What to Know Before Planning Your National Park Summer Vacation

From when to book a reservation to how to avoid traffic

This year, visiting the national parks—one of America’s favorite summer pastimes—will take a bit of extra strategizing. Following the trend of recent years, summer 2023 is shaping up to once again shatter visitor records across the national parks system. 

The National Park Service (NPS) recorded nearly 312 million recreational visits in 2022, a five percent increase over the number of visits in 2021. As you can imagine, this increased wear and tear on hiking trails, park roads, visitor centers, and park amenities like restrooms, restaurants, and gift shops. Road construction, trail repairs and closures, and traffic delays will be widespread this summer. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worse still, record snowfall in the West is still melting, causing troubles of its own like flooding and landslides. So, as you gear up to have a memorable national parks vacation, keep organized and stay on top of park websites and social media for the latest updates—and most of all, be patient and flexible. Here’s what you should expect.

There will be a lot of traffic

Prepare for road closures and delays. From Grand Teton and Glacier to Rocky Mountain and Zion—even the Blue Ridge Parkway—units across the National Park Service are diligently making much-needed repairs and upgrades to roads, hiking trails, parking lots, and visitor facilities.

At Yellowstone, construction projects are taking place across the park to address last year’s devastating flood damage, stabilize road bridges, and rehabilitate the most heavily trafficked routes including a 20+ mile section of Grand Loop Road which allows access to Old Faithful.

Pro tip: Stay on top of park websites for closures, delays, and traffic. Yellowstone, for one, has a page dedicated to updates on road status including wait times and webcams showing current traffic conditions at park entrances.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll want to bring plastic

Not plastic bottles but plastic credit and debit cards. Many parks are going cashless. The idea is that by freeing national park staff from handling and processing cash they can spend more time improving visitor experiences and making park upgrades.

So far this year, more than a dozen national park units have opted to go cash-free including Mount Rainier, Badlands, and Crater Lake. That’s on top of various other NPS units including certain monuments, historic sites, lakeshores, and recreation areas which no longer accept cash.

Pro tip: If you must use cash purchase a prepaid gift card at a grocery or convenience store ahead of your visit to pay for park entrance. Some general stores, resorts, and historical associations within gateway towns may also accept cash for park passes.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You may need a reservation

Long gone are the days when you could just show up at a national park for a scenic drive or an invigorating hike. Some of the most popular parks including Arches and Glacier now require reservations generally in the form of a timed entry ticket that enables access to either the entire park or to a popular corridor like Bear Lake Road at Rocky Mountain.

Several parks also require advance planning to check off the most popular hiking trails. You’ve got to win a permit lottery to hike Half Dome at Yosemite or Angels Landing at Zion. At Shenandoah, a day-use ticket is required to hike Old Rag from March through November.

Pro tip: Set a calendar alert. Every park manages their reservation system differently in terms of when they release timed entry permits. Know when a park will release permits or open a lottery and set your calendar accordingly. And don’t dally. Some permits can be gone within 15 minutes.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some sections of parks will open late this season—if at all

The West got a whole lot of snow this winter. It’s going to take time to melt but as it does, runoff is going to cause rivers and creeks to swell, making for potentially dangerous conditions including slippery rocks and unsafe pedestrian bridges which can cause closures.

The opening of Yosemite’s Glacier Point Road is at least one month behind schedule due to record snowfall and road construction. It’s not expected to open until at least July. Floodwaters in Yosemite Valley are also causing intermittent closure of campgrounds.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 30-mile highway through Lassen Volcanic National Park recently opened for the 2023 summer season though sections might seem like winter. A higher-than-average snowpack has been fully cleared. Visitors to the park should prepare for winter conditions at higher elevations and possible delays due to ongoing road work.

Pro tip: Seek out updates on park websites but also be flexible and open to alternatives. Chat up rangers to identify open park sections and trails that may not have been on your original plan.

Worth Pondering…

I encourage everybody to hop on Google and type in national park in whatever state they live in and see the beauty that lies in their own backyard. It’s that simple.

—Jordan Fisher, American actor and musician