What to Know Before Booking a National Park Trip This Summer

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In 2023, the seashores, lakeshores, battlefields, historic sites, monuments and more that make up the National Park Service had 325.5 million visits, an increase of 4 percent from the year before.

The National Park Service director, Charles F. Sams III, praised the surge of interest in “learning our shared American story throughout the hidden gems of the National Parks System.”

Expecting an even greater turnout in 2024, the Park Service and Recreation.gov, the booking platform for federal land reservations, have implemented new measures to streamline the park experience, manage overcrowding and safeguard the environment.

To better avoid congested trails, packed parking lots and overflowing trash cans, additional parks are joining Rocky Mountain, Arches and Glacier National Parks this year in requiring day-use permits, timed entries and other reservations for travelers who wish to visit, particularly during peak hours, holidays and the parks’ high seasons. Yosemite National Park is reinstating a timed-entry system it instituted in 2020, but paused in 2022.

Many park enthusiasts expressed mixed feelings about the reservation policies, with some lamenting a lack of first-come, first-served campsites while others find comfort in knowing they have a confirmed booking. As nearly 75 percent of visitors each year descend on national parks from May to October (and often on weekends), park officials stand by the system.

“In some parks, the level of demand is exceeding the capacity for which infrastructure was designed or is outpacing the National Park Service’s ability to sustainably support visitation,” said Kathy Kupper, a public affairs specialist for the service. “This trend is resulting in the need to explore new strategies to protect natural and cultural resources and provide opportunities for safe and meaningful visitor experiences.”

It can be confusing.

New to implementing timed-entry reservations for vehicles is Mount Rainier National Park, in Washington, for its popular Paradise and Sunrise Corridors during certain times in the summer season. Reservations cost $2, are valid for one day and must be purchased along with the park ticket, but do not apply for visitors with wilderness permits or camping or lodge reservations. Similar vehicle reservations are now required for certain periods for viewing the sunrise at Haleakalā National Park in Maui, Hawaii, and driving the Cadillac Summit Road in Maine’s Acadia National Park.

Visitors wishing to hike Old Rag Mountain in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park must obtain a day-use ticket between March 1 and Nov. 30, and in Zion National Park, in Utah, hikers wishing to visit Angels Landing, the dramatic 1,488-foot-tall rock formation, also need to purchase a permit. Fees range from $1 to $6, in addition to the parks’ entrance fees.

As each destination is managed differently, check the park’s webpage for the type of reservation required. Although most bookings can be made through Recreation.gov, some sites, such as Muir Woods National Monument, use a different system.

In 2023, Recreation.gov reported that more than 4 million camping reservations and 2 million timed-entry reservations were booked online, and 1.5 million permits were issued. Some 2.9 million new users signed up for the site. With its expanding user base, the booking platform has added 58 reservable national park locations — including 17 campgrounds — such as Central Avenue Walk-in Sites at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Bluff Hike In Camping in South Carolina’s Congaree National Park.

Recreation.gov has also improved an alerts feature, piloted in July 2023, that can notify users through email or mobile push notifications when a sold-out campsite becomes available. After Recreation.gov notifies you of availability, you must book the campsite yourself online — and quickly, as you’ll be shown how many other people (possibly hundreds) have received the same alert.

While its customer support center and mobile app are still only available in English, Recreation.gov recently introduced a Spanish language translation option. The Park Service partners with Latino Conservation Week, which hosts nationwide hikes and events on environmental education and in-park stewardship, and will celebrate its 10th year in September.

The 2024 America the Beautiful pass no longer allows two owners. The annual interagency pass, which costs $80 and covers the entrance fees for more than 2,000 federal recreation sites (of which roughly 100 do not charge for admission year-round), is now marked by a single signature line on the back of the card. The pass owner must show I.D. and be present with any accompanying travelers wishing to access the park with the pass. (Annual passes issued in 2023 will still be valid until their expiration date.) The pass covers all passengers in a vehicle — up to four adults, and children under 16 are admitted free — or up to four cyclists riding together. Active military or veterans and people with permanent disabilities are eligible for a free lifetime pass; 4th grade students may receive a free annual pass; and senior citizens may purchase a $20 annual pass or pay $80 for a lifetime pass.

To better protect against global warming, the Park Service is putting more than $65 million from the Inflation Reduction Act and Great American Outdoors Act into climate mitigation and ecosystem restoration.

Using $15.9 million budgeted for zero-emission vehicle deployment, charging capacity and infrastructure, the Park Service is prioritizing a reduction in carbon emissions, said Mr. Sams, by installing new electric-vehicle charging stations and running electric buses.

An interactive online locator tool created in 2023 shows E.V. charging stations throughout 27 national parks and the type of chargers available. In addition to the tool, every national park page displays alerts on road closures, parking lot capacities, construction work and other incidents.

Mr. Sams also said the Park Service is investing $1.3 billion from the Great American Outdoors Act to improve accessibility features, ranging from a new A.D.A.-compliant visitor center at Morristown National Historic Park in New Jersey to new beach wheelchairs at Sleeping Bear Dunes, Channel Islands and Virgin Islands National Parks. Each destination’s website has an accessibility tab to help visitors plan their trip, and Recreation.gov now has a search filter on its homepage to make it easier to locate accessible accommodations.

New lodging options now available across the country include the Flamingo Lodge, which opened outside Everglades National Park last fall with 24 guest rooms built from repurposed shipping containers. In March, along the southeastern border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Cataloochee Ranch reopened with 11 renovated cabins and a new restaurant. This spring, the Clubhouse Hotel & Suites will welcome its first guests in Rapid City, S.D., the closest major town to Badlands National Park, and opening in May in Idaho is the Yellowstone Peaks Hotel, a 30-minute-drive from Yellowstone National Park. This fall, California-bound travelers planning a visit to General Sherman, the largest known tree on Earth, might book at AutoCamp Sequoia, just outside Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.

Also in California: Those who don’t score a highly coveted (and contentious) spot at the newly reopened High Sierra Camps in Yosemite could book Wildhaven Yosemite in Mariposa, which offer more affordable rates, hiking trails and views of the Sierra Nevadas. Reservations for its first season are available beginning May 1.

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