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How to Plan A National Park Elopement

You've all seen those gorgeous pins on Pinterest! The wanderlust they create just sets a fire within you and you happily show your partner "this is where I want to get married to you." Hey! I was one of those brides myself! Although we ended up settling on a park outside for our ceremony we did have pictures done in Great Sand Dunes National Park. Everyone loves to a read a good story, feel free to check mine out here.

So, how does one go about planning a national park elopement? I'll tell ya, then share some amazing tips and tricks that I've found along the way. Ready to book your national park elopement, head on over to the inquiry page and let's start planning together!

lesbian elopement in olympic national park
Jillian + Emily's Olympic National Park Sunrise Elopement

Your Quick Guide Checklist

  1. Select which National Park you want to elope in
  2. Choose your date. The application will require a specific date!
    If you are flexible, talk with your photographer to help nail down a date based of best time to elope in that specific park and other recommendations they may have.
  3. Review the permit information and restrictions on the parks corresponding NPS.gov website.
    Pro Tip: Call and speak with a ranger for the most up to date information & discussing what you have in mind. Each park is different and their websites don't always reflect the most up to date information.
  4. Send in your application! Take special note about how to pay your permit fee (send with or wait until approved) and minimum deadlines to submit (majority is 30 days before your event)
  5. Reach out to local vendors for all your wedding day details!
    I'm always happy to provide recommendations on vendors I've worked with in the past who do excellent work
  6. GET MARRIED!

yosemite national park special use permit application
Example of Yosemite Special Use Permit Application, page 1

Understanding Permits

Special Use permits are required by almost all the nation parks for you to have your ceremony within park boundaries. Ranging from $50 to $500 (there are a few free ones, I'm happy to disclose during our consultation, you can book that over on the inquiry page). Remember, this is much cheaper than a traditional wedding venue! This fee covers the administrative costs that parks take on to review your application, make reservations, and more.

Additional vendors such as your photographer and officiant may also need separate permits. For larger events, an event manager issued by the park may be required to oversee your ceremony as well. This typically starts at $50/hr. You'll want to discuss your plans and guest size with them to determine if an event monitor will be required. It's important to consider a smaller affair so not to overburden our already overburdened national park system or infringe on other visitor's time in the park. There are lots of small wedding venues that can accommodate larger groups. Check out this blog post for some ideas in the Pacific Northwest!

Overwhelmed with trying to decide which national park to elope in? With 423 national park sites and 62 "main" national parks, it can super hard to navigate each different parks regulations. I've put together two SUPER helpful lists to start your elopement planning journey!

What if your permit isn't approved?

You'll be seeing and hearing more of these stories as national park elopements become increasingly popular. For example, Rocky Mountain National Park has stopped issuing wedding permits for the 2021 season and implemented a maximum of 60 weddings per month. Currently, Grand Teton NP has halted all applications for 2022 as they revamp their policies.

How to Increase Your Chances at Securing a Permit

  • Weekday elopement
  • Choose shoulder season or off season dates
  • Having your elopement at sunrise
  • Planning ahead and not applying at the last minute; some parks allow you to apply 1 year in advance

Any Way to Avoid Permit Fees?

Breaking the rules & winging it is not the way to go. Photographers who do agree to that are not professional, put a bad spin on the name, and are not leave no trace stewards. Don't get sucked into false promises by ANY vendor. Do your research, pay your permit fees, and know that your wedding day was perfect AND supports our public lands. Adventure photographers are getting a bad rep these days. We don't want to end up like the Yosemite Valley Rock Climbers of yesteryear. Don't know, check out the film Valley Uprising on Netflix.

Considering eloping outside a national park to avoid permit fees? I hate to break it to you, but many areas will still require some sort of permit for either the couple or the photographer. Each photographer and vendors handle permit costs differently, so make sure to discuss that ahead of time! With the rise of elopements, fragile environments, and issues surrounding geo-tagging, expect the cost of permits to rise and location restrictions to be implemented by the various park services. I have an extensive list of permit free locations if this is a top priority for you. Reach out!

Other Fees You May Encounter

Entrance Fee

In addition to your special use permit, you, your guests, and your vendors are all subject to the park entrance fee unless otherwise noted (great question to ask a ranger during your call!). Typically this ranges from free to $35 per vehicle. Even pedestrians entering the parks are required to pay a fee.

If you're a frequent flyer in National Parks, then consider purchasing the yearly pass which gains your entrance to any National Park you visit! The cost is $80 yearly and you can purchase your pass online, at your local REI, or right at the park ticket booth!

Park Entry Ticket

This is a newer "fee" due to COVID in an effort to limit the number of park visitors in a day. Large parks such a Yosemite and Rocky Mountain initiated this and slots book up fast! You'll need your pre purchased entry ticket if applicable, pay the entrance fee, and have your approved permit printed out to gain entrance. Your permit typically does not cover your entry ticket and every guest and vendor joining you will also need an entry ticket.

Review the NPS.gov site for your chosen park to determine if an entry ticket is required then hop over to Recreation.gov to book that ticket!

Abiding By Location Restrictions

Let me tell you a story. Several years ago, adventure elopements were a fringe idea. Few couples got married out in nature and posting/blogging these types of weddings hadn't gone viral. A popular adventure elopement photographer photographed a couple sharing their vows on a remote, difficult hike within a National Park, and geo-tagged that location. BOOM. It went viral and hundreds of couples & their photographers flocked to this area that is extremely fragile. At this time, there were little to no regulations or permits to deal with. The national park and this location couldn't handle the volume and immediately placed a ban on this location and several other fragile alpine areas. Now, in this national park, if you are found photographing in a location outside the specific specified wedding spots, you and your photographer can be heavily fined.

This is one example in one park, but it is happening all over our beloved public lands. Majority of the parks have created wedding ceremony location restrictions to better monitor events, limit the number of weddings occurring, and protect the fragile environments. During your application process, you'll be required to specify exactly where your ceremony will occur. Once your permit is issued, you cannot change it.

There are still several parks with more open rules about ceremony locations. Typically the smaller your event is the more leniency you'll be given. Check out my Elopement Friendly National Parks guide for more information on those parks. This information is ever changing and each park has their own rules, so it is on you to discuss with a ranger your plans and get the most up to date information.

Logistics to Think About

When To Elope

It all comes down to personal preference! Always have an honest conversation with your partner about logistics and what you're willing to compromise to have that location.

High Season vs Shoulder Season vs Off Season

High season is going to see the best weather in parks, majority of all trails, activities, and services will be open, and visitor numbers will be at their highest. Expect travel delays, especially to get into the park. NOTE: busy parks will actually stop flow into the park! In 2020, I visited Arches during sunrise and the park had already closed its gates by 11am, on a weekday! High season changes depending on which park you want to visit; winter is even a high season for some locations!

Shoulder Season is that in between high season and off season. Most park amenities are still available while high country travel is starting to dwindle due to snow or other factors. Shoulder season is becoming popular so still expect to see crowds at times.

Off Season is when majority of people don't visit that park! Travel is limited through the park, less park staff around, and surrounding towns will have less things open. This can be a great time to visit a park if you're looking for solitude and beauty. I visited Zion in January and hiked Angels Landing and had the WHOLE place to myself for over 15 minutes then the next day hiked several miles up the narrows with only 1 other person ahead of me. Another year, I summited Half Dome at sunrise outside of the "cables up" and had the summit empty for over 2 hours. Don't be fooled though, planning and preparation for trips like this will be much more involved.

Sunrise vs Sunset

Several factors play into what time to plan your ceremony around! Sunrise will see fewer crowds and softer lighting. But you and your vendors will be up super early and if your location requires hiking, you'll need to be prepared for hiking in the dark. Sunrise elopements are great if you have several activities planned for your day. I highly recommend, if location/park permits, to book a 2 day elopement package if you are interested in a sunrise elopement. Fun fact: my husband and I eloped at sunrise!

Golden hour and sunset are well known to everyone as being the best time to photograph! In popular locations, expect to have more onlookers to your ceremony and portraits. Logistically, crowds mean fewer parking spaces, travel congestion, and occasionally people in your shots. Consider having private vows elsewhere, like at an air B&B, then heading to the park for sunset portraits. Some love the anticipation of waiting to get married all day while others have anxiety over this. If anxiety might be an issue, consider a sunrise elopement and "get it out of the way."

Lighting

Your photographer will help you determine if a location is better suited for sunset or sunrise! Besides personal experience in locations, we've got several apps to help use determine lighting throughout the year. It's best to consider a photographer who has worked in a specific location but don't completely knock a photographer if they haven't worked in a specific location. Lost on how to pick the perfect adventure elopement photographer? Check out this guide which will shine more light on what to look for and what to ask when researching your photographer!

How Much Time To Plan for Portraits

The easiest answer is book an all day elopement package! That way you are never rushing through portraits or missing out on locations that you really wanted. National Parks are BUSY! So busy that many popular parks are turning away visitors before noon, on a weekday. I've waited in over a 2 hour line to get into Yellowstone once and that was on a Thursday morning back in 2017. During a 2019 visit to Yosemite, we drove for 3 hours, circling the valley to find a parking spot on a weekend. Watch the video below to get a sense of traffic in Yellowstone or check out this "10 Best Parks for Traffic Jams."

I'm not here to be a debbie downer or tell you to not elope in a National Park. National Parks are absolutely breathtaking, you'll just want to plan extra time into your day and strategically plan your elopement with all my industry tips & tricks!

Transportation / Where to Stay

Majority of National Parks are a few hours from big cities/airport hubs. Popular parks are popular in part because they are easier to access. Choosing to elope in a remote or less visited park will require additional time. Read more about Unique National Parks to elope in! Even if you choose a popular park, you'll want to plan a few days for your adventure.

I highly suggest a rental car / personal car for getting to the park and traveling around within. You'll be surprised at how big some parks are and it may take over an hour to drive from the visitor center into the center of the park. Parks such as Olympic National Park have several different entrances and you cannot drive straight through the park. Other parks do require you to utilize their shuttle during high season, such as Zion. Many parks do offer green electric shuttles that you can take around the park instead of driving to each spot.

Certain parks do have accommodations within park boundaries. They typically range from primitive campgrounds with no amenities, campgrounds with restrooms/pit toilets/RV hook ups, cabins, to full blown luxury accommodations like The Ahwahnee in Yosemite Valley. The caveat is these reservations go FAST! Reacreation.gov is where you'll be able to make reservations for campgrounds. Some campgrounds are first come first serve but don't rely on this if you have a large group camping.

Last but not least is staying outside the park boundaries and entering during your special day. There are plenty of unique airB&Bs to rent, quirky bed & breakfasts, luxury resorts like Amangiri, and super sick accommodations like Autocamp outside of Yosemite or Undercanvas which has locations near 9 different national parks!

Marriage License Requirements

Luckily marriage license's are much easier to navigate than national park permits! WeddingWire put together a helpful Marriage Laws By State. Start your state research there. Then you'll need to determine additional rules, how to apply, and when to apply. A few states require a 3 day waiting period before you can use your license!

Nearby Activities & What To Do On Your Elopement Day

Th beauty and draw of adventurous elopements is being able to engage in activities that the two of you absolutely love doing together! Plan your park choice around things you love to do. If fly fishing is your jam avoid hot desert parks like Joshua Tree and opt for Glacier or Grand Teton. If you and your boo absolutely despise heights, Canyonlands is NOT the park for you. Climber? Joshua Tree, Arches, and others are awesome spots!

Feeling adventurous? Try an activity together you've never done before and make it your new thing! Every time you engage in that activity, you'll be immersed into memories of your elopement day!

What About Just Photographs in a National Park?

Heck yes! You can definitely choose to get married elsewhere then enter a park to have formal portraits done! Again, each park is going to have different regulations so it's best to discuss with your photographer and call the ranger office. The couple may or may not still need a wedding permit but more likely just your photographer is going to need a commercial use permit.

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