This Summer, You Can Visit Yosemite Without a Reservation

The park is ending its reservation system, which critics say could lead to overcrowding

El Capitan surrounded by fog
El Capitan inside Yosemite National Park Courtesy of Alex Demas / USGS

For the last three summers, visitors who wanted to explore the famous waterfalls and cliffs of Yosemite had to make a reservation to enter the popular national park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Park leaders first implemented the reservation system in 2020 to help limit crowds during the pandemic, then maintained it while making infrastructure repairs.

Now, the park is doing away with reservations. Next summer, travelers to the national park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains can show up at an entrance station, pay the fee or show a park pass, and drive right in.

But some park watchers worry that the process won’t be quite that simple. Prior to implementing the reservation system, Yosemite—like many other popular national parks around the country—grappled with overcrowding. Without reservations, will long queues at entrances and jam-packed hiking trails become the norm?

“We don’t want to see a return to the days of visitors being stuck in hours-long traffic lines before hiking overcrowded trails,” says Mark Rose, Sierra Nevada program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Kurtis Alexander. “This sudden change to pause the reservation system for a summer sends mixed messages and will also create more uncertainty and confusion for visitors and nearby communities.”

Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls inside Yosemite National Park Courtesy of Alex Demas / USGS

Yosemite officials, for their part, acknowledged the potential for overcrowding, writing on Twitter that the park “has been grappling with congestion—even gridlock—for decades.”

“We want to build from the lessons learned from the last three summers of managed access,” the national park tweeted. “Look for an announcement in December, when we’ll start seeking your help to design an approach that provides a great visitor experience while protecting Yosemite’s natural and cultural resources.”

Yosemite is not the only national park with a reservation system to help combat crowds. Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado has one, as does Arches National Park in Utah, among many others.

But many in the travel industry dislike the reservation requirements. In July, the U.S. Travel Association—a nonprofit trade group—wrote in a letter to the United States Department of the Interior and the National Park Service that reservations “threaten to prolong the recovery of international inbound travel” after the pandemic. The group advocated for reservations with longer lead times, as well as more consistency across the various parks.

Based on data from this summer, the Yosemite reservation system did accomplish its goal. Anyone who wished to enter during peak hours—6 a.m. to 4 p.m.—from May 20 to September 30 needed to make a reservation. As such, the park counted 507,923 visits in August 2022, a 28 percent drop from the 703,153 visits recorded in August 2019 when no reservation system existed, reports the Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Reynolds.

Inside the park, meanwhile, the park’s main concessionaire is already making changes to help reduce crowding. Yosemite Hospitality, an Aramark subsidiary, added kiosks to speed up ordering at in-park eateries, per the L.A. Times

The news also pleased some local business owners in the region, who lost revenue because travelers and nearby residents could not make spontaneous visits to the park when the reservation system was in place.

“Our members are in it to win it,” says Shirley Horn, board secretary of Yosemite Highway 120 Chamber of Commerce, to the Wall Street Journal’s Allison Pohle. “It’s their business, it’s their livelihood.”

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