The U.S. national park system responded to the coronavirus pandemic by becoming more like everything else in our lives: cumbersome and overcomplicated.
Such is life in 2023. At least seven of the coolest, most-visited reserves across the country (we list them here) now require would-be visitors to make advance reservations to access all or part of the parks.
It's not as if the National Park Service is making it simple. Each park sets its own rules about when advance bookings open. For example, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado begins taking bookings on the first day of the month for the following month from late May to late October. Meanwhile, Arches National Park in Utah (pictured above) opts for the Taylor Swift-via-Ticketmaster, mistake-waiting-to-happen pig-pile of opening reservations on the first day of the month that falls three months ahead of dates between April and October.
And even then, you'll have to pay another $2 to secure the reservation, which is on top of the usual entry charge.
It's hard to keep it all straight, and harder still to plan so far ahead every time. So if you fail to obtain a reservation for the day you want to go, you're forgiven. It can all be so bewildering.
If you missed the advance booking window at the park you want to enter in 2023, you still have some options.
+ Get one of the last-minute tickets.
Most parks hold back some spots to distribute about a day ahead. Rocky Mountain reserves some 40% of its slots to distribute online on the afternoon of the day before, but as the park's FAQ warns, "night-before reservations will sell out quickly."
Relying on last-minute availability is a tactic that involves some obvious risk at parks where you can't enter at all without a reservation—you'd hate to travel all that way and still be unable to make it past the gates—but it's less of a dilemma at parks that only require tickets for the most popular attractions.
For example, Zion National Park in Utah doesn't require advance bookings to enter the park—it just requires reservations to hike to Angels Landing. Visitors who didn't secure advance reservations can battle it out in the day-ahead lottery for remaining spots. That costs $6 (which is nonrefundable, even if you don't win a spot), but at least you can still tour the rest of the park if you get shut out.
It would be nice if the last-minute ticket rules were standardized for every park, but they aren't. Some last-minute spots are given out five days ahead, some the day ahead, and some that morning.
Rangers post their parks' own last-minute ticket procurement method on the official National Park Service website. Find your park through www.nps.gov to learn its specific rules.
+ Secure a lodging or backcountry booking inside the national park.
It's even harder to get a hotel reservation in the most iconic lodges of the U.S. national parks—those can book up months or years ahead. But if you are able to secure a hotel booking inside a park's boundaries, your stay almost always comes with guaranteed admission into the park. Check ahead for cancellations.
Likewise—but not always much easier to procure—you can secure a booking for a campground, campsite, backcountry permit, or even a ranger-led tour or lecture. In many cases, if you snag one of those you'll also be guaranteed park entry.
Double-check, of course, because not every booking automatically comes with a park reservation.
+ Tour with a company that has a concession contract.
The timed entry program doesn't apply to many tour operators who have park concession contracts. For example, Moab Adventure Center runs a variety of guided tours into Arches National Park that aren't subject to the reservations system rules. As long as there's a scheduled tour and you can find space on it, you don't have to worry about securing a park reservation.
Yosemite National Park isn't requiring reservations for general entry into the Yosemite Valley in 2023, but the park still uses the system for some things. Last February, Yosemite required visitors to obtain advance park passes to attend the annual Firefall, when sunlight strikes Horsetail Fall just so and makes for perfect photos.
Those slots were hard to get, but the Evergreen Lodge, which has operated just outside the park boundary for over a century, ran guided excursions to the Firefall that automatically came with park entry even for travelers who missed out on reservations. All you had to do was book your day through Evergreen.
Obviously, there are many vendors serving these parks, and their status is ever-changing, so your best bet is to ask a tour vendor you like if joining the company's tours will free you of the burden of having to find a park reservation on your own.
+ Come with friends who do have a reservation.
Most national parks in the Western U.S. handle entry by the carload, not by the individual (unless a person walks or bikes through the gates).
If you know of someone who was successful in obtaining a reservation, you can always hitch a ride with them without increasing the admission fee.
+ Show up late.
Many parks that require reservations will only insist upon them for morning arrivals, when entry traffic is high, and may stop asking for them after a certain point in the afternoon.
At Rocky Mountain in Colorado, for example, the requirement runs out at 2pm, after which anyone can enter many areas without a booking. At Maui's Haleakala National Park, the mandate runs out at 7am, once the sunrise rush hour is over.
Arriving late might not suit everyone's vacation schedule, but it will work for some visitors.
And it just goes to show that when it comes to national park reservations, you don't always have to take no for an answer. There are workarounds.