It was dawn and I was alone in the third-most visited national park in the country. And I should have felt pissed off about it.
I’d woken up around 4 in the morning just to get in. At 6, yawning rangers would stumble over to Rocky Mountain National Park’s entrance-gate kiosks. The “Closed” signs would come down, the windows would slide open, and the rangers would start stopping cars and checking permits. The issue? While I had a parks pass good for any day of the year, I didn’t have the piece of paper necessary for the latest layer of bureaucratic red tape: a $2 timed-entry reservation.
In 2020, Rocky began requiring timed-entry reservations for all visitors between 6 AM and 6 PM. (Last year it was 5 AM to 6 PM, but only along the popular Bear Lake Road Corridor; the rest of the park had a separate reservation system.) This system was instated after the park hit a record 4.6 million visitors in 2019, a surge that eroded trails, congested roads, and overwhelmed staff. Then came Covid-19. Amid social distancing requirements and the resulting outdoor recreation boom, the park decided that the natural landscape and the visitor experience were both at risk. The only practical solution was to limit visitation.
Rocky isn’t an outlier. Yosemite piloted a similar system in June 2020, and Glacier launched a ticketed entry policy for its famed Going to the Sun Road this summer.
With demand outweighing supply, the reservations were hard to get. The result has sparked outcry among access advocates who argue we should be making it easier for people to visit parks, not harder. Locals (like me) accustomed to spur-of-the-moment visits also protested the policy. And it was a pain: While RMNP’s reservations didn’t have a time limit (you just had to enter the park within your reserved time slot), this was the first time I’d had to sneak in before dawn just to go for a jog. At first I wasn’t happy about the inconvenience, but now I see it as the best option.
Access advocates build their platform against reservations on two main arguments: One, that nature provides enormous health benefits, and marginalized groups most in need of those benefits are often those most cut off from outdoor spaces; and two, that national parks are a great avenue to get people interested in public lands and conservation.
At first glance, reservation systems seem contrary to those goals. After all, they require every visitor to have more money, more planning time, and internet access, a potentially limiting set of hurdles for under-resourced groups. But I don’t think the world’s most beautiful places should be free and easy to enter—and making it harder could give every visitor, not just locals, the kind of wilderness experience the parks are really about.
In America, we have this notion that the secret to building a generation of conservationists is to funnel as many city slickers through national parks as possible. But to truly want to protect something, you can’t just enjoy it once, halfheartedly, while elbowing your way to the lip of an overlook to take a photo.
You have to get off the road. You have to brush your fingers across a pine tree’s corrugated bark, feel the wind on your face as the morning mist summons a ripple of goosebumps across your skin. You don’t have to walk far, but you do have to be drawn into the landscape enough to understand what the park is really about. And if you’ve never been to a national park—or never been out in nature—it’s hard to feel inspired to linger with your cortisol levels through the roof after sitting in stop-and-go traffic at the entry gate for 45 minutes. Reservation systems have the potential to reduce crowding, making it more likely that first-time visitors will feel relaxed enough to explore. That means they’ll actually have the opportunity to connect with their surroundings—and maybe fall enough in love with the natural world to see it as something more than an amusement park.
What kind of experience do national park visitors really need? The kind that lets us wait in lines and trample crowded trails whenever we choose? That favors locals who can visit on weekdays for solitude? What we need is a system designed not for the privileged, but for those who can only get to parks on weekends and holidays. We need a system that can, even during peak season, give newcomers a taste of the calm and ease that quiet, untrammeled nature can really provide—and inspire them to seek out and protect it elsewhere. We need a system that gives everyone a similar experience—and puts spoiled locals like me in line with everyone else.
In that sense, the reservations may be working. Glacier National Park officials estimate that without their system, the park would have had to close its main entrance 15 times this past summer to battle congestion and gridlock (it hasn’t had to close once). And according to Kyle Patterson, the public information officer for RMNP, the park has seen significant improvements. For once, the shuttle bus can reach trailheads without getting stuck in traffic or having to weave past illegally parked cars. Lines are shorter. And with visitation spread evenly throughout the day, Patterson says, crowding has been dramatically reduced. Rocky plans on bringing back reservations in 2022, while other parks, like Arches, are instituting their own systems.
Plus, the reservation system has a deeper significance: It makes nature feel more valuable. To really love something, you can’t just view it as a to-do list item, or a way to fill time with the in-laws before lunch. We only remember the things we savor. As much as we might want to believe otherwise, savoring is not something nature inspires on its own. Like anything else, you get out of the experience what you put into it. Even if that’s just $2 and a few hours spent wondering whether you’ll actually get a coveted reservation spot for yourself.
As the sun rose, light trickled through a sparse handful of clouds, blushing the high peaks with a rose-gold glow. I’d walked that trail a dozen times before, but this time, I felt lucky. Deep, soul-level lucky.
I thought I would feel angry to find spontaneous mid-morning trips suddenly off-limits. But I didn’t. I just suddenly understood how precious a day in the wilderness was. Because for once, the park had assigned it the value it deserves.