Navigating The National Park’s Permits, Timed-Entry Restrictions, and Transportation

Photo credit: National Geographic

“To walk in nature is to witness a thousand miracles.”

Mary Davis

Taking The Right Steps

Does the park you’re planning to visit require a timed-entry reservation? If so, you’ll want to book it in advance.
Will you be camping? If so, reserve a campsite as well. Wilderness camping requires a backcountry permit in most parks. 
What means of transportation do you plan to use when you’re there? Look into the public transportation options your park offers.
Dispersed camping is an option but typically requires an additional permit. Check your national park requirement if you are planning an overnight in the wilderness (outside of the main campsites).

National Park Timed-Entry

If you’re planning on visiting a national park anytime soon, you’re going to want to look up the entry-limitations to the park. There was a time when all you had to do to enter a national park was drive up, pay the entrance fee, and enjoy the scenery. Many are still like that now, such as San Juan National Forest (September 2022), but some, like The Arches or The Rockies, require the new system of reservations.

So, how do the timed-entry reservations work?
As an example, here’s The Rocky Mountain National Park Flyer for timed entry.

As the flyer above states, you’ll need to arrive to the park within your reservation window. Upon ID verification, and reservation confirmation, the park ranger at the entrance booth will give you a paper tag. This tag allows entry and re-entry into the park. It doesn’t matter what time you leave as long as it’s by park closing, unless, of course, you’ve booked a night or more of camping. If camping, you’ll be able to enter, exit, and re-enter as you please, so long as you have the paper tag viewable on the drivers side dash or windshield of your vehicle.

Pro: This limits the amount of people within the park at any given time, which enhances the outdoors experience many are looking for. This reduces the possibility of long lines to wait in during the “busy season”. 
Parks that don’t have timed-entry, such as Zion (pictured above), can become overcrowded.
Con: You have to book your time at the park in advance. Because spots book quickly, you’ll need to keep an eye on the available entry times and/or campsites on the specific parks website. 
Parks with reservation requirements, like Arches, allow much more space to individuals to explore. Photo Credit: Discover Moab

Where To Book Your Timed-Entry

Click here to visit the National Park Service website. In the drop down menu to the top-right, you can click in the “plan your trip” section, and select your park. Search booking availability on the parks calendars. Remember, there are multiple camp grounds at each park if you’re camping so if one is booked already you may have some luck at a different campground across the park. Be sure to read any disclosures on the booking availability to know which areas of the park the booking allows access to.

Annual Passes

There is an annual pass you can buy to assist in entry. These come with a few nuances of their own, which I’ll explain in greater detail below.

Annual passes are available online at NPS or at most outdoor retailers.

Although the passes allow you to enter the parks, they don’t replace the need for the reservation. Reservations are free (with a $2.00 service charge) though, so I recommend having the pass, and also making the reservation.

The pass does not allow you to utilize a campsite just because you’re a pass-holder. You’ll still need to book your campsite based on availability on the park’s website. Campsites on the NPS site currently (September 2022) cost $30.00 per night stayed (plus a $2.00 service fee).

Are There Campsites Available Without Advance Reservations?

Some parks have “first come, first serve” campsites. This is when the annual passes really come in handy. With this option, you can show up to the park early, use your annual pass, pay the vehicle fee (usually $6.00) and if a campsite is available, you’ll be able to claim it for the evening. You can keep doing this each morning. Often, the limit to stay within a single campsite is six days in a row.

Park Transportation

Always give wildlife the right of way. Remember, you’re a visitor in their home.

Most of the parks have shuttle transportation. So if you are planning to fly into the state and catch an Uber or Lyft to the park entrance, it won’t be a problem. The shuttle bus stops may be a bit spread out. So, if you plan to visit the parks this way, pack what you can manage carrying. Many of the busses will have an overhead to store your bag while riding.

Taken directly from the National Park Services website:

As visits to national parks continue to increase, some parks suffer from the increased use of private autiomobiles: traffic congestion, parking problems, exhaust and noise pollution. The resource suffers, and the visitor experience is diminished.

Several units of the National Park Service have implemented bus and shuttle systems to alleviate the impacts of private automobiles.
Park Rangers are available to call if you find yourself in serious trouble or lost.

Thankfully, we have a National Park Service that aims to create a high-quality experience for everyone. This includes, but is not limited to: recycling requirements, food storage bins, quiet times, and sanitary conditions.

Enjoy Your Space

Enjoying the peacefulness that timed-entry parks can offer.

Now that you know all of the steps required to reserve your time at the National Parks, it’s time for you to go enjoy everything the parks have to offer! For clarity sake, here’s a short pricing recap for you:

Reservation: $2.00
Campsite: $30.00 a night
Uber or Lyft to park: $30.00
Park Shuttle Busses: FREE!

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Founder of HykLyt. Backpacker. Mountain biker.

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