In 1912, John Muir, a naturalist and considered the “father of the national parks,” wrote a letter concerning Yosemite National Park. Muir had attended a conference about the park, and wrote the major issue of the conference was, “The great question Shall automobiles be allowed to enter Yosemite?” The answer has been made clear. Muir’s “blunt-nosed mechanical beetles,” as he called them, indeed gained access to Yosemite, and to all of America’s national parks. If Muir were around today, he’d no doubt despair at the long lines at entry stations. Save for, perhaps, in parks where timed entry passes are mandated.
You don’t need to just drive a “blunt nosed mechanical beetle.” Perhaps Muir was being prophetic when he wrote, “Good walkers can go anywhere in these hospitable mountains without artificial ways. But most visitors have to be rolled on wheels with blankets and kitchen arrangements.” Blankets? Kitchen arrangements? Sounds like an RV to us. But with millions visiting the parks each year—and with those numbers rising—access to the parks can get downright bottlenecked. To prevent too much of these rigs “to puff their way into all the parks and mingle their gas-breath with the breath of the pines and waterfalls,” as Muir lamented, some parks are attempting to smooth out the visits with a timed entry system.
Problems led to timed entry at Arches
Smoothing out visits was the principle reason Utah’s Arches National Park went to the timed entry pass system. In the past, most visitors showed up at midday, and they’d all rush out about the same time. The result was traffic jams. When parking lots were full, rangers would shut down entry. At times the waiting time to get in the gate was four hours. In 2021, entry access during “normal” visiting hours had to be stopped 140 times.
So here’s the system at Arches
Here’s how it works now. At Arches, if you plan to visit any time before October 31, you’ll need to make a reservation. The park will release reservations on a first-come, first-served basis three months before entry date. Coming in September? Log on to recreation.gov on June 1 at 8:00 a.m. (Mountain Daylight Time) to get an entry system reservation. Sounds like that eliminates spur-of-the-moment plans, eh?
There is a workaround. Arches sells a “limited number” of reservations for folks coming [s the next day. If you can’t snag one of those, then showing up in your puffing, blunt-nosed beetle before 7:00 a.m. means you won’t need a reservation at all.
Glacier and Rocky Mountain jump on timed entry, too
Two other National Parks in the system are using timed entry this year. Montana’s Glacier National Park will mandate timed entry at the Going-to-the-Sun Road and North Fork entrances from May 26 through Sept. 10, 2023. No quick workaround for early entry—the entry clock requiring a timed entry begins at 6:00 a.m. and runs until three in the afternoon. Other gates at Glacier, Many Glacier and Two Medicine will follow the same hours, but won’t begin timed entry until July 1.
In Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park adds a twist. Their advance time is unlike Arches. To visit any time from May 26 to June 30, reservations open on May 1. Then on June 1, you can reserve dates for all of July—and anything that hasn’t been snapped up for dates earlier than June 1.
Adding to the confusion, the park offers two tiers of timed entry. “Park Access” allows access to the entire park, with the exception of the Bear Lake Road corridor. The pass allows entry between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. “Park Access+” adds access to the Bear Lake Road corridor, and lets you in earlier—5:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. In any event, if you have campground reservations, you won’t need either of these timed entry passes.
Is your head spinning? Rocky Mountain management adds, “40 percent of all reservations will be released via Recreation.gov on the day prior to a desired arrival date at 5 p.m. MDT.” [Emphasis ours]
So how does this all sound so far? For some, it may be a bit confusing. The dates and arrangements vary by park, and don’t seem to follow a “rhyme or reason.” But each park has its own issues. Zion National Park in Utah tried timed entry in the past. But Zion has few miles of roads to be traveled, compared with other parks. Timed entry didn’t work out too well at Zion, as even if cars were “spaced out” on entry, they didn’t have far to go in the park and couldn’t spread out well. Other parks have different popularity times.
So how do park visitors view the timed entry system? At Arches, 1,000 park visitors were randomly interviewed. Around half of these were interviewed during summer, shortly after the new system went into place, the other half, in fall, after timed entry had shut down for the season. Of summer visitors, more than three-quarters said they knew about the system before they got to the park and of them, almost 90% successfully reserved a timed entry pass. Some 98% of them got the specific day that they wanted. And what about those that didn’t get their day of choice? Some 88% said it didn’t impact their experience.
And an upside?
The upside of the system, says the Park Service, is really felt when you get into the park. At Arches, after the timed entry system was put in place there seemed to be a better visitor experience. If you’ve ever been to a national park to see those famous sites, but couldn’t see the site for all the visitors, it was different. Spots like Devils Garden, Delicate Arch, and The Windows all showed fewer “people per viewscape” under the 2022 timed entry system compared to 2019 visitor numbers without the system.
Still, some balked at the waiting time to get in the gate. On visitor experience cards submitted to Arches staff, some complained about having to wait up to as much as an hour to get inside. Compared to a potential four-hour wait, it seems somewhat better. Others were worried that the wait at the gate could put them past their set reservation “arrival time” and that they’d be turned away. No worries—If the gate wait makes you late, you’re still getting in.
What are your thoughts?
What do you think? Will a timed entry system work for you? Are you willing to spend the extra $2 for the timed entry pass and the additional trouble of having to get one? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please use the comment link below, and enter “Timed Entry” on the subject line. We’ll report back on your views in a future newsletter.
Not sure this is quite what Theodore Roosevelt envisioned. 2 American tourists waiting hours so 40 foreigners can get in through the bus lane. If the parks are our treasure, why do I need to be a stowaway on an Asian tour bus to see them? I’ve already seen a lot of it in my lifetime, so I’m good but I sure am sorry for the next generation or 2 that are taking the backseat and the leftovers that they and we all paid for.
We visited Arches in 2019. The first day we got to the gate at 9:00AM & were greeted with a 4 hour wait. We came back at 4:00PM and there was only a 1/2 wait so we drove in. We could never find a parking place at any of the sites because the park was packed. We left after an hour. Same thing with Yellowstone last year. We were stuck in traffic most of the day. Never saw Prismatic Spring because of so many people we would have to park a mile away. Lots of bus loads of foreign tourists so there were hundreds of people fighting for the views at one time. These places are getting loved to death. Maybe the timed entry isn’t the most convenient thing, but at least the park service is trying to make things better for the visitors.
Just happy we have visited most of the National Parks as well as other state parks in the past. We would never go through booking time passes to visit. Also, we visit parks in shoulder seasons…never summer time. Although the one park went to Oct 31st which would be too late for us, weather wise. One day soon I believe it will slow down.
Last June we had a 9 AM timed entry pass at Arches NP made months in advance on the Rec.Gov website. We arrived from our campground 36 miles away at 8:45 AM. The line was out to the highway with a sign saying the wait was over 3 hours from that point forward. What a waste of time, We didn’t need to sit with our car idling, there is more “nature” to see so we went to Canyonlands NP and after a 20-minute wait had a thoroughly enjoyable day.
Talking to folks who live out West we were told that the NPs throughout the Western half of the country are being overrun by foreign tourists being dropped off by the busload, many coming from China. I don’t know about that but our experience traveling East to West for two months left my wife and me both agreeing we don’t need to plan any further Western U.S. trip.
Is it less crowded in the Eastern half…like Great Smoky Mountains?
My wife and I visited the great smoky mountains from April 13th through April 22nd as my one daughter lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. The 4 days that my wife, my daughter, and myself were visiting the great smoky mountains it was busy but not a lot of people. One place we stopped at they told us the week we were there was the best time to come. The week before people on spring break were visiting. The following week was when the tourist were starting for the summer.
In my state, Utah, they have been promoting the “Mighty Five” for years. Now the parks are so crowded they aren’t really enjoyable. Zion NP is in my back yard, but I only visit in the winter because it’s such a zoo during the Spring & Summer. Sad
We have been on an 11 week trip from Tennessee to California and heading back to Tennessee. One thing we have noticed is the large number of Asians at all the National parks we have visited.
Now most places are making you make reservations to come to a National park or campground. If it’s 3 months in advance and I make a reservation how do I know what’s going to happen in 3 months? I could make the reservation, I could be sick, or I could have died. Sure wish we could go back to the days of first come first serve basis.
I count TEN ads on this page. I thought I was getting an ad-free version of the newsletter. Guess there is no such thing.
Sorry, Real. The newsletter itself for our contributors shouldn’t show any ads, but the posts that are linked to it still have ads. It would take a ridiculous amount of time to make every single post ad-free for our contributors. Have you seen how many “staff” we have onboard, not counting the writers (since they write the posts but don’t do the assembling of the newsletters, etc.)? Sorry we don’t have the time or resources to do that for you. Take care. 🙂 –Diane at RVtravel.com