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How the busiest national parks are responding to crowds

Crowd Begins To Gather At Mather Point On The South Rim of the Grand Canyon (Getty)

(NEXSTAR) – While visitation hasn’t yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, several national parks saw record-breaking attendance in 2021. Now, some of the most popular parks are looking for ways to respond to the congestion.

Among last year’s highly visited parks was the Great Smoky Mountains, which had a record 14.1 million visitors. That number is up more than 50% compared to 10 years ago, “resulting in congested roadways, overflowing parking lots, roadside soil erosion, vegetation trampling, and long lines at restroom and visitor center facilities,” the park’s website reads.

To combat this, park officials have been involved in efforts to address congestion and improve your experience while visiting the Great Smoky’s busiest spots, Dana Soehn, the park’s management assistant in the public affairs office tells Nexstar.

Among those efforts was the Laurel Falls Trail 2021 Congestion Management Pilot. During the pilot program, park staff prohibited roadside parking, provided timed-entry parking reservations, and offered a shuttle to bring visitors from a nearby lot to Great Smoky National Park.

In another mountainous national park – Rocky Mountain, to be exact – visitation is already up by 12% compared to 2021, said Kyle Patterson, the park’s public information officer. After piloting a first-come, first-served vehicle access program for four years, the park transitioned to a park-wide timed-entry permit reservation for the past two years. That same program will be piloted in 2022.

If you’re planning to visit Rocky Mountain National Park this year, you’ll need two things: a timed entry permit reservation or another reservation (for camping, horseback riding, or a commercial tour) and a valid park pass or entrance fee per vehicle. Timed entry permit reservations can be found online here, and additional details about the program can be found here.

Yellowstone National Park had its biggest year on record in 2021, seeing more than 4.8 million visits, up 28% over 2020. The park also had its first 1 million-visit month during July 2021.

To respond to the increased traffic, Yellowstone, like others, has implemented a number of measures, including the use of advance reservations for some campgrounds, backcountry permits, and other fees and passes to reduce wait times at entrance gates. Visitors can also the National Park Service’s app to help plan their visit to the park.

Grand Canyon National Park, which also saw more than 4 million guests last year, does not have any visitor use limits, Public Affairs Specialist Joëlle Baird, tells Nexstar. Officials are, however, hoping to launch a pilot ticket system for Tuweep, which is located in the far western portion of Grand Canyon National Park.

Baird encourages those planning to visit the South Rim this summer to plan ahead and visit the park’s website for the most up-to-date information, including crowd congestion.

The National Park System as a whole saw more than 297 million recreation visits in 2021. Forty-six parks set a record for recreation visits despite many operating with limited capacities and indoor space restrictions due to COVID-19.


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