With crowds expected to overwhelm national park properties yet again in 2022, expect additional restrictions put in place to ease congestion.
Some places—like Indiana Dunes National Park and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore—are introducing entrance fees for the first time. Others, like Rocky Mountain and Arches national parks, will require visitors to obtain timed-entry passes. At Boundary Waters, the number of permits will be reduced by about 13 percent.
Most of the measures, such as the timed-entry permits, are relatively inexpensive, and they work to thin the crowds rather than make the parks accessible only to the most affluent. (Nearly all of the newly instated measures add costs of less than $10.)
So why are the parks besieged with record crowds? There are many reasons, but the main two are likely due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and social media.
The pandemic brought more people outside to recreate. This in itself is not a bad thing, but many travelers are congregating in the same places, which is causing overcrowding.
For years, Horseshoe Bend in Northern Arizona garnered just a few thousand visitors annually. But when photos of it started appearing more and more on social media, crowds began arriving en masse. Former Page Mayor Bill Diak told the Guardian that visitation hit 100,000 in 2010, when Instagram launched, then catapulted to 750,000 5 years later. When visitors topped the 2 million mark, the NPS built a paid parking area in order to upgrade the facilities and hire more staff.
It can be annoying and frustrating to jump through additional hoops to visit a place, especially if you’re denied. On a recent visit to Acadia National Park in Maine, Mike Spilker and Maria Ursuy attempted to get timed-entry tickets to the Cadillac Mountain parking area to watch the sunrise. While they were unsuccessful for their preferred time, they did manage to snag a permit for later in the day, staying until sunset.
“It was a little disappointing because the sun rises on Cadillac Mountain before anywhere else in the U.S.,” Ursuy said. “But that’s why everyone wants to do it. You just need to be a little flexible and occasionally think outside the box. We had an alternative plan in place just in case we didn’t get a permit.”
Spilker said the Recreation.gov app and website “made a huge difference” when buying a permit and getting campground reservations.
So where are you most likely to face some kind of restrictions in 2022? The “What’s New” page on Recreation.gov lists many of the newest changes, and individual park websites will tell you if you need a timed-entry permit or if certain roads are closed without a similar permit.
If planning a summer trip, attempt to get your passes immediately. Depending on the location, reservations can be made 6 months in advance. But if you don’t get a permit, you can still roll the dice; the NPS typically releases a limited number of passes 1 to 2 days in advance.
National Parks Requiring Timed-Entry Permits in 2022
Following the success of Rocky Mountain National Park’s timed-entry passes, both Arches and Yosemite will implement similar programs, beginning in the spring and continuing into the fall. Each park’s website lists the dates that the timed-entry system will be in effect. RMNP gives two options with its timed entry—one allowing entrance to the Bear Lake Road corridor and the other not. Hawaii’s Haleakala National Park will also require reservations from the hours of 3 to 7 a.m. when crowds rush to the summit of Maui’s highest peak to watch the sunrise.
Outside of the national parks, other NPS sites such as Muir Woods National Monument and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area will require timed-entry passes for at least part of the year.
Acadia National Park will again require an advance reservation to drive or park at Cadillac Summit Road, as will Glacier National Park for Going-to-the-Sun Road.
National Parks With Ticked Shuttle Services in 2022
Most highly trafficked parks offer a shuttle service. Zion National Park shuts down nearly all private vehicle usage along the Scenic Canyon Drive during its high season in favor of the well-run shuttle. (If you’d prefer not to ride the shuttle, Zion will allow you to bike along the road.) Yosemite is bringing back its shuttle this year, and Yellowstone will continue its driverless electric shuttle pilot program through Canyon Village.
National Parks Trail Permit Changes for 2022
Permits are needed to hike up Zion’s infamous Angels Landing, available via a lottery several months in advance. Likewise, Yosemite and Shenandoah will require a permit to hike up Half Dome and Old Rag, respectively. Look for more parks to follow their lead in the coming years.
National Park Campground Reservation Changes in 2022
Nearly every park requires campground reservations, and it’s recommended to secure them as soon as you know your travel dates. Even parks with multiple large campgrounds routinely fill up during the high season.
National Park Backcountry Permit Changes in 2022
With few exceptions, you’ll need to apply for a backcountry permit no matter what national park you decide to visit. Luckily, save for popular locations like Glacier and Yosemite, permits are pretty easy to obtain. Most are free and can be purchased the morning of your trip.
How to Avoid National Park Crowds in 2022
Plan ahead. Book permits, campground reservations, and other necessary activities as early as possible.
Venture from popular areas. Most park visitors stick to the most recognizable landmarks and many don’t leave their vehicles. Spend 1 day doing more touristy activities and then take another day to visit the quieter corners of the park, or stick to longer hikes. If you have a high-clearance vehicle with four-wheel drive, you can typically access areas that most other visitors avoid.
Go early or stay late. This has long been my go-to method for avoiding crowds—waking up just before daybreak and making a beeline to the trail that will be packed with other visitors by late morning. While more visitors are starting to catch on to this strategy, arriving early still has its benefits. You’ll have a higher chance of completing the hike or activity you’re looking to do with more daylight hours.
Experts often recommend going in the so-called shoulder seasons, early spring or late fall, but with more people working remotely from anywhere, there’s no longer a traditional off-season in many parks.
Rent or bring e-bikes. Navigating through busy national parks in an RV can be frustrating. I prefer to park at the campground or a central parking area, then make my way around using an e-bike. E-bikes will get you where you need to go while leaving you enough energy to also hike or do other activities. You also don’t need to worry about finding parking.
Adjust your expectations. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in the U.S. I was sure I could find some solitude on a recent trip, but every trail was packed. So I just went with it. I bonded with fellow travelers and campers, taking photos of smiling couples in front of Laurel Falls. It still ended up being an enjoyable experience.
Visit less popular parks. There are plenty of less-visited national parks that are just as noteworthy as the more famous ones. If you’re able to travel to more remote locations, your chances of avoiding other visitors greatly increase.