On the morning drive from my treehouse at Yuquiyú to El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, I looked the part of the Prepared Hiker. I wore durable shoes with thick treads and no exposed toes. My backpack bulged with bug spray, sunscreen and enough water to irrigate a small farm. A brimmed hat was perched on my head. And yet as I approached the main gate, I realized I had forgotten what is becoming the most critical item on a day trekker’s checklist: knowing a park’s special entry requirements.
“Se Requiere Reservación/Reservations Required” read the bilingual sign, puncturing my plans like a thorn in a hydration bladder.
From inside the rental car, I checked recreation.gov for the next available reservation, but on a holiday weekend, the park was fully booked. I ended up in Luquillo, tramping to the beat of reggaeton on the beach instead of hiking to the croaks of coquí in the U.S. Forest Service’s only tropical rainforest.
Really, I should have known better. When I visited Puerto Rico last February, the pandemic had been upending norms for nearly a year. Travelers seeking refuge in nature were flocking to public sanctuaries run by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and overwhelming the strained staff and fragile environments. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, more than 375,000 people hiked Laurel Falls Trail in 2020, an additional 110,000 pairs of feet from the previous year.
In 2021, Yellowstone National Park set a record in July for the most-visited month in its nearly 150-year history, with almost 1.1 million recreation visits. Also last year, Acadia National Park in Maine received more than 4 million visitors for the first time. In response to the stampede, officials introduced reservation systems to help them control the number of people who can enter the park or access specific roads or trails in a single day.
“The nationwide trend of changing visitation patterns before, during and after the pandemic requires continual innovation and effective ways to manage visitor use to ensure that these special places, and the benefits they generate, persist for current and future generations,” Stephanie Roulett, a public affairs specialist with the National Park Service, said by email. “As a result, parks are exploring many different tools and techniques that are most effective for their situation to help them improve how visitors get to and experience popular park resources and features.”
In some cases, such as Yosemite’s entry reservation system and the Great Smoky Mountains’ parking fee at the Laurel Falls trailhead, the arrangements were temporary and expired after the busy season or pilot period. Several reservation requirements, however, will return this year, and a few new ones will debut. Many parks could also revive their measures, depending on the crush of crowds or the virus’s trajectory.
For the most part, the rules apply to visitors who arrive by car and plan to exit before closing time. Vacationers who enter by bicycle, foot or public transportation, or who booked an overnight stay at an on-site lodge or campground, are exempt. The permit is typically per vehicle, not per passenger. Many of the reservations are free or cost a few dollars, plus a nominal service fee by recreation.gov. Guests must pay the park entrance fee on top of any secondary charges.
Roulett said that, depending on the park or activity, visitors should start planning months to weeks in advance, especially if their trip falls during peak season. She recommends the National Park Service’s Trip Planning Guide, Find a Park resource and its new NPS app, which consolidates all 423 park units in one mobile tool. For national forests and other public attractions, Rodney Foushee, a communications officer with the U.S. Forest Service, suggests searching under “Tickets & Tours” or “Permits” on recreation.gov, the official booking site for a dozen federal agencies.
Read the full article from The Washington Post here.