Should reservations be required to enter popular national parks?

Crowds wait for Zion’s shuttle bus in March, which was once the off-season.

Our national parks are getting loved to death. Crowds are often so big that it’s no fun for visitors who came to enjoy nature but end up spending more time fighting crowds.

Utah’s Zion National Park was the first to propose requiring reservations to enter the park (not just camp, but to ENTER). Other popular parks are considering the same thing. Park officials theorize that reservations can  even out the traffic, and making visiting our historic and beauty spots a better experience for everyone.

What do you think? Is this a good or bad idea?

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35 Thoughts to “Should reservations be required to enter popular national parks?”

  1. JBC

    Reservations at National and State Parks. The best situation we have experienced is: A certain number of sites are set aside as ‘reservation only’ sites and an equal number are set aside as ‘first come, first served’. Of course sites that are not ‘reserved’ can be made available to a single night stay. This addresses the need of those that must/choose to plan in advance and those that travel with no plans/plan as they travel. Having reservation only eliminates any spontaneous travel/camping which is the only way many families/individuals can ‘get away’ and/or seek camping site opportunities. This is especially true of State Parks.

  2. Steve

    I think reservations are going to be the norm to control the crowds to make sure of a quality experience. Go to the Vatican and it is tickets and controlled entrance. Tour buses should be via reservation only.

  3. Jan

    Definitely YES FOR RESERVATIONS for around 75 % of the sites. Best scenario is that you can book out 365 days or less at anytime. (or M-F) Then you eliminate the panic on a single opening day system and/or server crashes. Stays probably should be limited to somewhere between 7 and 14 days. Perhaps 7 during peak months. It is such a more enjoyable experience to go to a waiting site. Especially after a day of traveling. Many folks have had the opposite experience… drive for miles to find no sites available, no room to park and wait and maybe get caught in a traffic jam, spending hours and still have to drive somewhere else to find an open campground. Also, if you can reserve a campsite, you can choose one that fits your rig.

  4. Jack in Texas.

    I am sorry. I have no answer for this question.

  5. CrazyLarry

    Split up allocations, pick a percentage – say 25% reservations, 75% FIFO (first in-first out), max stay during peak or busy holiday seasons limited to 7 maybe max at 10 days.

  6. Traveling Man

    Paul above mentioned using higher prices to regulate the population in the parks…

    OK…What if prices go to $200 a spot during peak seasons? When will YOU go? ONLY during the off peak periods. That’s when… It will be cold, rainy, the trees will have lost all of their leaves.

    For some, this can be enjoyable as well, but I like the ability to go year round (spring, summer, fall and winter). I won’t pay higher prices just to go in the summer. I’ll just go somewhere else (as many will do). So….It will be an entitlement for the rich. I don’t like that idea. The parks are for everybody.

  7. Len nicholas

    Have reservations available.But not required.Solves it all…

  8. Dann G.

    Absolutely NOT. The outcome would be to bring in only a certain group of RV’ers and exclude all others.
    All those “living” for many months or full-time would be the first go tie up the sites and exclude those of us that do not live on the road. The best way is to serve all campers and RV’ers eqaually without regard for special interests.

    1. Karen Willis

      I would say reservations for some of the sites, but only a week or two in advance. Certainly not months or a year in advance.

  9. Ed

    Some reservations and some first come first served.

  10. Mike Clifford d

    My wife and I have volunteered in the National Parks for 13 years. I am retired law enforcement and worked with law enforcement Rangers both in Yosemite and the “Smokies” on both sides as well as in the campground office one year. The term “Loving our Parks to death. The Smokies is the most heavily used with some 10 million visitors a year Cades Cove 11 mile loop road can take 2-3 hours,or more,often. Bumper to bumper idling cars,blowing horns, long lines at restrooms eally takes away from the beautiful experience have no answers except RESERVATIONS in the campgrounds is a must!

  11. Tom

    What happened to the days of overflow parking with no reservations. Learn from the cruise ships in crowd handling. They post the volume of participants so you know ahead of time how crowded things are. I’m all for priority access with reservations, but it would be nice to find a way to accomadate the freestyler.

  12. Paul

    They should just raise the price during peak times. Particularly since the parks need the money.

    1. Jillie

      That I totally agree with. They do that with movie theaters now a days. At least that is what we were told. We do movies at home.

  13. Gene Bjerke

    It depends on season, I suppose, reservations required during busy seasons, not at other times. Since we try to avoid traveling on a schedule, we generally don’t get reservations. If reservations are required, we assume the place would be over-crowded and simply go elsewhere.

  14. Lizzy

    Phew! This is a hard one.

    Reservations or shutting the gates & using barcodes are great ideas
    – reservations may create a situation in which tour operators and travelers must wait for the reservation window to open. Then, bam! the phone and computer lines are tied up and reservations gone in seconds,as we saw in parks in the Eclipse 2017 path of totality.
    – reservations may create an elite access only situation. Those without connection or computers won’t have access to reservations.
    If something isn’t done soon, the parks will be damaged and need to be closed to protect them from further human caused damage.

    You can see that I am for a reservation system that has no opening day or window, that allows reservations to be made on space available basis 365 days a year, and that automatically suggests the next available time to users. Also, reservation systems would need a program of outreach to poor communities so that the rich won’t be the only ones in the parks.

  15. Phil & Peggy Smith

    No, just keep the cars out. The buses at Zion work just fine moving everyone around.

    1. Lee Ensminger

      I’d like to second that suggestion.

  16. Terry P

    Some type of reservations or restrictions during popular seasons makes sense, to me. A limit to the number of tour buses, small and large, is definitely needed. We were in Yellowstone NP in the fall of 2016 and couldn’t see or stop at the popular sites due to the unavailability of parking, the multiple groups taking multiple selfies, blocking the pathways, and I won’t go into the filth of the pit toilets! (NOT due to the lack of effort by the staff).

    1. TERRY

      Agree. All tours should be required to have reservations…they are not spontaneous journeys anyway. And they should have only a finite # of slots each day for tours. No, no barcodes etc.for individual families though.

    2. Bob Schilling

      Agree with the need to control the number of spaces (parking, RV, camping, etc.) grabbed up by tours as well as the number of tour bus travelers they bring in at a time (who so often swarm a park). There should be a limit that insures that individuals get first crack to at least 50% of the reserved parking, RV, camping, etc.spaces. Perhaps put the individual reserved spaces ‘on hold’ for individuals until 2 weeks before the schedule date, then make any that remain become open to everyone including tours.

  17. rvgrandma

    Difficult but I agree probably during the peak seasons. We have been to DC a couple times. We had to make reservations to go up the Washington Monument and even the Holocaust Museum. You had to be there at 8 in the morning to guarantee to get in which often will not be until that afternoon.

  18. John

    During the highest use times would probably benefit from requiring reservations. I’ve been to National Parks where it is so crowded in spots that you can’t actually see any of the sites or do any activities. I personally like traveling to parks in off times just for this reason.

  19. Michael Buckley

    Yes, but only at times of overcrowding.

  20. Don

    The parks aren’t getting any bigger, but the number of visitors is growing every year. There is a point where too many visitors puts a strain on everything, the eco system, facilities, noise, and the overall experience. As on person mentioned, Disney has a model where they cut off entrance when they reach a capacity that they can meet visitor expectations for a great experience. It has gotten to this point with the parks, at least during certain time periods. I would think folks planning a trip to a park would want it to be a great experience and would make a reservation to ensure that experience. Could you imagine driving 1000 miles to Disney only to pull up to the gate and seeing “capacity reached, no admittance.” Showing up to Yellowstone and not having a reservation means you have to drive a hundred or more miles to maybe find a campground or motel with vacancies. During high periods of visitors to the parks they run out of places to park just to see things and then people just start parking in places they shouldn’t or stop in the middle of the road backing up traffic.

  21. Traveling Man

    This is a difficult question…

    For some parks (that are extremely crowded), some might want a reservation to guarantee that spot upon arrival. They simply do not want to risk traveling a long way and not having a spot available. The down side to “reservations” is automated computer systems wherein Companies buy up the reservations and then sell the spaces at a premium. Campers loose in the end.

    On the other hand, there are those who travel around without a care in the world (Retirees and Full-Timers). They have lots of spare time and are not concerned with making reservations. They just want a spot for the night depending on how far they traveled.

    This is not a One-Size-Fits-All question.

    Perhaps a “balance” would be to save a fraction of spots for reservations and the remaining for those who do not have a reservation. That seems fair, right? But for the campground owner or Nat’l/State Parks, they want to fill those spots. Empty spots are leaving them high and dry (monetarily). So, they prefer reservations to ensure their cash flow. The problem here is that “reservations only” systems leave campers (like us) bypassing their locations. We’re not going to pull over just to make that reservation in advance when we don’t know if we are going to make it that far. So, the campground will loose out on folks like us.

    So, this will be a debate for Campers and Park Owners for a very long time.

    1. Roy Ellithorpe

      The question was referring to entrance to national parks only.

  22. Wicked Lady

    The barcode idea is great! Handling the crowds at some of our parks must be a horrific experience for workers there. Anything that will make their lives easier and more efficient should lead to better experiences for the visitors as well

  23. Deborah Mason

    I think a combo approach might be the best compromise. To restrict all entry to reservations would make it impossible for some Americans to visit their parks. At the busiest parks, leaving it all to first come, first served means some will miss out. There is no 100% good solution. The parks are meant for all of us, but we need to protect them so they’ll be there on into the future.

    (PS – light gray text on a white background is very difficult to see)

  24. Tommy Molnar

    As Lydia commented, I too am torn on this issue. I hate going anywhere where there are huge crowds, which means we won’t soon be going again to many of the “National Parks”. I also dislike having to plan out a trip with reservations made for every day in the next days, weeks, or even months, depending on what you want to do. I’m a “wing it” kinda guy.

    We did the ‘customary’ Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park tour (with a side trip to Antelope Canyon) several years ago. Now they’re off our list. But still, it required us and our traveling companions to make a bunch of reservations just to get NEAR the parks. We stayed at RV parks outside (but fairly close to) these parks, and still it was a hassle.

    40 years ago I came through Yellowstone and Teton National Parks on a bicycle, and that was nice. 50¢/nite in the “bike and hike” areas. No problems except trying to negotiate the HUGE traffic jams even back then. Glad I saw these parks back then because they’re no longer on my ‘list’.

  25. Nels

    Whether or not to require a reservation should be answered on a park by park basis and seasonally, depending on how crowded the park is. In some cases, make the reservation optional so the traveler can be guaranteed a place to park. A check in time for the reservation which would allow others take advantage of non arrivals. And I can see that would cause other problems.

  26. Lydia Bishop

    I am torn on this issue. I HATE crowds. I’ve been up at Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park in the peak summer season. The parking lot was like that of a shopping mall. I recall PACKED campgrounds at Mount Rainier over twenty years ago.

    There has got to be a way to control the crowds at the popular parks during the high summer travel times.

  27. Nokogranny

    How about half reservations and have walk in?

  28. keith botts

    For parking large vehicles or camping, reservations seem to be necessary. Joshua Tree park is a popular destination, but spartan and rugged. Overcrowding the park results in lost hikers, campers, and general visitors every year. I would recommend a bar code be issued for a reservation, scanned upon entrance, and scanned again upon departure. This will at least allow the overstreched SAR people (volunteer force) to know if someone is in or out of the park and reduce (not eliminate) the number of fruitless searches for people who left, changed their itinerary, and never notified anyone. Use categories that include car/pickup only, travel trailer, and RV coach. Keith B, 29Palms CA

  29. Mary Ann

    I believe there should be restrictions on the number of vehicles allowed in the parks per day. Disney World closes their gates when they reach capacity. Access to the popular Rainbow River via the Florida state park is similarly restricted.

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