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.
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.