The days of walking into a national park at the last minute might be over.
National Park Service sites across the country have seen a boom in visitation and it means tourists need to plan ahead more than ever.
In 2021, over 297 million people visited national parks, according to the National Park Service.
Many national parks are expecting the 2022 summer season to be equally busy, starting Memorial Day weekend.
Several National Park Service sites are already warning tourists to be prepared and ready for crowds.
“We want you to enjoy your visit, and we want to be realistic about what you can expect during your time in the park,” Zion National Park spokesperson Jonathan Shafer said in a news release. “Be prepared to see lots of other people, be aware that parking usually fills early in the day.”
If you’re planning a national park trip this summer, here’s what you need to know to be prepared.
Do you need a reservation at national parks?
Nearly a dozen National Park Service sites require a reservation for entry or a popular attraction, National Park Service spokeswoman Kathy Kupper told McClatchy News.
This wasn’t always the case. Several national parks implemented reservation systems during 2020 to help reduce crowds as COVID-19 began to spread.
As parks have become more crowded, however, many national parks — even as COVID-19 concerns ease — have made reservations part of normal operations.
Several parks require tourists to have a reservation:
Yosemite National Park: Reservations are required at this California park for people entering between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. through Sept. 30.
Muir Woods National Monument: The California site was one of the first to implement a reservation system, Kupper said. It began in 2018 to help reduce traffic. Reservations are also required for the shuttle, which runs weekends and holidays.
Rocky Mountain National Park: The Colorado park is implementing a timed entry permit reservation starting Friday, May 27. There are two types of reservation permits, and tourists should research which would be best for their goals.
Arches National Park: The Utah park added a timed-entry system for tourists visiting from April 3 to Oct. 3 from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets become available three months ahead of the visit or the day before at 6 p.m.
Other parks require permits and reservations for popular attractions or hikes.
At Zion National Park in Utah, hikers need a permit to make the trek up Angels Landing. Shenandoah National Park visitors in Virginia need a day-hike ticket to hike Old Rag Mountain, and tourists at Haleakalā National Park in Hawaii need a reservation to see the sunrise on Maui’s highest peak.
Additionally, tourists visiting Glacier National Park in Montana will need a reservation for Going-to-the-Sun road, and people hoping to drive up Cadillac Summit Road in Acadia will also need a reservation.
Ford’s Theatre and the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., also have timed entry tickets.
Do national parks require tourists to wear masks?
The mask requirements at national parks are constantly changing. As of May 26, parkgoers at most national parks don’t need a mask.
It’s up to each park to determine where visitors need to wear a mask. Check the national park’s website for its guidance. If a park’s surrounding community is seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases, the mask requirements at the park could change.
“The best thing to do is for visitors to follow guidance from uniformed park staff and volunteers as well as in park signage,” Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, told McClatchy News in an email. “Since this could change while someone is visiting a park, especially if they are there for multiple days, we would recommend having a mask with you should you need it.”
How can you be prepared for a national parks trip?
The National Park Service encourages visitors to “plan like a park ranger.” That means doing research, having multiple plans and being prepared with all you might need.
“For us, a park visit begins at home with a trip to NPS.gov,” the National Park Service said on its website. “Park websites have ideas about where to go, what to see, and what to do, and most important, what we need to include in our planning.”
A backup plan could include alternative hikes or parks to visit. The nation’s most popular national parks are seeing a spike in visitation, but that’s not the case across the board.
A lesser-known and less-crowded national park could serve as a solid backup plan, the National Park Service said. The U.S. Department of the Interior has a list of alternatives to the most popular national parks.
“Some hidden gems are short drives away from their more visited siblings, while other lesser known destinations offer similar experiences,” the Department of the Interior officials said.
Visitors should know common safety guidelines for each national park ahead of time, such as what to do with food or what to expect from wildlife.
Tourists should also remember to pack the essentials before heading to a national park, including water, navigation tools, food and sun protection. Campers and hikers should also plan to take layers for sudden weather changes and items for shelter if caught in an emergency.
“No one plans to get hurt or sick while out exploring in a national park,” the National Park Service said. “However, nature is unpredictable, structures are historical, and your equipment can unexpectedly fail. Planning ahead can be the key to a fun, safe, and healthy adventure.”