By Lucy Kafanov, Leslie Perrot and Marnie Hunter, CNN

Imagine traveling across the country to visit one of the most beautiful national parks in the United States and discover that there are too many people to get inside.

This is what happened to Elise Brandenburg from Greenville, South Carolina, when she and her family arrived in Arches National Park in southeastern Utah in late June. She took her children out at 7:30 a.m.

“We walked in and missed it by a few minutes. The park was closed,” Brandenburg said.

Arches was already full. The group would have to wait for many more visitors to leave before they could enter the park – a delay that was not part of their travel itinerary.

“We really can’t wait three to five hours before we try to get in and maybe not come in and miss our next stop. So we have to keep going,” she said. “I was almost in tears. I won’t tell a lie.”

Arches is one of many flagship national parks in the United States experiencing overcrowding as summer is in full swing in a year when leisure travel volumes are expected to rebound to near pre-pandemic levels.

The influx of visitors forces the park to temporarily close its doors almost daily. And disappointed visitors aren’t the only consequence of overcrowding. The natural environment is impacted, and the local community is also affected.

Manage an influx of visitors

Several days this week, the park began denying visitors before 8 a.m. In previous years, Arches sometimes turned people down on weekends. Now this is happening almost daily.

“2021 will be our busiest year on record,” said Angie Richman, chief interpretation officer for Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

This is probably true in other popular national parks as well. “We anticipate this will be one of our busiest summers and years ever,” said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, chief spokesperson for the National Park Service.

Yellowstone National Park saw a 50% increase in Memorial Day weekend visits from 2019, she said, and Yellowstone and Grand Teton had their busiest April and May. busy all the time. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has seen a record number of visits each month throughout the year.

Anzelmo-Sarles noted that the big peaks in visits mostly occur in the 12-15 most popular destination national parks. She encourages visitors to explore lesser-known parks throughout the park system, which includes more than 400 parks, seaside, historic sites and more.

Reservations for scheduled entry are one possible solution to the busy Arches, Richman said. Yosemite and Glacier National Park are among the large national parks that put in place reservations during the pandemic to handle visitor entry.

But this idea concerns some business owners in the nearby town of Moab, Utah.

Kent Green, owner of Moab Cowboy Country Offroad Adventures, said he was concerned that a reservation requirement for national parks in the area could deter visitors from traveling to Moab.

“I wouldn’t be so busy … most [visitors] come here to see the national park, but as the national parks are limited when it comes to getting in and out of people, we have been busier because people are looking for alternatives to recreate themselves with their families, ”said Green.

Come prepared and flexible

Visitors who cannot enter Arches often make their way to nearby Canyonlands National Park or opt for recreational opportunities on public land outside of National Parks, which are managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The coronavirus pandemic has introduced new visitors to public lands and to the campsite, said Nicollee Gaddis-Wyatt, field manager at the Bureau of Land Management in Moab. But the increased interest has also put a strain on these recreation areas.

“Things fill up very, very quickly. And that’s where we see a lot of struggles,” she said.

“People are new to this, this recreation on public land, and they don’t quite understand what it means… this is not a hotel.”

The influx of visitors also creates difficulties inside Arches National Park.

“We see a lot of first-time visitors, you know people who have never camped before. We see a lot of dogs on the trails, drones in the park. We see a lot more garbage in the park … and we show it graffiti, ”said Richman, the head of interpretation at Arches.

Educating visitors is important, as recognized by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and some local business owners. Being prepared with enough water and the right footwear, being respectful of archaeological sites by not touching them, and taking out your trash and waste when you leave are important reminders.

Planning is also key, especially when it comes to booking accommodation, said Anzelmo-Sarles, of the parks service. Accommodation in hotels and campgrounds in and around the most popular destination national parks is either full or nearly full until Labor Day, she said.

Reservations for campgrounds in the national parks system increased by 73% compared to 2019.

It’s not just tourists who have packed local areas. The lure of the great outdoors has attracted remote workers and second home buyers, causing housing and rental prices to skyrocket in Moab.

This means that some future land stewards – forest rangers and land management workers – cannot afford to live in the area.

“It’s hard for us to hire people because they have nowhere to live at an affordable price,” said Gaddis-Wyatt, of the Bureau of Land Management. She lives 55 miles away in Monticello, which is cooler and quieter, she said, but is a brutal commute.

“We saw a lot of people leaving the community because they couldn’t afford to live here,” said Rachel Moody, real estate agent at Berkshire Hathaway.

This translates into staff shortages in town and in the park.

Aligning all the resources needed to meet demand is something major national parks struggle with across the country, Anzelmo-Sarles said, but U.S. national parks are happy to welcome visitors.

“We are so happy that as more and more Americans are vaccinated and travel, they explore their national parks and public lands. And the rangers are there to welcome them, it may take a little longer to that people enter or find the services they are looking for, ”she said.

Resource gaps and overpopulation can leave the fate of America’s wilderness at stake.

“Hopefully we can handle this,” said Richman of Arches National Park, “so that people can still come here and enjoy the natural sounds and natural scenery without feeling like there is too much. world.”