How the busiest national parks react to crowds

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Crowds begin to gather at Mather Point on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon (Getty)

(NEXSTAR) – Although attendance has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, several national parks saw record attendance in 2021. Now some of the most popular parks are looking for ways to respond to congestion.

Among the most visited parks last year was the Great Smoky Mountains, which saw a record 14.1 million visitors. This number has increased by more than 50% compared to 10 years ago, “resulting in congested roads, overcrowded parking lots, roadside soil erosion, trampling of vegetation and long queues in washrooms and visitor center facilities,” the park’s website reads.

To combat this, park officials have been involved in efforts to combat congestion and improve your experience when visiting the busiest places in Great Smoky, Dana Soehn, park management assistant in the public affairs office , told Nextstar.

Among these efforts was the 2021 Laurel Falls Trail Congestion Management Pilot Project. During the pilot program, park staff prohibited curbside parking, provided timed parking reservations, and offered a shuttle to bringing visitors from nearby land to Great Smoky National Park.

At another mountainous national park — Rocky Mountain, to be exact — attendance is already up 12% from 2021, said Kyle Patterson, the park’s public information manager. After piloting a first-come, first-served vehicle access program for four years, the park has transitioned to a park-wide timed entry permit reservation over the past two years. This 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 other reservation (for camping, horseback riding, or a shopping tour) and a pass valid for the park or one entry fee per vehicle. Timed entry permit bookings can be found online here, and additional program details can be found here.

Yellowstone National Park had its biggest year on record in 2021, with more than 4.8 million visits, up 28% from 2020. The park also had its first month of 1 million visits in July 2021.

To accommodate 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 the entrance gates. Visitors can also use the National Park Service app to plan their visit to the park.

Grand Canyon National Park, which also welcomed more than 4 million visitors last year, has no limits on visitor use, public affairs specialist Joëlle Baird told Nexstar. Officials, however, hope to launch a pilot ticketing system for Tuweep, which is located in the far western part 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 recreational visits in 2021. Forty-six parks set a record for recreational visits despite many operating with limited capacity and interior space restrictions due of COVID-19.

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