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How to plan a national park visit in 2021

Visitation to national parks exploded last year, and all indications are that they’ll be even more popular this year. Here are some tips if you’re thinking about a getaway of your own.

Synchronous fireflies lit up the trees along a trail at the Elkmont Campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in June 2019.
Synchronous fireflies lit up the trees along a trail at the Elkmont Campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in June 2019.Angeli Wright/Asheville Citizen Times via AP/file

Visitation to national park and public lands exploded last summer and fall, as people clamored to get away safely, and spend time outdoors. Yellowstone National Park had its busiest September on record, with a 21 percent increase from the previous September. Great Smoky Mountains National Park — already the country’s most-visited national park — logged more than 1.5 million visits in August, a nearly 10 percent jump from the same month in 2019.

All indications point to even greater numbers of visitors at national parks across the country in 2021.

“I think the pull of our national parks across the country — big and small, urban and rural — will remain strong,” says Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation. “Be it for physical health, quiet reflection, emotional restoration, or human connection, parks make our lives better, richer, and more complete.”

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Campspot, a leading online marketplace for campgrounds and RV resorts, has already seen an increase in bookings near national parks. “Bookings for Campspot parks within 50 miles of a national park are about 38 percent higher in 2021 than for 2020,” says Campspot founder Caleb Hartung.

Thinking about planning your own National Park getaway this year? Here are some tips.

All indications point to huge numbers of visitors to national parks across the country in 2021.
All indications point to huge numbers of visitors to national parks across the country in 2021.Kari Bodnarchuk

Decide on a park

There are 62 officially designated National Parks, located in 30 states and two US territories. Additionally, there are another 361 recreational sites in the National Park system, located in all 50 states and US territories, spanning more than 85 million acres. That’s a lot of territory. Do you have your heart set on visiting one of the biggies? Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Zion National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Grand Teton National Park were the most-visited parks in 2020. Each park has a variety of programs, lodging choices, activities, and amenities. But they also draw the most crowds.

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Would you prefer a more solitary, rustic, and remote experience? Alaska has some of the least-visited and largest parks in the system. You’ll also find solitude and scenery at Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, Mich., Dry Tortugas National Park in the Florida Keys, and North Cascades National Park in Washington.

Ask yourself what type of experience you’re looking for and what activities are most interesting, determine how much time you will spend at the park, and be open to options.

“There is likely a lesser-known, less-crowded park closer to home than you might realize, including many parks in and around cities,” says Shafroth.

The National Park website features a list of all parks, and you can narrow your search by state, activity, or topic (www.nps.gov/findapark/advanced-search.htm). The Find Your Park website is also a good tool and includes a quiz to find out what parks are best for you (www.findyourpark.com/park-finder).

A woman kayaks on Kintla Lake in Glacier National Park, Mont.
A woman kayaks on Kintla Lake in Glacier National Park, Mont.Matt Volz/AP/file

Do some research

Once you’ve decided on the park(s) you want to visit, go to the individual park websites to research closures, construction hours, and other park updates. Many parks have added new rules and permits, and each park has its own opening and closing dates and booking procedures.

“Because of the pandemic, campgrounds, hikes, and park activities have been affected and might be closed or limited,” says Hartung. “But regardless of COVID, many parks schedule construction at certain times of the year or day. A road might be open at certain times in the day, or a trail might be closed for construction for a month or two. The park website will have all the information you need to get the lay of the land.”

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Check out the NPS tips (www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/recreate-responsibly.htm) for planning a national park visit. The downloadable guide includes a step-by-step guide to trip planning, checklist, trip template, and an emergency plan. Free national park planning guides to several parks are also available (www.nationalparktripsmedia.com/travel-guides/trip-planner), including guides for Badlands National Park and the Black Hills, Glacier National Park, Colorado National Parks, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and other popular parks. Also, check out Campspot’s Camp Guide (www.campspot.com/camp-guide) for general planning tips and information on several national parks. And the US government bookstore lists a variety of recommended books on national parks (https://bookstore.gpo.gov/agency/national-park-service-nps).

Finally, don’t discount word-of-mouth and personal recommendations. “I like to look through the websites of travel bloggers who offer personal recommendations on the area,” says Hartung. “Leave a little room in your itinerary for activities that the locals recommend.”

Visitors watch as Old Faithful erupts at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
Visitors watch as Old Faithful erupts at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Ryan Dorgan/Jackson Hole News & Guide via AP/File

Book sooner than later

All indications point to a busy summer and fall season for national parks, particularly the most popular locales. Many lodgings, particularly historic in-park lodges, are booked several months, and often up to a year in advance. When you decide on your itinerary, book it! Recreation.gov (www.recreation.gov) is a popular booking site, with some 3,600 locales across the country.

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Be flexible. You may not score a room at the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park on a July weekend, but there may be something available, slightly off season. Consider lodgings and campgrounds located outside the park, too. “There are 60 camping destinations on Campspot.com within an hour’s drive — 50 miles — of a national park,” says Hartung.

Don’t overdo it

Yes, there’s so much to see and so much to do! Resist the urge to fill every waking minute. “The biggest mistake we see is people trying to pack in all of the activities,” says Hartung. “Be aware of FOMO and create a manageable and enjoyable itinerary that won’t leave you needing a vacation after your vacation.”

Finally, “When you set out for adventure in your national parks, remember to pack a mask,” says Shafroth. “We share our parks, and we share in the responsibility to make sure everyone is able to experience them safely.”

A view of badlands terrain in Death Valley National Park in California.
A view of badlands terrain in Death Valley National Park in California. Mario Tama/Getty Images/file

National park fees

Out of the 423 sites in the national park system, 108 charge an entrance fee. At least 80 percent of the money stays in the park where it is collected, and the other 20 percent or so is used to benefit parks that do not collect fees.

Entrance fees vary. Park specific annual passes are $30-$70; per vehicle one-day passes range from $20-$35; per person entrance fees are generally $10-$20. If you plan on visiting a few national sites this year, consider the annual national parks and federal recreational lands pass series ($80), providing access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites including entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges (www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm).

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Seniors, ages 62 and older can get a lifetime pass for $80, or an annual pass for $20.

Current US military members and their dependents in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force, as well as Reserve and National Guard members, can receive a free annual national park pass. Also, US citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities can receive a free access pass. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm.

Everyone is free on these days in 2021: April 17, the first day of National Park Week; Aug. 4, the one-year anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act; Aug. 25, the National Park Service birthday; Sept. 25, National Public Lands Day; and Nov. 11, Veterans Day. Each year, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in January is also free.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com