National Parks Are Changing Reservation Rules This Fall

·4 min read

Yellowstone National Park is erupting in a different way this summer. The destination set a record last month for its most-visited August with 921,844 recreational visits, the park said in a release this week. That’s 4.5 percent up from last August and 12 percent up from August 2019, making it the most visited August on record.

The new benchmark also breaks the previous record of 916,166, set in 2017, when the solar eclipse drew massive crowds. But no special celestial events were needed this year to lure visitors hungry for outdoor destinations like Yellowstone—based mostly in Wyoming, with sections in Idaho and Montana.

Of course the natural wonders of Yellowstone—in particular its hydrothermal features like geysers, steam vents, mudpots, and hot springs—have long drawn tourists since it became the first national park in the U.S. back in 1872. But its popularity has seen a consistent upward trend this season.

The summer months have long been the park’s busiest season, with numbers surging every May before peaking in June, July, and August and starting to fall in September before a sharp October dip, according to park data from 2014 to 2018. July tends to be the most popular month, with 23.57 percent of annual visitors visiting that month.

This year has seen several summer monthly visitor records broken, with 483,159 recreational visitors this May, up 11 percent since 2019 (the park was closed March 24 to May 18 in May 2020) and June with 938,845 recreational visitors, up 64 percent from 2020 and 20 percent from 2019.

But it’s July that truly had earth-shattering numbers as Yellowstone saw more than a million recreational visitors for the first time in a single month with 1,080,767, growing 13 percent from the previous July and 15 percent from July 2021.

“Increases to Yellowstone’s visitation have accelerated rapidly over the past 12 months and we continue to be on pace to set record numbers for 2021,” Superintendent Cam Sholly said in a statement last month. “We are actively developing defensible short and long-term solutions, with our partners, which focus on protection of park resources, improving visitor experience, and considering impacts on park staffing, infrastructure and our gateway communities and regional economies.”

For now, those solutions don’t include what several other national parks have implemented: an entry reservation system.

This summer, some national parks, including Yosemite and Rocky Mountain, began requiring reservations for general entry to curb overcrowding; however, the two most-visited national parks—Great Smoky Mountain and Yellowstone—did not.

But that is changing at Great Smoky Mountain, which just began requiring reservations for the fall. The park's just-launched pilot program, requires visitors to make reservations for its Laurel Falls Trailhead parking lot from September 7 through October 3. Utah's Zion National Park is also considering a lottery-based permit system, which would start next March.

While those parks are ramping up their rules, the ones with summer reservation systems in place are winding them down for the fall season. Yosemite—which currently requires reservations just to drive into the park—will end the requirement after September 30, while Rocky Mountain’s entry reservation will run through October 11. Acadia, which requires a vehicle permit for its Cadillac Summit Road, will also end that necessity after October 19.

Glacier National Park in Montana previously required a reservation before driving on its famed Going-to-the-Sun Road, but rolled back that rule after Labor Day—though it still has an alert out stating, “September visitation continues to be high,” telling visitors to expect temporary closures at entrances during times of congestion.

For others, the reservation system will be in place year round for popular attractions, like Hawaii’s Haleakalā National Park's sunrise visits.

While Yellowstone does require camping and lodging reservations, there’s no need to pre-book for entry. But the park still has an alert on its site: “Keep in mind summer is busy, so be prepared for crowds at popular areas and lines at the entrance gates, in construction areas, and at roadside wildlife sightings. Please be patient and enjoy your visit.”

Looking ahead, the park’s numbers are still expected to be higher than normal this fall, and officials suggest visitors stay on top of the latest situation via its app, site, or social media, while cautioning: “If you plan to travel to Yellowstone this autumn, plan ahead, expect crowding and recreate responsibly to protect yourself and the park.”

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler