National parks refine ticketed-entry systems to manage visitor boom

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado requires timed entry

By: - July 29, 2021 5:15 am

Park visitors walk up the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado in February 2017. In the distance the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise above the dunes. (Mackenzie Reed/NPS/Public domain)

WASHINGTON — Watching the sunrise from Cadillac Mountain at Maine’s Acadia National Park is a gorgeous view — so breathtaking that on some days, as many as 500 cars could be found vying for the scenic overlook’s 150 parking spots.

That competition has become more manageable since Acadia officials began using a reservation system in May, according to the park’s superintendent, Kevin Schneider, who testified to federal lawmakers Wednesday about overcrowding in national parks.

“We want people to have a really high-quality experience, and not everybody can be out there at the same time in their cars,” Schneider told members of the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. 

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Some of the country’s most famous national parks are grappling with an increasingly unsustainable rise in visitors.  

Marquee destinations like Montana’s Glacier National Park and neighboring Yellowstone have seen the number of annual visitors double since 1980, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said during Wednesday’s hearing. Yellowstone saw 4 million visitors in 2019, and Glacier tallied more than 3 million.

In 2019 alone, there were 327 million visits to U.S. national parks — or the equivalent of every American making a park visit, said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association.

That demand has only been exacerbated recently as Americans eager to resume travel have sought outdoor activities that are safer in the ongoing pandemic.

Colorado is home to four national parks: Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Senators at Wednesday’s hearing were flanked by poster-sized photos of traffic jams at Acadia and Glacier as frustrated visitors attempted to wiggle their way in to hike and see other attractions.

“We can accidentally love our parks to death,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on national parks. “Overcrowding can also significantly harm the visitor experience and strain the resources of gateway communities, souring what should be a once-in-a-lifetime vacation.”

Like Acadia, Glacier also has implemented a ticketed-entry system for summer-season visitors seeking to access Going-to-the-Sun Road between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. 

The launch of that entry system has been bumpy, and came not long before the summer season kicked off. 

Some visitors who booked trips long before the entry system was announced became frustrated when they couldn’t get entry tickets, said Kevin Gartland, executive director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, a business group in the Montana resort town located 25 miles west of the park’s western gate. 

“One businesswoman put it to me last Friday like this: She feels more like she’s a therapist than a marketing director this year,” Gartland said, urging decisions about next year’s entry requirements be made in the coming months.

Still, Gartland said the entry passes have helped manage the flow, preventing problems that occurred last year when the park gates were shuttered because it was at capacity. That meant traffic backed up for hours, blocking access to businesses near the park entrance. 

Timed entry permits are also required at Rocky Mountain National Park.

A view of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. (Jacob W. Frank/ National Park Service/Public domain)

Michael Reynolds, a regional director for the National Park Service who oversees parks in the states of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, and portions of Montana, acknowledged that the rollout of Glacier’s entry system has had “fits and starts.”

Reynolds said that while the process has gotten smoother, he and other park officials intend to work more closely with the business community and local groups to improve that experience. 

In addition to the entry reservations, senators and the park officials both said they’d like to see more efforts to encourage visitors to check out lesser-known parks as a potential way to alleviate some of the strain.

Reynolds touted the National Park Service’s new phone app as a resource, prompting King to ask whether it has the capability to show visitors which areas are more congested so they can divert to nearby attractions.

Reynolds promised to check into such an option, but cautioned that parks in some areas of the country may have challenges with that, due to limited internet bandwidth.  

“We’re working on that in another bill,” King quipped, referencing the ongoing efforts on Capitol Hill to craft infrastructure legislation.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Colorado Newsline. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.

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