This new National Park Service restriction could impact your summer vacation

At a recent U.S. Senate hearing, lawmakers discussed ways to limit numbers at National Parks

tourists take photos at yellowstone national park
(Image credit: Getty)

Americans are flooding National Parks, overcrowding places like Zion Natural Park in Utah, Main’s Acadia National Park, accessible Smoky Mountain National Park, Glacier National Park in Maine, and of course the always busy Yellowstone and Yosemite. This year, Yellowstone saw a 50% increase in the number of cars entering the park and Smoky Mountains National Park, already by far the most visited, has seen record visitation every month this year. Even across the pond, National Parks are shown to be a popular staycation spot.

"We are anticipating one of our busiest summers ever in the most popular destination — national parks," National Parks Service spokesperson Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles told CBS MoneyWatch in June. 

She was proven correct. After months of lockdown and seeking outdoor vacations, Americans have been inundating the parks all summer. There are up to four-hour wait times to get into some of the more popular parks and National Park Service employees are reporting much more litter along park trails. 

“Anywhere you go, there’s going to be a line,” Libby Preslock, an Arches National Park visitor told the Wall Street Journal in June. That park was so busy it ended up having to close temporarily each day. 

In fact, the National Park Service––encompassing 423 national parks, monuments, historic sites, and other areas––is so busy that Congress is stepping in. On Wednesday, senators held a hearing on timed entry, which would limit who can enter a park and when. The method is already being tested in Glacier National Park. 

“Timed entry has spread successfully visitation throughout the day, decreased congestion and reduced queuing at the entrance stations and parking lots,” National Park Service Regional Director Michael Reynolds told the Senators on the subcommittee.

Acadia National Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider said his staff implemented a reservation system that has worked well for visitors to Cadillac Mountain. 

"Visitors understand that there's only 150 parking spots on Cadillac Mountain," Schneider said during the hearing. "We want people to have a really high quality experience and not everybody can be up there at the same time in their cars."

But not everyone is sold. 

“The fact that the new system was rolled out very late in the game, just a couple of months before the summer crush hit, caused a lot of confusion and frustration,”  said Kevin Gartland, who lives in Whitefish, a town right outside Glacier National Park, and is CEO of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce. 

Others say timed entry could be good for gateway communities right outside the parks. 

“If you got your reservation or your timed entry on a Monday and a Wednesday, well that Tuesday, you’re not coming into the park. You might have otherwise, but you’re not coming into the park. So you’re going to be looking at the raft companies, fly fishing guides,” said Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly. 

Lawmakers also discussed hiring more staff, restricting the number of cars allowed in a park, and steering people toward less visited national parks, like Big Bend National Park in Texas. Angus King, a U.S. Senator from Maine, called these parks “lesser known jewels.” 

King also said we were “loving our parks to death” and warned that appreciation can turn to destruction. 

"The tension and the paradox we have is we want visitation to our national parks, but we don't want the visitation itself to impair the experience of the national parks or the park itself," King said. 

Discouraging National Parks visits is a position the U.S. government is not normally in. The National Park Service typically runs marketing campaigns inspiring travelers to “Find Your Park” and encouraging visitation. 

Last year, Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which devotes $1.9 billion annually over the next five years to the maintenance and repair of national parks and public lands. Senators did not make any decisions on the National Park Service yet, but parks are already implementing their own restrictions. Before visiting, check the park’s website for up-to-date information on timed entry, parking caps, mask guidance and other measures. 

5 of the least visited National Parks

Voyageurs National Park at night

Voyageurs National Park is one of the least visited parks

(Image credit: Getty)

If you're looking for a less crowded getaway, try visiting one of these lesser-visited parks: 

Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota is a network of lakes and waterways. You'll have to like canoeing, but if you do you'll have the park seemingly to yourself. 

Great Basin National Park in Nevada is one of the best places in the entire country to stargaze. Plus, drastic elevation changes make it geologically diverse, creating a home for hundreds of species of mammals, birds, trees and wildflowers. 

If you're hoping for somewhere sunny, Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida offers seven small islands and plenty of coastline. Explore shipwrecks and marine life along with uninterrupted night sky views. 

Forget Olympic National Park. Also in Washington, you can find North Cascades National Park, where just three hours north of Seattle you can see more glaciers than anywhere else in the continental U.S. 

Isle Royale National Park in Michigan is a gorgeous, isolated island in the middle of Lake Superior, the world's second-largest lake. The national park is only accessible by boat or seaplane, but once you arrive you'll be met with unspoiled access to 400+ smaller islands, backcountry trails, a sunken shipwreck and more. 

Rebecca Holland is a travel and food writer based in Chicago. She has written for the Guardian, New York Times, Architectural Digest, Food & Wine, Wine Enthusiast and more. She is currently a graduate student at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. When not working, you can find her eating her way through Chicago's neighborhoods, or in non-pandemic times, traveling around the world.