It seems we’ve entered the golden age of national park travel. While national parks in the United States have always been among the best family vacation spots for Americans and especially popular after the 2016 centennial, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked a whole new wave of travelers seeking the natural social distancing of the great outdoors.
The rise in popularity isn’t without its challenges, though. In 2020, many travelers discovered firsthand just how crowded the most famous parks and best national park lodges can be.
Others were faced with the reality that visiting park sites isn’t as simple as just hopping in the car for a family road trip. The pandemic spurred some sites, like Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, to switch to timed reservations. Campground reservations for popular times can be hard to snag unless done months in advance or right when they become available.
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The good news: With some key improvements and changes now underway, visiting America’s national parks in 2021 should get a lot easier, making them one of the best (and easiest) family vacation ideas in 2021. These include nonstop flight routes serving national park gateway cities, a new national parks app, improved reservations and small group tours. There’s even a brand-new national park to visit this year.
If you’re looking to plan a post-vaccine vacation to America’s “best idea,” here’s what to expect.
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More new nonstop flights to national park gateways
This summer, New Yorkers will benefit from new direct flights to some of the Northwest’s most popular parks.
American Airlines will offer flights from LaGuardia (LGA) to Rapid City, South Dakota (RAP), from June 5 to Sept. 4, putting nature lovers near five of the state’s parks: Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. (See existing nonstop routes to Rapid City.)
Meanwhile, JetBlue Airways is offering flights from JFK to Kalispell/Glacier Park, Montana (FCA), from July 1 to Sept. 7. (See existing nonstop routes to FCA and Glacier National Park.)
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New air routes to outdoor havens
With leisure travel rebounding faster than business travel, airlines are adjusting their routes to better serve vacationers. Hubs like Denver that offer great access to national parks and ski areas are receiving more attention by airlines. And a slew of new routes from airlines including JetBlue, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines are serving more outdoor-adventure regions.
During a recent virtual industry conference, Shane Hodges, vice president of American’s Western Division & International Sales, noted that it’s a smart time for destinations to bid for new airline routes: “We’ve got the capacity, we’ve got the planes, so where we feel there is potential future demand … we’re going to put the planes.”
This means that travelers could see more nonstop flights to smaller airports in outdoor-focused destinations beyond 2021 if there’s enough demand.
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“We may be taking a little more risk (as an industry) … to see if we can actually create demand,” Hodges said.
Janet Lamkin, senior vice president of market and community innovation at United Airlines, added, “Our network teams are doing lots of research and studying where people want to go, and we’re just being very nimble, frankly, in a way that we’ve never been before.”
What might that mean? As more people add national parks and nature-first destinations to their go-lists, better air service just might follow.
Here are a few highlights of new air routes making travel to U.S. national parks easier in 2021.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Close to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Hole is a perfect national park gateway. American Airlines has announced new seasonal service to Jackson Hole from Boston, and Alaska Airlines is adding San Jose, California, to its nonstop Jackson Hole routes. (The new route joins existing service from Seattle and San Diego). Allegiant will also begin serving Jackson Hole from Los Angeles, Phoenix-Mesa, Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, starting in June.
Fresno is the closest airport to Yosemite National Park. Southwest will launch new routes from both Denver and Las Vegas on April 25. View all cities serving nonstop flights to Fresno and remember that there are plenty of hotels near Yosemite National Park that are full-fledged vacation spots in their own right.
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In May, Southwest will fly to Bozeman – about two hours from Yellowstone – from both Denver and Las Vegas, adding to newly launched routes from JetBlue (from Boston) and Alaska (from Los Angeles). View all cities serving nonstop flights to Bozeman on the city airport’s website.
In addition to those destinations, airlines are ramping up service from Northeast cities (via New York and Boston) to other outdoor spots in the United States:
New small group tours
If you aren’t keen to plan your own trip to a national park, there are plenty of benefits to traveling with a small-group tour operator instead. Responding to a spike in traveler demand, a number of companies have expanded their 2021 group tour offerings to include more guided trips to U.S. national parks.
These tours provide unique experiences like sharing a meal with a Navajo family on Intrepid’s new four-day Zion Ranch Stay in Zion National Park or biking rugged terrain on the company’s six-day Cycle Maine and Acadia National Park tour.
G Adventures has added trips to its U.S. lineup, including ones under the National Geographic name. And REI, the largest operator of adventure travel in the U.S., has added 17 new tours, including a five-day Rocky Mountain National Park Family Adventure and Yosemite Valley Hiking & Camping.
These tour operators are working with travelers during the pandemic and following local guidelines. Many tours are operating with reduced group sizes and companies are offering flexible rebooking terms.
A new national park
We’ve been lucky to see four new national park designations in the past three years: Gateway Arch, Indiana Dunes, White Sands and most recently, New River Gorge. While New River Gorge National Park held a designation as a national river, the newly named preserve could expect an increase in visitation by 20% to 25% according to Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge.
Highlights of the new park in West Virginia include world-class rafting and mountain biking. And if you’re planning a visit, don’t miss other National Park Service units like Gauley River National Recreation Area and Bluestone National Scenic River, as well as Hawks Nest, Pipestem Resort and Carnifex Ferry Battlefield state parks.
Part of the enjoyment of visiting national parks is sleeping in nature, but reserving a campsite isn’t always easy with campgrounds filling up long before summer, according to Kurt Repanshek, founder and editor-in-chief of National Parks Traveler. If they offer advance reservations, many national park campgrounds have a six-month booking window, which means significant planning.
But the pandemic has caused new reservation shifts for some campgrounds that traditionally have had last-minute availability as well, says Janelle Smith, a public affairs specialist at Recreation.gov. As many parks have needed to convert first-come, first-served sites to be bookable ahead of time, advance planning has become a key part of a successful national park vacation.
Recreation.gov makes booking campsites (or other types of reservations, like permits) within the national park system a bit easier. It has booking capabilities for 280 campgrounds within national parks, including three campgrounds at Yellowstone National Park that were just added to the reservation system in March. For reference, there are roughly 3,600 bookable campsites on the platform, a sign of just how many options travelers have when it comes to camping beyond the boundaries of national parks, too.
In the past year and a half, the National Park Service, which lists all of its 423 units (ranging from national parks to historical sites) on Recreation.gov, added 1,800 campsites across 130 park units for advanced reservation access, said Tamara Delaplane, a project manager with the park service, during a recent virtual webinar.
Over the years, the park service has received some criticism for not maintaining park facilities because of a lack of funding and resources. This year, though, with money from the Great American Outdoors Act, campgrounds at parks like Yosemite National Park, Mount Rainier National Park and Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks will be getting improvements. And Grand Teton National Park, Everglades National Park and many of Alaska’s national and state parks offer family glamping style accommodations in canvas tents or cabins, diversifying their camping options.
Private campsites and RV resorts tend to be plentiful around national parks, and an estimated 50,000 campground sites are being added in 2021, according to Al Johnson, an executive at Recreational Adventures Co., KOA’s largest franchisee. If traditional camping isn’t for you, glamping brands like Autocamp and Under Canvas announced new location openings for 2021 and 2022 near national parks including Joshua Tree, Yosemite and Zion.
As for hotels, expect to see more national-park-adjacent luxury properties like Montage Big Sky and The Cloudveil, an Autograph Collection Hotel, to open this year.
New scenic byways near national parks
Even with new air routes, you still need a car to visit most national parks. The Federal Highway Administration added 49 new designations to America’s Byways collection, including 15 All-American Roads and 34 National Scenic Byways throughout 28 states. This is the first year since 2009 that new designations were added. Some are close to national parks, including the Zion Scenic Byway in Utah and the Cascades Loop in Washington.
Tips for national park visits in 2021
Overall visits to National Park Service sites were down in 2020, mainly because of closures and travel restrictions caused by the pandemic. But it’s no secret that national park travel was extremely popular last year relative to other types of vacations during the pandemic. Recreation.gov added 2 million user accounts in the past government fiscal year, a 45% increase compared with 2019, Smith noted.
It’s important to note that last year, 25% of total recreation visits occurred in the top six most-visited parks – just 1.5% of all parks in the national park system – and 15 parks set a new recreation visitation record. That means popular parks are experiencing crowding, so it’s important to consider lesser-visited national parks as well as state parks, Bureau of Land Management sites and other public lands.
Traveling in the shoulder season (the times of the year usually outside of busy summer seasons, such as spring and fall) also helps spread out the number of visitors. Take Zion National Park, for example. The surrounding towns are part of a state-run tourism board, Greater Zion, which helps promote visits to other exceptional nearby spots like St. George and Snow Canyon State Park.
When planning a trip to national parks in 2021, take time to prepare with tools like the new National Park Service app, which has features like up-to-date visitor information, national park lodges and other accommodations listings and activity searches within the national park system. Recreation.gov has a trip planner tool that allows users to search a destination for nearby attractions, campgrounds and guided tours and is a great way to learn about activities that you might not normally find.
Smith advises Recreation.gov users to check ratings and comments to get real-time feedback from travelers and to stay up to date with conditions, especially for the remainder of the pandemic.
Travelers who have visited America’s national parks before as well as newbies should keep in mind that parks are still struggling with changes brought on by the pandemic, including staffing, Repanshek says. “It remains to be seen at this date how seasonal hiring will go across the park system: Will parks hire to their pre-COVID level, or still be limited due to housing constraints?”
These hiring levels will dictate options available to travelers, he says, including lodging, dining, programming and even if visitor centers are open. To ensure you’ll enjoy a trip to national parks this year, make sure you do your research and check individual parks’ websites to stay up on the latest.
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