How To Navigate The National Park Permit System

We are going to share with you what we learned to help you successfully navigate the permitting systems when visiting some of the national parks.

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By Adventurtunity Family
Explore Ambassador

Did you know that there are over 400 national park sites and 63 are deemed national parks? That’s roughly 84 million acres of land for us to explore and enjoy! As you can imagine, national parks are highly desired destinations for campers, nature lovers, and outdoor enthusiasts alike. While many of the national sites and parks are open throughout the year, a handful are only open seasonally due to weather conditions.

We unknowingly got to be a part of the initial visitor permit launch as we visited Glacier National Park last summer. It was a good experience for us, and we certainly learned a lot! In this article, we are going to share with you what we learned in hopes of helping you successfully navigate the permitting systems when visiting some of the national parks. 

We unknowingly got to be a part of the initial visitor permit launch as we visited Glacier National Park last summer.

The summer months have consistently been when the national parks receive the most visitors. And in recent years, the number of guests has grown exponentially. While this growth is great to see in terms of more people getting out to enjoy the beauty of America, it tends to put a strain on a handful of the most sought-out parks, such as Zion, Arches, and Glacier national parks, just to name a few. The strain comes not only from the parks reaching capacity for daily visitors but also from the resources to manage and maintain the parks that are required when that capacity is pushed. More visitors require a larger staff of park rangers to ensure everyone enjoys their visit and the beauty of the park is maintained. Additionally, infrastructure such as roads, bridges, parking facilities, and bathrooms need maintenance and upkeep.

In order for the park rangers to preserve the grounds and wildlife and keep order within the parks, the National Park Service piloted a test program for visitor permits in Glacier National Park in the summer of 2021. The system was designed to limit the number of daily visitors in the park. In order to enter, visitors needed to obtain a permit through the online lottery system set up by the park. Permits were obtained on a first-come, first-served basis, cost $2 each, and were released in waves to accommodate those who planned ahead and spur-of-the-moment visitors alike. The permit program worked out so well in Glacier that several other parks and specific hikes/trails have now adopted this system.

The purpose of requiring permits is to maintain the natural beauty within the parks, protect the wildlife and make sure guests are safe and enjoy themselves. By limiting the number of people per day, they can monitor the foot traffic and make sure parking lots, one-way roads, and other areas are not maxed out beyond capacity.

First, we should clarify that the national park permit system is different from your national park entrance pass. You can purchase your national park entrance pass at the visitor centers or the entrances. These passes are usually day or week passes. You could also opt to purchase an annual pass for $80 that gives you access to all of the national parks and sites within a year from your purchase date. And if you happen to have a child in the fourth grade, they qualify for a free annual pass to visit the national parks. When entering a park that requires a visitor permit, you will need a current permit AND an entrance pass. 

You could also opt to purchase an annual pass for $80 that gives you access to all of the national parks and sites within a year from your purchase date.

When planning out your visit, the first step is to acquire a national park entry pass. If you opt to buy the annual pass, you can buy them online or in-person at the park entrance/visitor center. The next step when visiting parks such as Glacier, Arches, Zion, and others is to apply for a permit. In order to apply, you will need to set up an account on Recreation.gov. We highly recommend downloading the Recreation.gov app on your smartphone, too. On the website and/or app, you will create an account with a password in order to apply for permits. The app allows you to save a credit card number, which is highly beneficial because the permit process goes quickly, and if you get the chance to purchase a permit, you have 15 minutes to check out or you will lose the permit.

Once you have created an account, you can search for your desired permits. Depending on when you start your search in terms of your actual national park visit, you have two options for acquiring a permitted pass. The first option is to apply for your permitted pass 120 days in advance of your visit. Meaning, if you were hoping to visit in August, you would apply for your permits in April. If you missed your window to apply that early, you can also apply the day before you plan to visit.

The number of guests in recent years has grown exponentially which has put a strain on a handful of the most sought-out parks, such as Zion, Arches, and Glacier national parks, just to name a few.

There are some caveats, as each national park permit is a little different. For example, Arches National Park has a timed entry permit with a one-hour window each day. This means you apply for a day permit on a specific date and, upon receiving one, you will need to enter the park within your allotted one-hour time slot on your date or you don’t get to enter. Once you enter during your time slot, you can enter/exit as you like during the day. And if you are hoping to visit the park for multiple days, you will need to purchase a permit for each day of your visit. Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road permits, on the other hand, are valid for three days and allow entrance at any time of day.

Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road permits, on the other hand, are valid for three days and allow entrance at any time of day.

The good news is that these permits are very inexpensive, averaging $2 a permit. And they guarantee you access into the park versus waiting in massive lines, only to be turned around because the park is full, or being able to enter the park but not being able to find any parking spots to explore and hike around. The cost of the permits goes to additional ranger staffing for the park.

Another silver lining is if you are not able to obtain a permit prior to your visit or the day before, you can enter the parks before 6 a.m. and after 5 p.m. This, however, does not apply to hiking permits, such as for Angels Landing in Zion National Park or Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park. Individual hike permits are required in addition to the park entrance permit.

The Recreation.gov website and app are full of all the pertinent information you need on any of the national parks and sites. Additionally, you can search for campgrounds, nightly rates and rules on staying and, in some cases, book your camping stay if the sites aren’t first come, first served.

We highly recommend downloading the Recreation.gov app on your smartphone, too. The app allows you to save a credit card number, which is highly beneficial because the permit process goes quickly, and if you get the chance to purchase a permit, you have 15 minutes to check out.

Some have expressed a negative view of the implementation of the permit system at the most popular parks. The initial experience of obtaining permits can be a little frustrating at first. But once you learn how to navigate the site and figure out the timing for your visit, the process to apply makes sense. And ultimately, the permits are in place to protect the land and wildlife while allowing us a closer peek at the natural beauty our country has to offer. This preserves these national treasures for generations to come. And that’s something I think we can all get behind!

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