Little availability for campsites. Confusing booking windows. Traveler and travel industry frustration is growing with Recreation.gov, the online portal to book accommodations and access on federal lands.
Aline Prado knew she wanted to visit Glacier National Park during her summer vacation this year. The elementary-school teacher had a monthlong road trip planned with her 8-year-old daughter and three other relatives that would start in their hometown, Houston, and meander through nine national parks and monuments in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.
Having heard that Glacier was particularly popular, Ms. Prado tried to book campsites a year before the trip on Recreation.gov, the online platform that manages overnight accommodations, day-use access and more for the country’s 4,200 federally managed sites, including national parks, memorials, historic districts and recreational areas.
“There were never any reservations available, and I was always told to check back again. But when? How is everything booked already?” Ms. Prado said, describing her failed attempts. “I felt like I was online, nonstop. I’m not a tech savvy person, and it was just overwhelming.”
Ms. Prado isn’t alone in her exasperation with the system. Recreation.gov, a must-pass gauntlet for travelers hoping to explore destinations and attractions administered by the Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies, has in recent years received criticism from travelers and travel industry leaders alike — particularly as park attendance has surged during the pandemic. Major frustrations with the platform include little to no availability for campsites and vehicle permits, fees for canceling reservations and confusing booking windows that manage to make both spontaneity and planning ahead difficult.
In mid July, citing concerns that the current system could “threaten to stall the recovery of international inbound travel,” nearly 400 hotels, regional tourism boards, tour operators and other industry organizations in the United States sent a letter to National Park Service director, Chuck Sams, and U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland calling for change. Their primary complaint: “short booking windows and inconsistent procedures are not workable for international travelers and international tour operators.”
“Right now, there’s a 30- to 60-day window to get into some of the most sought-after parks,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, the executive vice president of public affairs and policy for the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group that promotes domestic travel and that sent the letter. “That’s not really an appropriate timeline for international visitors, who are booking travel 10 to 12 months in advance.”
In a statement, Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, said that the agency appreciates the feedback “as we adjust and improve these management tools, and as we evaluate ways to ensure consistent and clear expectations for visitors planning park trips.”
Longer booking windows aren’t a major issue for all travelers, some — even international visitors — prefer last-minute access. But frustration and confusion with the system’s inconsistencies abound. Each park may post different requirements to visit: Glacier, for example, doesn’t require a reservation to enter the park, but does to traverse a major park attraction, the Going-to-the-Sun-Road Corridor, between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. (But if you can’t secure a vehicle pass for that specific pathway, you can book an attraction on the way to gain access.)
Meanwhile, Yosemite National Park in California requires a reservation — for a campsite, a hotel in the park or a backcountry pass — to enter the park at all during peak hours, even if you’re simply hoping to drive through. Access to particularly popular attractions in various parks, including Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, requires entering a lottery anywhere from a year to a day before.
The public finds the system “very confusing,” said Linda Devlin, executive director of the Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau, one of the co-signers of the U.S. Travel letter. “If they want to rent a cabin at Red Bridge on the Allegheny National Forest, they have to go through multiple pages to first find the Allegheny National Forest, then the right campground, then the cabins. It is not a user-friendly system.”
Versions of a reservation system have existed online for decades, as parks have attempted to prevent traffic and overcrowding. In 2018, the consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton took over management of the online booking, spurring hope for improvements, including real-time updates and a more usable interface. The new version of Recreation.gov was a step up from the previous model, but was ill prepared over the past two years to handle the major uptick of pandemic-driven users. It didn’t help alleviate the confusion caused by changing requirements from the parks as they attempted to cope with pandemic restrictions and record-breaking crowds.
As a frequent traveler to national parks, Kelsey Falkowski believes that a reservation system is important in helping to prevent overcrowding. Mr. Falkowski, a high school social studies teacher from Vernon, N.J., has been traveling to national parks with his brother and sister for the past six years, usually visiting two or three parks per trip. He has not encountered major issues using Recreation.gov.
“It really comes down to research,” he said. “We start planning about a year in advance, and my brother will put together a 50-page itinerary for a trip. We’ll go on Facebook pages, Instagram accounts for the national parks, just to make sure we’re not missing anything.”
‘Being comfortable with being uncomfortable’
In addition to a high-speed internet connection, accessing and booking on recreation.gov needs a level of computer literacy that not all travelers may have (speaking of tech, issues of campsite-snatching bots and third-party sites have plagued recreation.gov for years).
Last December, months into her search for campsites, Ms. Prado was able to book one campsite for three nights in Glacier, a far shorter period than she was hoping to spend in the park. As for the rest, she decided she would have to play it by ear.
She was comfortable enough with the uncertainty, and the outdoors, to be spontaneous — she attributes much of this flexibility to being able to dedicate a month to the trip, a benefit of being a teacher with a summer vacation. She was also able to figure out workarounds to reservations by snagging last-minute campsites at some of the parks she visited, including Glacier (where a number were available, despite appearing to be fully booked on Recreation.gov), as well as camping in national forests and spending the night in Walmart parking lots.
“Being comfortable with being uncomfortable was the only way I was able to do this trip,” she said.
For novice campers, this can be an intimidating prospect, one that some experienced travelers say further highlights issues around equity in outdoor spaces. Sonya and Necota Staples, a married couple from Atlanta, started car-camping around the United States in 2016 and often frequent national parks. They created an outdoor travel adventure company, Staples InTents, dedicated to helping demystify the outdoors, particularly for communities of color, with videos, blog posts and in-person gatherings.
“If you are new to the world of outdoor life, it can be an intimidating and overwhelming process,” said Mrs. Staples. “We don’t want that to deter people from our community from experiencing some of the greatest national treasures.”
Being unable to get past the website is, undoubtedly, a huge deterrent. While Mr. and Mrs. Staples aren’t in complete agreement about how the reservation system should change — Mr. Staples is all for making access for international travelers more seamless, while Mrs. Staples would prefer to focus on local communities that aren’t planning trips a year in advance — both agree that clear messaging around how to best access the national parks is a must, along with clearer information on those camping workarounds.
“The site can be overwhelming and nonintuitive for the new user,” Mrs. Staples said. “The information is there but it’s not easily accessible or useful for decision making. If you don’t know specifically what you’re looking for, you can easily become frustrated or get lost on the site.”
Tips to Try
Want to visit federal land this summer? Here are some tips to navigate the Recreation.gov, the online reservation system.
Create a Recreation.gov account well ahead of time. When campsites, passes and permits are released, you must have an account to secure them. Don’t get caught scrambling to enter your information at the last minute.
Plan ahead and research, research, research. If you have your heart set on visiting a specific national park, start on the dedicated page for the park itself; you’ll usually find information about the required reservations. Rules may change, too, depending on weather, natural disasters and pandemic policies. Social media accounts can be a great source for trip planning and reservation tips — not only the parks’ Instagram accounts but also Facebook Groups for fans of the agencies and individual parks.
Familiarize yourself with the lottery system. Recreation.gov has a lottery system for some of the most popular attractions on federal land. While imperfect, the lottery is generally considered an improvement in terms of equitable access. Read up to learn how and when to enter, and coordinate with your travel companions to improve your chances.
Consider visiting lesser-known parks and destinations. Some sites, like Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, receive millions of visitors annually year, and it can be hard to secure highly coveted campsites and passes no matter how skilled you are online. But there is no shortage of stunning alternatives, where reservations are easier to come by and often have more first-come, first-served options.
Don’t forget about the workarounds. Just because you can’t secure a reservation doesn’t mean the trip can’t happen. Mr. Staples of Staples InTents shared these suggestions: “There are often campsites that fall under the Bureau of Land Management that can be used at a first-come, first-serve basis or for a minimal fee. Other workarounds include private campgrounds, like K.O.A., which often have locations near national parks, or Hipcamps, which are privately owned properties that rent space for camping.” And should you have a van, trailer or R.V., many Walmart parking lots welcome overnight guests.