How Does The National Park Timed Entry System Work?

Updated: Nov 28

Over the past year or so I've been fortunate enough to visit four different National Parks throughout the USA.


The first three visits came before the National Park Service had implemented their timed entry reservation system and since then I've visited Rocky Mountain National Park.


In this post we're going to discuss how the system works and some tips to know when booking.


Some of the more popular National Parks will see a month's worth of reservation time slots disappear only minutes after becoming available!


It's no secret that many travelers have been flocking to National Parks recently.


These destinations are generally road trip friendly, budget conscious and of course outdoor oriented. This makes them ideal getaways in a post pandemic world!


It's no secret that many travelers have been flocking to National Parks recently.


These destinations are generally road trip friendly, budget conscious and of course outdoor oriented. This makes them ideal getaways in a post pandemic world!


Hidden Lake Overlook Montana
Views from the Hidden Lake Overlook in Glacier National Park

Have a specific question about the system? Use the table of contents below to jump ahead and find the answer to your question!


If you're planning to visit a US National Park this year be sure to read on to gain a better understanding of how the system works and how to avoid missing out on reservation slots!


I can tell you from experience the National Park Service WILL turn away vehicles at their entrances without reservations.

Recreation.gov App

You'll notice some links and advertisements from partner or affiliate sites throughout this post. I typically earn a small commission on any purchases made through those links at no additional cost to you. If you check those out, great. If not, I'm still happy you're here!

 

So How Does The National Park Timed Entry System Work?


First things first. Go over to the NPS website and create an account.


Once you've created an account I'd also grab your mobile device and download the Recreation.gov app. The app currently has better functionality than the website, such as the ability to save methods of payment.


Recreation.gov App Screenshot

Once you've got the app downloaded and an account created, go ahead and fill out as much account and payment information as you can.


For some National Parks you should expect the more desirable entry slots (such as 9am) to book extremely fast. Take care of setting up everything now so you can focus on snagging a reservation slot when the time comes!



Now that we've got the housekeeping taken care of, it's time to hunt for reservation slots. We'll use Rocky Mountain National Park as an example for this guide since it's a popular destination and difficult to secure good entry times.


Go onto your app and search for Rocky Mountain National Park, you should end up seeing something like this:


Recreation.gov App Screenshot

Some National Parks will have different entry options available. In the case of Rocky Mountain National Park there are two choices.


The most popular area here is Bear Lake Corridor and so the Park Service made the decision to offer a full park access ticket and a ticket that provides access to everywhere in the park EXCEPT for Bear Lake Corridor.



As I mentioned before, reservation slots can book quickly once they open up so be sure to research in advance which options you'll need. In the case of Rocky Mountain, the Bear Lake Corridor tickets will book more quickly than the others.


In our example let's click through on the Bear Lake Corridor tickets. That will bring you to the screen below:


Recreation.gov App Screenshot

At this point we can search for and enter our desired travel dates.


When I entered the search below it was late August so there was little availability left for either month shown here. While September looked mostly available at first glance, when I clicked through most of the days only had timed entry starting at 4:00pm.


Better than nothing, but if you're visiting a National Park you probably want to enter earlier than this!


recreation.gov app screenshot

It's worth noting that most National Parks allow you to bypass timed entry if you enter extremely early or late in the day.


For Rocky Mountain you could access Bear Lake Corridor before 5am or after 6pm without a reservation. If you only wanted to access Trail Ridge Road, you could do so before 9am or after 3pm.


If you aren't able to secure a reservation slot, arriving extra early isn't a terrible option. While getting up and to the park that early can be challenging, you'll be rewarded with less traffic, fewer crowds and better parking!


For now let's assume we find a time slot that works. Once you click through on a date and select a time you'll be prompted with a screen like this:


recreation.gov app screenshot

Pick your time and enter a ticket quantity (which is oddly capped at 1, despite prompting you for a quantity). If you're traveling with a group that will require more than 1 vehicle to enter, you will need to have multiple people make reservations.


At the time of this writing, I was only able to purchase one reservation per day on my account.


After confirming these options you'll be prompted to pay and voila! You have officially secured your time entry spot.


Hopefully this helps you navigate the reservation process. Now that we have that covered, let's discuss some other important parts of the process, such as when do these elusive time slots open up?


When do Time Entry Permit Reservations Open Up?


This will vary by National Park. For Rocky Mountain National Park reservations are required to enter the park during peak season which is considered to be the end of May through early October. You will need to check https://www.nps.gov/ for specifics on the park you plan to visit, but the Rocky Mountain example should serve as a good proxy.



Reservations will become available in two ways. On the 1st of each month, the NPS will open up reservations for the entire following month.


This means that on June 1st the NPS will open up all reservation time slots for July. If you plan to visit Rocky Mountain National Park in July, you will need to be online on June 1st at 10am MDT when the reservations open up to quickly reserve your desired times.


The most popular reservation slots in this case would be for Bear Lake Corridor access, generally earlier in the day (9am slots go quickly!) and especially weekends.


If you need to make multiple reservations across multiple days, enlist the help of others in your group to increase your chances of getting good time slots.


Alternatively - the NPS will typically hold back 25% of their total timed entry supply until 5pm MDT the day prior.


This means that if you plan to visit on July 10th, the park will make the last 25% of their reservation slots available at 5pm on July 9th. These slots will be in very high demand and often sell out within minutes of becoming available.


Do I Always Need a Timed Entry Reservation to Enter National Parks?


You do not always need a timed entry reservation to enter. As mentioned earlier in this post you can generally access National Parks without one if you enter before or after specified times.


Typically these are very early (often before 7am - 9am) or very late in the day (after 4pm - 6pm) which isn't ideal, but better than nothing.


Additionally, most National Parks only have this system active during peak season. For Rocky Mountain National Park this runs from late May to early October. If you visit during the off season, you will not need a reservation.


Tips For Obtaining Reservations on Sold Out Days


If you're having trouble securing reservations or your desired dates have already sold out here are a few tips.


Sometimes people will cancel their reservations - you can have some success by checking the NPS frequently to see if there is any new availability.


Taking this strategy a step further - I've found that reservations tend to be cancelled around the same times that the NPS makes other reservation slots available.


For example, some visitors might cancel a reservation if they can secure a more preferred time when the park opens up availability at 5pm MDT each day. This is a great time to stop back in and check your desired dates.



Going along with this strategy - I've also noticed an uptick in cancellations if you try booking around the same time that the NPS opens up availability for an entire month.


If you need a July 10th reservation, be sure to check back in the morning of July 1st when the NPS opens up August reservations. Some people may cancel their July reservations once they secure alternative slots for August.


If you're still having trouble obtaining entry at a desired time, there's yet another way around this problem. You can generally book hikes or park tours with local operators as an alternative way to enter the park.


In these situations, you will not be required to have a timed entry reservation. This will likely be a more expensive route, but it's another good trick to have in your back pocket!


Additionally many park activities such as backcountry permits will waive the timed entry requirement.


Do I Still Need to Pay Entrance Fees With a Timed Entry Reservation?


It's important to remember that your timed entry reservation does NOT include your park entrance fee.


The timed entry reservation does require a nominal and non-refundable fee, but please keep in mind you will still need to purchase a park entrance pass at the gate if you do not already have one. You will need to purchase your entrance pass separately.


Do I Need to Print My Timed Entry Reservation?


At this time you are not required to print your timed entry reservation to enter. You can show the digital copy on your phone when entering the park.


Please keep in mind however, cellular service at many National Parks can be spotty. While you are not required to print your reservation, it is advisable.


Do I Need Multiple Reservations to Enter Over Multiple Days?


Yes! Keep in mind if you plan to visit a particular park over multiple days you need separate reservations for each day. On the flip side, once you've entered the park on a given day you're free to exit and re-enter if needed.