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.
Step One: Secure a Photographer for your National Park elopement
Step Two: Pick a date, pick a park, and pick your ceremony location
Step Three: Apply for your permit
Step Four: Plan, be prepared, and figure out state marriage license laws. Fun fact: I *am* ordained, so I can legally sign off on your paperwork!
Step 5: Have a blast (and, as always, Leave No Trace)
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. This post is the first in a series; keep a look out for posts on specific parks, where I’ll offer more specific and in-depth information to help you plan your National Park wedding. Stay tuned!
And if you want to check out some rad national park elopements, check these out!
This colorful and fun Canyonlands and Arches elopement (serious style goals in this one!)