By Russ and Tiña De Maris
Some say America’s national parks are more than beloved – they’re being “loved to death.” The popularity of some parks makes for more than just irritable bears – irritable visitors have become the order of the day as parking spaces are scarce, and the so-called solitude of many parks gives way to shoulder-to-shoulder crowds vying for places at scenic lookouts.
Responding to the overcrowding, park managers at Utah’s Zion and Arches national parks have given serious thought to forcing visitors to make reservations to come and visit their parks. The idea has met with no small amount of controversy. But it’s not the first time: Back in the 1990s, Yosemite National Park’s superintendent floated the same idea, only to be met with waves of opposition. The idea was quietly dropped.
Some say it’s bound to happen. They’re wrong. It’s already happened. Muir Woods National Monument in California’s redwood country has made the decision. Effective January 16, drive your car to the entry gate without a reservation in hand and expect to be turned away. This is not just a “high season” approach, reservations will be the order of the day, 365 days a year.
With room in the parking lot for 232 cars, things can get a bit tight when visitors come to call. In 2016, 1.1 million visitors flocked to the groves at Muir Woods, nearly a one-third jump in visitation in a decade. On busy summer weekends when the lot filled up, strings of cars numbering in the hundreds lined the roadways outside of the park, creating traffic nightmares and, in some cases, creating environmental damage to salmon habitat.
Monument officials tried some alternatives before making this difficult decision. Why not build a remote parking lot near Mill Valley and bus visitors in. Local residents said, “Not in my backyard.” A similar thought for shuttle service from Muir Beach brought out plenty of opponents, leaving monument staff feeling they had no way out.
The reservation system is designed to cut down the crowds, and if officials’ estimates are correct, it will have that effect: A 16 percent drop in attendance is foreseen. And add this to your statistical file: Not only will those who visit pay the $10 entrance fee, they’ll also be assessed an $8 reservation fee. Hike in or ride your bike, you won’t need a reservation. It does beg the question – what if you park your car outside the monument and “hike” in?
The Muir Woods experiment will be closely watched by other park managers. After all, overall visitation throughout the U.S. Park System continues to rise. In the Top 10 Park Service Units (which include national parks, monuments, and other service managed sites), all but three saw increases in visitation in 2016 over 2015. For National Parks, proper, all of the Top 10 parks saw nothing but increases in visitors for the same year. Reservations to see your national treasures just could become the new normal.