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YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – Tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in east-central California, you’ll find Yosemite National Park. The park is home to granite cliffs, waterfalls and massive sequoia trees. It’s the fourth-largest national park in the country and stretches for more than 700,000 acres, an area larger than New York and Los Angeles combined.
Millions visit Yosemite every year, and the demand to visit national parks has increased. It’s created overcrowding, and visitations are reaching record numbers. More than 297 million visits were made to national parks across the country in 2021, and that number could soar higher in 2022.
As travel restrictions ease and more people get out on the road, the national parks have adapted to help protect the environment and limit the number of people who visit simultaneously.
So for some national parks, you’ll need to make a reservation in advance.
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Scott Gediman has been a park ranger for more than three decades. With his campaign hat on and hiking boots laced up, he’s ready to teach his next class field trip about the park and help give directions to tourists from around the world. He recognizes the challenges the park faces.
“It’s just been really difficult for us because we’ve had traffic congestion and parking lots are full. So, during the pandemic, we implemented a reservation system where you had to have a reservation to come into the park,” Gediman said.
The original reservation system for Yosemite National Park worked, to an extent.
“The tough thing was, if somebody came up and didn’t have a reservation, we just had to turn them around, and that’s disappointing,” Gediman explained. “Can you imagine your family is coming from wherever, you pull up, kids in the back, and you see the park? ‘Oh sorry, you can’t come in.'”
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To change the process for 2022 and allow more people to visit, Yosemite National Park has implemented a peak-hour reservation system. To get into the park starting May 20 until Sept. 30, between 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., you need a reservation to get in, otherwise you’ll be turned around. But, this year, if you don’t have a reservation, you’re still able to visit in the late afternoon.
“Our goal is to not limit visitation. Our goal is to flatten it out,” Gediman explained.
At some national parks people were left waiting for hours to get in before the reservation system.
“Nobody wants to come and sit in the car for two hours,” Gediman said.
“It’s really easy for these parks — particularly for Yosemite — to get over loved,” said William Johnson, who was visiting Yosemite with his daughter and wife before the reservation system kicked in. “It’s just crowded. The trails we were on this morning, we got going on early, and even then, it was quite busy.”
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Other national parks also require reservations this year, including Arches National Park, Zion National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Each park has a similar system that requires visitors to make a reservation for either the entire park or certain trails.
This year could be even busier for national parks.
“We are expecting a busy year just because people have been cooped up, and even just me for example, being out on the trails for the last three days, it’s fun getting out and being with people,” Gediman said.
“I think it’s a good way to try and manage the crowds, so it can be enjoyable for everybody,” Johnson added.
The reservation system is also a way to help protect the national parks.
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“With 4-5 million visitors a year, we have issues where, for example, bears get hit by cars, people speed, people park in the meadows. A lot of people will go on the trials, people will cut trails,” Gediman said.
“A lot of times, it’s not intentional, but people do impact the park, and so education is one of our goals. And so, with the peak-hour system, we want them to experience the park when it’s not congested.”