Recreation.gov, a national park reservation 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 Visitor Bureau, one of the signatories of the US travel letter. “If they want to get a cabin at Red Bridge on the Allegheny National Forest, they have to go through several pages to find first the Allegheny National Forest, then the right campground, then the cabins. It is not a user friendly system. “

Versions of the online reservation system have existed for decades as parks have sought to avoid traffic and overcrowding. In 2018, consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton took over the management of online bookings, prompting hopes for improvements including real-time updates and a more user-friendly interface. The new version of Recreation.gov was a step up from the previous model, but it was ill-prepared for the major surge in users caused by the pandemic over the past two years. That didn’t help ease the confusion caused by changing requirements for parks as they struggled to cope with pandemic restrictions and record crowds.

As a frequent traveler to national parks, Kelsey Falkowski believes the reservation system is important to avoid 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 encountered no major problems using Recreation.gov.

“It really depends on the research,” he said. “We start planning about a year in advance, and my brother will put together a 50-page itinerary for the trip. We’ll be going over Facebook pages, Instagram accounts for national parks to make sure we don’t miss anything.”

In addition to high-speed Internet, accessing and making reservations at recreation.gov requires computer skills that not all travelers may have (Speaking of tech, problems with camper bots and third-party sites have plagued recreation.gov for years).

After searching for campsites last December, Ms. Prado was able to book one campsite for three nights at Glacier, a much shorter period of time than she had hoped to spend in the park. As for the rest, he decided he should play it by ear.

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