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National Parks pulling tricks out of the hat to accommodate crowds

Many National Parks around the U.S. are struggling to deal with massive crowds, and they are coming up with innovative ways to control the flow of throngs of tourists eager for a taste of the “real outdoors.”

The staid National Park Service, not previously known as a crucible for innovation, has turned into a seat-of-the-pants experimental agency this year, with new reservation systems, added parking fees, timed-entry tickets and other devices and gimmicks aimed at managing the traffic flow.

Tourists jockey for position to witness sunrise on Cadillac Mountain. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti, Friends of Acadia, NPS)

Acadia National Park

In Maine’s Acadia National Park, one of the tourist hotspots is watching the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain. Many liken the event to a religious experience, and the crowds that began congregating at the mountaintop this summer looked to rival those Jesus lured to the shores of the Sea of Galilee – minus the loaves and fishes.

This summer, the Park Service began selling $6 tickets to the 150-spot parking lot at the top of Cadillac Mountain. All were gone within minutes each day. But faced with the alternative 3-mile hike up a mountainside road in the dark, the ticketing system seemed to work. Small groups of lucky ticket holders show up around 4 a.m. each morning, then set up in small groups scattered across the bedrock knoll.

Before the ticketing system went into effect in May, more than 500 cars would compete for the 150 parking spots, causing turmoil and conflicts throughout the early-morning hours. The big crowds at the summit also made it hard to experience the peaceful sunrise everyone wanted to see.

Opponents of the National Park Service’s crowd control plans say tickets and special fees only service to deny access to low-income families without high-speed internet access that would allow them to play the “ticketing game” every day. Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider doesn’t buy it, since most families who come to the park are already spending at least $300 a day on hotels, transportation, and food.

Acadia National Park is on track to have more than four million visitors this year, up 500,000 from a typical year. Last year, due to pandemic shutdowns, the park’s attendance fell 22 percent.

Other parks follow suit to control crowds

Acadia isn’t alone in its fee experiments. Tourists who want to hike the trail to Laurel Falls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park had to pay $14 to reserve their parking spot. The fee was an effort to control parking along the side of narrow roads leading to the falls. The fee experiment just concluded two weeks ago.

U.S. Senator Angus King of Maine, who chairs the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, said he’s comfortable with the fees, as long as they don’t get out of hand and are having the desired effect.

Timed entry systems have also been popular with some park managers this year. At Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, visitors pay $2 for a reserved entry time. That experiment ended for the season on Oct. 11.

Going-to-the-Sun Road implemented a timed entry system

Glacier National Park in Montana did the same system for entry to Going-to-the-Sun Road this summer. Officials said it appears the timed tickets did the job, decreasing pressure on the small two-lane road by about 12 percent during busy times.

It isn’t all rosy for some tourists, however, who find out they can’t get the coveted $2 ticket once they spend thousands on a dream vacation and arrive at the park. The system actually trained tourists to get to the park entrance prior to the start of the 6 a.m. ticketing time. Park officials said 5:30 a.m. looked like the Indy 500 as cars and RVs jockeyed for position.

Overcrowding isn’t endemic to all national parks. The National Parks Service manages about 423 park sites, but about half of tourist traffic comes from the most popular 23 park locations.

Back at Acadia National Park, those tickets to Cadillac Mountain go on sale two days in advance, starting at 10 a.m. You’ve got to be fast, however, since all 150 are gone in seconds.

Other parks experimenting

Other parks doing crowd-control experiments this year or planning them soon include:

  • Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California: Proposing a $10 per day parking fee beginning in 2022. There might also be a new fee for after-hours tours of Point Bonita Lighthouse.
  • Pearl Harbor National Memorial, Hawaii: Park officials are considering a $7 per day parking fee for 2023.
  • Yosemite National Park, California: This year, the park experimented with advanced day-use reservations, requiring a $2 ticket to secure an access time to the park.
  • Zion National Park, Utah: There could be a lottery system in place next year to get a day-use permit to hike Angels Landing Trail. The system would require a $6 lottery application fee and a $3-per-person fee to access the trail.

##RVT1022b

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Susan
1 month ago

Acadia was on the bucket list for me and my husband. I started planning almost 9 months in advance. We picked a day we wanted to see the sunrise and through research I knew what was the 1st day I could buy a ticket. Best money I spent. Glad they do it this way. I had absolutely no issues. I didn’t have to fight for a parking spot. No huge crowds so there was plenty of space to view and enjoy. The best $6 I ever spent!

J Lewis
1 month ago

National Park management has the mentality of the 1950’s with little incentive to update as rangers await govt pensions.

Richard
1 month ago

Pricing and inconveniencing people out of the parks. That’s been the goal of extreme environmentalists for decades. They’ve used the education system to train young people that government excluding citizens from publicly owned lands, that citizens pay for, is OK.
We experienced RMNP’s ticket system this summer… Never again. Complained to every employee/official I saw. They don’t care. Makes their job easier, no people, so they can sit on their government job and take tax payer(MY) money.

Social Security Payer
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard

Why was that ticket system implemented in RMNP last summer? I forgot, were there any special circumstances? Do you honestly think people get into working for the NPS for the money? Also “Complained to every employee/official I saw” I bet you did! Just so you know, you are the kind of bitter boomer that normal people make fun of.

Mike
1 month ago

My wife and I plan to do far less “peak season” RVing. Going to a National Park should be a relaxing experience. If it’s becoming a competition every day in the pre-dawn darkness to vie for access and deal with crowded facilities and trails, then, for us anyway, it has no appeal.

We recently did a “fall excursion” and were delighted to have no issues at all securing a campsite, uncrowded campgrounds even on weekends, and a great experience at the National Parks we visited.

Ron Sifford
1 month ago

Need to continue to raise the fees until manageable. Plus this would help with the under funding of national parks.

BILLY Bob Thronton
1 month ago
Reply to  Ron Sifford

Enough of the “under funding” it’s a lie. The current Alzheimer’s patient in the WH proposed, or should I say his party, is trying to spend 3.5 trillion beyond the pale. If those who remain blinded by this current travesty keep spewing nonsense, nothing can ever be made right.

Nanci
1 month ago

When visiting Boca Negra Canyon, part of the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, NM there was a fee for parking that was waived with the Lifetime National parks pass.

Davidson Richard
1 month ago

Perhaps National Park access should be limited to US nationals and not people from every country in the world.

BILLY Bob Thronton
1 month ago

You realize taking complete sense doesn’t work under the current “woke” knuckleheads!

Sherry
1 month ago

I am for anything that will protect our National Parks from overcrowding. If small fees are the answer than so be it. However, I would like to see a uniform policy. It is a “National Park System”. Different fees or solutions for different National Parks is the problem. Even this article was not that informative. What are all the National Parks which are most visited and have implemented programs? What are the dates these fees are in effect? People are now in the process of making reservations and planning trips. It is one thing to complain about over crowding but helping to find solutions for RVtravel readers and subscribers is another.

David Veasey
1 month ago
Reply to  Sherry

I recall clipping recently the following bullet-point: “The NPS intends to pilot test a general population survey of recent and potential park visitors to evaluate behavior under different entrance fee pricing models.” This is obviously a “fluid” situation; not likely to be easily answered as you suggest. I would hope that the NPS might have a webpage soon that give some reliable answers.. Lacking that, one must visit the NPS site, quiz forum members, or post online inquiries in order to obtain real-experience info. I will certainly keep looking for any “survey” that might appear open for commentary; having “found” same…to spread the word online to every Rv’ing forum than I am a member of.

Jerry McSwain
1 month ago

I can’t speak for all the NP, but our experience this past summer in Glacier was terrible. We camped inside the park and left our campsite at 5:30am in order (or so we thought) to avoid the crowded situation at Logan Pass. When we arrived at the parking lot it was totally slammed shortly before 6:30am with vehicles circling and jamming the lot almost to gridlock.

As inconvenient as this was I was amazed to not see a park ranger anywhere to assist with traffic flow or to stop access to the lot until openings occurred. Rangers finally showed latter, but they took such a layback approach their presence was useless.

I get that the crowds were at historical highs throughout the summer. I understand that funding for the NPS has never been satisfactory to maintain and operate these national treasures as they should be, but why have a lottery or ticket process if you are still admitting more vehicles than capacity can service?

Hopefully next year will be managed better.

Marvin
1 month ago
Reply to  Jerry McSwain

Your experience is typical. I worked in stores in West Glacier and spent hours every day explaining to people that the ticketed entry was the lesser of two evils – it was either that, or the NPS would have to close the gates completely. This was born out the day after the ticket requirement was lifted. The gates were temporarily closed by 9:00 a.m.

Even more amazing were the huge numbers of people who drove or flew thousands of miles to Glacier without ever looking at the NPS website, contacting local businesses in advance, or doing even the most basic homework regarding their destination. They screamed at me as though I had something to do with their disappointment.

I wish the NPS had installed a gate where Going To The Sun Road intersected with Apgar campground road. This would have allowed people easy access to Apgar, Camas Road, North Fork Road and Polebridge, as well as Bowman and Kintla Lakes to the north. Instead, they had to navigate the back roads to North Fork road.

Marvin
1 month ago
Reply to  Marvin

There is a logical solution that would be equally unpopular – build a 400-vehicle parking lot nearby – maybe Hungry Horse – and simply shuttle visitors across Going To The Sun Road. Unlimited on-off privileges, and a return shuttle from St. Mary to point of origin, or back the way they came. People will wail about losing their personal freedoms to visit the parks on their own terms, but all they would lose is the ability to drive their own vehicle along the traffic-jammed 51 miles of narrow road.What they’d gain is the ability to see the park at their leisure, without worrying about keeping their eyes on the road and trying to wrangle a parking space at Logan Pass or elsewhere. NPS didn’t ask me for ideas, though.

DW/ND
1 month ago
Reply to  Marvin

Sounds like you have studied this situation at length and understand it well. Please put it in a letter format and send to the NPS and especially to the Glacier Park chief ranger or manager.

PS: Be careful of using logic when dealing with a government agency!

Marvin
1 month ago
Reply to  DW/ND

There are a couple more twists: Vendors inside the park operate the popular fleet of red “Jammer” buses as well as traditional shuttles. I’m sure the NPS doesn’t want to go into competition with established businesses that are instrumental to the park’s success.

NPS is allowing other tour operators’ permits to expire without renewal – particularly the air tour permits – helicopters and light planes, so maybe nothing lasts forever and shuttles are a possibility.

Glacier had only 2.3 million visitors this year, and the crowds were pretty crazy. What happens when the traffic comes back to “normal” levels? 3 to 3.5 million guests are not out of the question.

DL Jenson
1 month ago
Reply to  Marvin

Excellent Idea~ older one at that, my Dad drove a bus in the late 40’s for tourists in Yellowstone. His photo’s of the time were amazing. That was back when they fed the bears! Yikes! Remember going through the park as a child with him. He always got mad at “Those FOOLS go too fast to see anything!”

BILLY Bob Thronton
1 month ago
Reply to  Marvin

You’re making to much sense, stop it right now.

Barb
1 month ago

Limiting the number of hikers in the Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion certainly makes sense. It is absolutely crazy busy and gets pretty crowded up at the top where the chain starts!

Bobbi
1 month ago

I understand the need to limit visitors. However, it never seems to fail that once a fee is implemented on a “temporary” basis, it never seems to go away after that. Before you know it, it’s required for entrance.