How the Digital Age and Pandemic Have Reshaped National Park Trip Planning

By Jamie Milletary

For travelers who enjoy itinerary-less trips and technology-free adventures, these forms of spontaneity may be shrinking. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented level of precaution in public recreation. The current digital landscape, which offers tools for planning, convenience and contactless transactions, has led us to a unique turning point in planning, especially when it comes to visiting a national park. 

By now, many of us have become accustomed to using for reserving campsites at parks. In response to the pandemic, many parks have expanded this reservation technology to include entry and roadway use at parks. Several national parks have done away with same day walk-up permits for backpacking and have eliminated first-come first-serve campsites. 

These changes may seem minor, but they have set a precedent that others will likely follow. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of parks requiring entry and road-use reservations has nearly doubled. In 2021, five of them rolled out a reservation system, including Haleakalā, Yosemite, Acadia, Rocky Mountain and Glacier national parks. In 2022, four more parks jumped on board: Arches, Zion, Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains. Before setting this precedent, it is important for us to consider accessibility, and the impact on our innate desire to be spontaneous. 

Photo courtesy National Park Service via Flickr, public domain (

Many park enthusiasts are frustrated by the expansion of reservation systems and the elimination of walk-up campsites. With the new model, reservations can often be made six months or more in advance. This can be challenging for individuals with unpredictable schedules or who enjoy casual approaches to planning. Another hurdle to overcome is the increase in outdoor recreation enthusiasts. Between 2019 and 2020, accounts increased by 45 percent and the opportunity for pinning down a site or backpacking permit is narrowing as the competition accelerates.

As an avid national park fanatic, I have experienced many challenges over the past two years due to this increase in reservation requirements. I like to do my research ahead of time by preparing maps, identifying trails, landmarks and other points of interest, then, loosely draft up a few adventures. I prefer to see where the wind takes me, and what the park staff might suggest given the day and conditions. 

Personally, I appreciate an open road and uncertainty because it provides a sense of wanderlust that attracted me to travel and recreation in the first place. With nostalgia, I have come to realize that these spontaneous ways may become a thing of the past. 

On a trip to Redwood National Park in 2021, I had the vague plan to backpack. I knew the route I’d take, the camp I’d keep, and was relying on getting a permit and consultation from the wilderness center at the park headquarters. My arrival day and time were uncertain. 

Upon arrival, I learned that there was no staffing at the wilderness center, and all permits needed to be requested at least 48 hours in advance through the online system. Backpacking trips at national parks must now be precisely organized and do not leave much wiggle room for meandering endeavors. 

With similar dismay, I was prevented on another trip in 2021 from visiting Yosemite and Glacier national parks. On this occasion the timed-entry ticketing system, which was newly required, served as a barrier in seeing these treasures. I did not anticipate being near these parks, and once I learned I would be, I quickly reviewed the park sites, and learned the entry and road use reservations were booked out by more than a week. 

Advanced reservations require time, patience, internet and digital literacy to navigate the 

information platforms. In order to make a reservation, one must pay the additional fees, use a credit card or online pay site, and have specific solid trip plans. 

Following the thread of information across the many online platforms can be difficult and time consuming. During my research for this article, I came across the phone number for the dial-in reservation system. If you are unable to use or prefer phone service, save this number: (877) 444-6777. 

National parks were created to preserve our country’s ecological gems and overcrowding can take its toll. When coupling the land use impacts, staffing requirements and budget limitations, it is clear why the scales have been tipped in favor of digital infrastructure and quota limits. As a frequent traveler, I can attest to the benefits of a less crowded park with fewer traffic jams. I suppose the way forward will be determined with the timeless strategy of a cost benefit analysis; but how do we determine the value of spontaneity and accessibility?