National Park Booking App Leaves Users Feeling Lost in the Woods

The public finds the system “very confusing,” said Linda Devlin, executive director of the Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau, one of the co-signers of the U.S. Travel letter. “If they want to rent a cabin at Red Bridge on the Allegheny National Forest, they have to go through multiple pages to first find the Allegheny National Forest, then the right campground, then the cabins. It is not a user-friendly system.”

Versions of a reservation system have existed online for decades, as parks have attempted to prevent traffic and overcrowding. In 2018, the consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton took over management of the online booking, spurring hope for improvements, including real-time updates and a more usable interface. The new version of Recreation.gov was a step up from the previous model, but was ill prepared over the past two years to handle the major uptick of pandemic-driven users. It didn’t help alleviate the confusion caused by changing requirements from the parks as they attempted to cope with pandemic restrictions and record-breaking crowds.

As a frequent traveler to national parks, Kelsey Falkowski believes that a reservation system is important in helping to prevent overcrowding. Mr. Falkowski, a high school social studies teacher from Vernon, N.J., has been traveling to national parks with his brother and sister for the past six years, usually visiting two or three parks per trip. He has not encountered major issues using Recreation.gov.

“It really comes down to research,” he said. “We start planning about a year in advance, and my brother will put together a 50-page itinerary for a trip. We’ll go on Facebook pages, Instagram accounts for the national parks, just to make sure we’re not missing anything.”

In addition to a high-speed internet connection, accessing and booking on recreation.gov needs a level of computer literacy that not all travelers may have (speaking of tech, issues of campsite-snatching bots and third-party sites have plagued recreation.gov for years).

Last December, months into her search for campsites, Ms. Prado was able to book one campsite for three nights in Glacier, a far shorter period than she was hoping to spend in the park. As for the rest, she decided she would have to play it by ear.

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