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'You don't think of waiting in queues for hikes, but that's happening': What to expect at national parks in 2021

"Everything this year is just taking a little more time and priced a little higher."

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Last year, national parks saw a 28% decrease in attendance, mainly due to Covid-19 related closures and capacity limits, according to the National Parks Service.

This year, Americans are making up for lost time and flooding some of the country's most popular spots. So far this year, Yellowstone National Park's visitation is up 14% from 2019, according to the NPS. Glacier National Park has hosted the most visitors it has ever had to date, according to data through May. And the Arches National Park in Utah has been shutting its doors early and turning people away to control capacity.

These crowds mean that your trip might not go as smoothly as planned, says Lily Fu, travel deal expert at Travelzoo. "Everything this year is just taking a little more time and priced a little higher," she says.

Here are four inconveniences to expect if you're visiting a national park this summer.

Long lines

For the parks' more popular sites, expect to wait in long lines. This isn't only for indoor attractions, either, says Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommers.com. In Zion National Park, for example, there is a popular hike along a creek where rangers have been asking visitors to stop and space themselves out due to overcrowding.

"You don't think of waiting in queues for hikes, but that's happening," she says.

One way to get around the wait is to hike in the less-crowded parts of the park. "If you're a fit person and can hike into the back country, that's the best way to have a a national park vacation this year," Frommer says.

If that's not an option for you, bring distractions, says Fu: "We packed travel games, books, and even mounted an iPad in the backseat so my son, on our last trip, could watch movies."

Fewer ranger programs

Because the national parks were unsure whether CDC guidance would allow for them to open as usual without limiting capacity, many parks are understaffed, reports Frommer. "Expect fewer ranger programs than in previous years," she says. Ranger programs include family-friendly history and nature tours, along with photograph walks and guided adventure tours.

Generally, there will also be fewer rangers staffed around the parks to answer your questions. "This is a good year to get a guide book and a good year to do advanced research," she says.

This is a good year to get a guide book and a good year to do advanced research.
Pauline Frommer
editorial director of Frommers.com

Limited access to restaurants and hotels

"It will be harder to make reservations at local restaurants," Frommer says, which are struggling to accommodate visitors as parks get more and more crowded. To make sure everyone stays fed and happy, "count on picnicking more," she says.

It's more important than ever to bring your own provisions, Fu agrees: "Any time you can, pack your own food, water — even portable toilet — so that you also avoid lines or potentially closed facilities."

Booking difficulties extend to accommodations too, Fu adds: "All the area hotels and vacation rentals are also at high occupancy and experiencing staff shortages, which translates to higher prices."

Crowded campgrounds

If you are camping in or near national parks, expect crowds. Advanced deposits are up 66% from 2020 at Kampgrounds of America sites, according to company data. KOA predicts that 53 million households will camp in 2021, up from just over 48 million in 2020.

Book your spot as far in advance as possible and prepare to have more neighbors than you might expect.

This story has been updated to clarify the source of the comments from Travelzoo.

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