.m. Pacific Time on any given day.
Each reservation is for what is called “Day Use Entry” and is valid for three consecutive days of entering the park an unlimited number of times. Only one reservation is needed per vehicle—regardless of the number of people within the vehicle. Someone inside the vehicle, not necessarily the driver, must be the reservation holder (and should have a photo ID to be able to confirm they are the reservation holder).
The Day Use Entry permits cost $35, which includes a $2 nonrefundable reservation fee. The park is open to day-use permit holders from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Annual and lifetime pass holders only need to pay $2.
If you have a reservation at a hotel, private lodging, or vacation rental in Wawona, Yosemite West, or Foresta, you don’t need an advance reservation to enter the park. You will still need to pay the $35 fee upon entering the park (by credit card only). Annual and lifetime pass holders will not be charged an entrance fee. You will receive an overnight vehicle permit valid for the duration of your stay or for three consecutive days (whichever is longer) for unlimited entries.
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You also don’t need an advance reservation if you have camping or lodging reserved at the following campgrounds: Upper Pines, Lower Pines, North Pines, Camp 4, Wawona Campground, Bridalveil Creek, or Tuolumne Meadows. The same applies if you have a reservation to stay in Curry Village, Housekeeping Camp, Yosemite Valley Lodge, the Ahwahnee, or the Wawona.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a hiker’s dream. The 415 square miles of mountain landscapes include more than 300 miles of hiking trails where visitors might spot moose, elk, wildflowers, and glacial basins.
The park was the country’s fourth most-visited national park in 2020, only behind Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, and Zion, welcoming 3.3 million visitors last year. That was a nearly 30 percent drop from the 4.7 million visitors who descended on the popular Colorado park in 2019, a result of the coronavirus pandemic of course.
Rocky Mountain National Park was closed from March to May 2020. And when it reopened in late May, it implemented a timed entry permit system that lasted through October 12, 2020.
In 2021, Rocky Mountain National Park is reintroducing entry permit reservation requirements for May 28 through October 11. While still intended to limit the number of entrants this year, the park is allowing for more reservations per day in 2021 than it did last year—approximately 75 to 85 percent of the park’s total parking capacity, compared to approximately 60 percent of the park’s total parking capacity allowed in last year.
There are two types of reservations you can make. One is for the Bear Lake Road corridor, which will include access to Bear Lake as well as the rest of the park for entry between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m. (Reservations are not required for entry prior to 5 a.m. or after 6 p.m., and the park is open 24 hours a day.) The other permit is for all areas of the park except for the Bear Lake Road corridor for entry into the park between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. (Reservations are not required prior to 9 a.m. or after 3 p.m.) The permits are available in two-hour entry windows—so, for instance, there are 5–7 a.m. slots, 7–9 a.m. slots, 9–11 a.m. slots, and so on. You must enter within that two-hour window but can leave at any time (obviously the earlier slots are the most coveted).
Reservations to enter the park will go on sale on recreation.gov at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on the following dates:
The park will set aside 25 percent of all permits that will be available for purchase the day before at 5 p.m. Mountain Time through recreation.gov.
Among the many things that make Haleakalā National Park popular is the fact that it is home to the highest peak in Maui, Puʻu ʻUlaʻula, which rises 10,023 feet above sea level. That height coupled with the unique desert-like landscape of this dormant volcano crater and the moody surrounding skies make this a very popular place to trek to for a sunrise viewing.
Reservations for a sunrise viewing at Haleakalā have long been required. The National Park Service implemented a reservation system for sunrise entries in 2017 in an attempt to control the crowds.
The reservation system remains in place for 2021.
A reservation is required for each vehicle that enters the park from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. As of April 7, 2021, reservations can be made online up to 60 days in advance and are released at 7 a.m. Hawai‘i Time. Some reservations will also be released two days prior to a desired date of entry if you want to try for a last-minute booking.
Reservations will not be refunded or exchanged due to weather.
Situated along the Atlantic coast, Maine’s Acadia National Park features 27 miles of scenic roads and 158 miles of hiking trails. The park is home to forests, rocky headlands, mountains, lakes, and wetlands.
Advance reservations are not required for Acadia National Park, but they are required to drive up Cadillac Summit Road, a three-mile scenic drive to the top of the highest peak in the park, Cadillac Mountain at 1,530 feet. Go to reservation.gov to book either a sunrise drive, for between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., or a daytime drive—the daytime drives are available for 30-minute entry windows that start at 6:30 a.m. and go all the way until 8 p.m.
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As for the rest of the park, visitors will be required to have a park entrance pass, which must be displayed in their vehicles and clearly visible through the windshield. While it’s not required to reserve one ahead of time, in-person pass sales will be limited and the park is encouraging visitors to buy and print a pass online before visiting the park.
Glacier National Park features more than 700 miles of trails, numerous pristine glacial lakes, gorgeous mountain views, and ample wilderness. The park’s popular Going-to-the-Sun Road connects Lake McDonald, Logan Pass, and the St. Mary Valley and is a 50-mile scenic drive through the natural wonders of the park.
As of now, about 20 miles of the Going-to-the-Sun Road is open to the public as park personnel work to plow and clear the central portion of the road—about 14 miles of the western stretch of the road up until the Avalanche Creek campground and about 6 miles of the western stretch of the road are available to drive up until the Rising Sun campground, Gina Kerzman, public affairs officer at Glacier National Park, told AFAR.
Beginning Memorial Day Weekend, tickets will be required to drive the iconic route, even though the entire road isn’t expected to fully reopen until late June or at the beginning of July. Park officials don’t know exactly when the full road will open as it is based on a number of factors, including less predictable environmental ones such as possible avalanches as well as how quickly crews can work to get it plowed.
A ticketed entry system was established for the first time this year to help manage crowding, congestion, and construction. Tickets for each day open up at recreation.gov 60 days in advance, which means right now tickets are being made available for mid-July dates. But if it turns out that the road reopens in late June or early July, park officials said they would likely add more tickets into the system for the dates when the road is fully open.
So, contrary to some reports, 2021 reservations for Glacier National Park are not sold out.
Visitors entering the park through the Many Glacier, Two Medicine, Polebridge, Cut Bank, Chief Mountain Highway, and North Fork entrances do not need reservations, nor do those entering on foot or by bike.
Those with proof of a reservation inside the park for lodging, camping, boat rides, bus tours, guided hikes, or horseback rides are also exempt from the reservation requirement.
Those entering the Going-to-the-Sun Road at West Glacier, St. Mary, or the Camas Road, however, will need a park pass and a $2 entry reservation ticket if entering between May 28 and September 6, 2021.
Park passes include a seven-day private vehicle or motorcycle permit ($35 and $30, respectively), as well as annual and lifetime passes.
Entry tickets, good for seven days, are only required between the hours of 6 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Approximately 75 percent of the reservation tickets will be available up to 60 days in advance, and the remaining 25 percent will be released 48 hours in advance—which is a way to try for some last-minute tickets. The tickets are made available at recreation.gov starting at 8 a.m. Mountain Time.
As of March 13, 2021, and through November, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which includes the Emerald Pools, West Rim Trail, Angels Landing, Riverside Walk, and the Narrows is closed to private vehicles. Instead, Zion National Park has implemented a shuttle system with ticketed reservations required.
Without a shuttle ticket, you can still drive through the tunnel on the Zion–Mount Carmel Highway, the scenic Kolob Terrace Road, and access the Zion Canyon Visitor Center and hike the trails near there.
Reservations to purchase advance shuttle tickets for Zion will go on sale at recreation.gov at 9 a.m. Mountain Time on the following dates:
Tickets will also be released the day before your intended visit at 5 p.m. Mountain Time. Both these and the advance shuttle tickets cost $1. The shuttles start running each day at 6 a.m. Park officials advise trying for weekdays to avoid crowds. Free afternoon walk-up tickets will be available on a first-come, first-served basis from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center as well.
For those who had their heart set on a very particular date for one of the parks listed above, all is not lost.
If for some reason the park and dates you had hoped for are booked, there is always the option to bank the idea for another year and uncover the National Park Service’s underrated gems instead, explore these crowd-free national park alternatives, or head to some of the dozens of U.S. state parks worth discovering this summer and fall, too.
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