So. You’re considering eloping in a National Park.
::confetti and glitter:: YES! That is so friggin awesome. If it wasn’t totally obvious I absolutely LOVE National Parks and think they can be the perfect location for your super rad elopement or wedding. Maybe you dream of being surrounded by the granite cliffs of Yosemite or a funky forest of Joshua Trees or the majestic peaks of the Cascades. Maybe you have *no idea* where you want to elope you just know you want to be surrounded by the jaw-dropping splendor of nature. Regardless, I’m so stoked this is on your mind. I’ve spent a loads of time in National Parks, either for my own enjoyment or for the purpose of taking epic pictures, and there are some things I’d love to share so you can better know what to expect and plan for.
I know- this is maybe the hardest step in planning your National Park Elopement. There are SO MANY options. If you need a little more info on my favorites- keep scrolling. I gotchu.
And make sure to pick a photographer that knows their stuff when it comes to National Parks. Each park has different rules around permits, ceremony spots, size restrictions, and more. And outside the technical rules, each park has unique weather, visitation, and scenery to consider. Hiring someone who specializes in elopements and national parks (::waves::) will ensure you have a constant point person for up to date info and who can answer your questions. This means your elopement will run way way smoother, AND your photos will be banger 🙂
Pro Tip: Use your photographer as a resource in making this decision! For example: weekends are very typical dates for traditional weddings but I *highly* discourage weekend elopements (and won’t even book weekend elopements during busy season at some National Parks). Parks are super clogged which means you will spend more time sitting in traffic, battling for parking, and other shenanigans. No one needs that on their elopement day. Your experience is ultimate- photos come second.
This makes you legit! Sometimes people ask, “Aimée, do we really *need* a permit?” Yup. You fully do. If you have your elopement without a permit and get caught, you could be fined and/or kicked out of the park. Plus, the permits system ensures that multiple weddings aren’t happening at the same location at the same time (cause no one needs an elopement style hunger games situation, battling for location spots!)
Fun fact: I *am* ordained, so I can legally sign off on your paperwork! (Pro tip: Some couples forgo this legal aspect in favor of dealing with paperwork before or after their elopement adventure.)
Show up and have your best day every in a jaw dropping location. 🙂
So to elaborate on my point above- every National Park requires a permit in order for you to get married there (yup, even for elopements), and some require a commercial permit as well. Even if you aren’t officially saying your vows, if you’re in a formal dress/suit combo, chances are you’ll. need a permit. It is absolutely essential to get the required permits. Not only does it help support the park, the risk is just to great to skip this step. No one wants to get stopped by a ranger and then kicked out of their own National Park elopement. That would be…super sad.
They tend to range in price from park to park and they can even vary in price depending on *where* you are in a given park. Take Grand Canyon, where typically a permit is $150. However if you dream of getting married at Shoshone point, it’s $450. In general, they tend to range from $150-$300, so be sure to check with the specific park (or parks) you’re interested in.
Due to the personal nature of the information on the permit application, couples fill out their own permit requests. However! Fun Fact: I send a super detailed set of instructions to all my couples on how to fill out the permit request form specific to their park so that there isn’t any confusion. Also, if a commercial photography permit is required, that’s the photographers job to handle.
Basically as soon as you can, especially if you have your heart set on a specific location inside the park- a finite number of people get permits at certain locations, and spots can fill up. Some parks can provide a pretty quick turn around time but I very much suggest not to rely on that. Sometimes the permit process can take a while so apply ASAP.
I’m going to talk about this a little bit in the next section, but for a bunch of reasons. The park service wants to make sure that nothing is going on in the park that could endanger other visitors or the park itself. The park service is all about balancing needs. The needs of the park, of events happening, of day visitors, etc etc. Having a permit process is a way of keeping tabs on that balance.
When you elope in a National Park, it’s important you have expectations that align with the level of support, infrastructure, and facilities the park has available. Different parks have different rules/expectations/restrictions, but here are a few to be prepared for:
For some parks, the place where you can actually have the marriage ceremony is limited to options that the park has previously designated. Not all parks work this way but a fair few do. Remember that balance I was just talking about? This comes into play here, too.
With National Park Elopements and weddings on the rise, it’s important the park be able to make sure that certain areas are not overrun by folks getting married. Can you imagine multiple couples showing up to the same spot at once and having to basically fight for the spot? It would be like the elopement hunger games and the Park Service is NOT about that life.
The park also wants to make sure your locations are safe for you and anyone in attendance. Maybe you’ve seen pictures of Angels Landing in Zion and have dreamed of you and your SO saying your vows there with your parents and best friends looking on… except the hike up to Angels Landing is no joke and having a ceremony with any guests there would be pretty much impossible. You can take portraits there (or anywhere in the park) whenever… but a ceremony is a no go.
Different ceremony locations can handle different amounts of people, so if you plan on having any guests be sure to check your specific park and location for this! There are larger National Park venues and smaller ones, so chances are you can find a spot that suits you(though I don’t accept weddings with a guests list larger than 30!).
Also! There are often loads of gorgeous options *outside the park* if you want to have your wedding there, then venture into the park for portraits and exploring. Even if you have the ceremony off property, it still counts as a National Park elopement 🙂
As in every outdoor location, park or no, it’s important to follow Leave No Trace principles so things like confetti, champagne corks, flower petals, etc, will all have to be packed out. Yes every individual piece of confetti. 🙂 So really think on if you want that confetti.
If you dream of epic aerial photos of you and your SO, you will have to get them outside the park. Drones are 100% forbidden in all National Parks.
The date of your National Park Wedding is all about balancing two opposing variables: busy season and weather.
If having a private to semi-private experience is important to you, visiting a park during shoulder-season or off-season is a really great option. This time can vary from park to park but generally speaking, summer is busy season. Some parks handle summer well but others, like Yosemite, are absolutely mobbed during high visitation months. Check with the park you’re interested in and see when those months are.
So it makes sense to pick a time of year like off season, right! Easy peasy. Well… sort of. A lot of popular locations in parks actually aren’t accessible to the public during winter months due to snowfall (such as Taft Point in Yosemite or Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park). A lot of parks can be absolutely beautiful during off season but weather is definitely something you want to consider, especially if extreme heat or cold is something you struggle to manage.
Piggy-backing off my above topic, if you want to avoid crowds and also get a better chance at securing your dream location, then weekdays are your friend.
Any weekday is preferable to the weekend, but Tuesday-Thursday are your best bet if you’re hoping for minimal onlookers. Also avoid any holidays or school breaks (like spring break or thanksgiving break). National Parks often experience surges in visitation during those times.
You may have noticed that a lot of these tips are fairly general… and you’re right! They are! So many things vary from park to park, from permit price, to location restrictions, to where dogs are allowed. *This is especially true during the COVID outbreak.* Some parks have ceased issuing permits due to how much uncertainty there is right now. There are also certain areas or entire parks that are closed or at half capacity. Make sure to talk to your elopement photographer about any COVID national park concerns you have!
It’s so so so important to check out the rules to the Park you want to elope in and get that information straight from the source- that Park’s website or better yet, from the park itself. And definitely ask help from your photographer when you need it.
I will admit- this is very hard! There is so much ridiculous beauty out there that picking favorites feels like an impossible task. But just to get your wheels turning- here are a few of my faves 🙂
Best in: May, June, October. Winter months in Yosemite are amazing, but can have a bit of snow and many roads are closed (but the park will be oh so quiet 🙂 )
Fun Activities: Hiking, picnics in the valley, exploring waterfalls, stargazing
Nearest Major Airport: Fresno, CA
Perfect for: Adventurous folks wanting epic views with easy access and don’t mind sharing the space with other folks.
Maybe not a great fit for: Folks who are set on a super unique, very private experience (depending on the park!) and want a lot of options for adventurous activities.
Best in: March, April, Late September, October, November.
Fun Activities: Hiking, off-roading, rock scrambling, star gazing, backpacking.
Nearest Major Airport: Salt Lake City UT (though Moab does have a tiny airport)
Perfect for: Couples wanting epic desert views and adventurous “get amongst it” activities.
Maybe not a great fit for: Folks who are worried about getting a lil dirt on their clothes or want a lot of desert plant life.
Elopement Inspiration: This awesome jeeping elopement.
Best in: June, July, mid to late September, October
Fun Activities: Hiking mountains, exploring beaches, oggling old growth forests, riding bikes… there really is something for everyone in Olympic National Park.
Nearest Major Airport: Seattle, WA
Perfect for: Couples who want to see it all on their elopement day. Also a great fit for folks who have a playful spirit (the beach brings out everyone’s inner kid).
Maybe not a great fit for: Folks who are very worried about rain or fog.
Elopement Inspiration: Check out this Olympic National Park Elopement inspiration shoot.
Best in: February, March, October, November (and even December)
Fun Activities: Hiking, rock climbing, camping,
Nearest Major Airport: LAX (or Palm Springs also has an airport!)
Perfect for: Couples who want a relaxed day with easy to access spots with room for low key exploration.
Maybe not a great fit for: Folks who want a super private elopement.
Elopement Inspiration: This super romantic and emotional day in Joshua Tree.
Best in: February, March, October, November
Fun Activities: Hiking, exploring, star gazing
Nearest Major Airport: Salt Lake City, UT (though Moab does have a tiny airport!)
Perfect for: Couples who love wild landscapes
Maybe not a great fit for: Folks who want a private elopement. Arches is a very busy park.
Elopement Inspiration:This elegant Arches National Park Wedding.
Best in: July and September
Fun Activities: Hiking. Mt. Rainier is a hikers paradise.
Nearest Major Airport: Seattle, WA
Perfect for: Couples tho love hiking and love the mountains.
Maybe not a great fit for: Folks who are very worried about fog or rain.
Best in: February, March, November
Fun Activities: Hiking, exploring canyons, wading in rivers
Nearest Major Airport: Las Vegas Airport
Perfect for: Couples who love the desert and want to elope during “off” season.
Maybe not a great fit for: Couples wanting to elope in the summer or couples who are worried about crowds or parking (Zion is extremely busy May-October)
Best in: May, June
Fun Activities: Hiking in forests and exploring beaches
Nearest Major Airport: Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport
Perfect for: Couples who love moody forests and craggy beaches.
Maybe not a great fit for: Couples wanting high adventure activities.
Best in: May, June, October, November
Fun Activities: Hiking in forests
Nearest Major Airport: Fresno Airport
Perfect for: Couples who love ancient and awe inspiring trees.
Maybe not a great fit for: Couples wanting high adventure activities.
Let’s talk photographer pricing. I’m a huge fan of being super transparent about these things, so as long as you are booking an elopement in the lower 48, this is what you can expect:
Four hours start at: $5500 | Eight Hours: $7500 | One 8-hr day + 4 hr day: $10,000
Want more logistics? I also have a Joshua Tree Elopement Planning Guide, a Moab Elopement Planning Guide, a Yosemite Elopement Planning Guide, and guide on how to elope in Washington (which has *three* national parks!)
— Ryan + Styhiln