For those who love hiking, camping, and the general grandeur of the great outdoors, getting married in a national park would be a dream come true. But, like most wedding-related things, making plans to elope or host a national park wedding isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. There are weather conditions to consider, permits (lots of permits), some guest count limitations, remote photo locations, and more. But if you’re committed to tying the knot surrounded by some of the most striking landscapes in the U.S., it can certainly be done.
“If you love national parks and exploring and having new adventures, this is a great chance to turn your wedding day into more of an adventure and start your marriage on an exciting note,” says mountain elopement photographer Amanda Vaelynn.
Ready to take the leap and begin planning a wedding in a national park? We have everything you need to know about making this once-in-a-lifetime experience run smoothly.
Keep the Basics in Mind
Before we get into the nitty-gritty details, there are some basics to keep in mind about getting married at a national park. These celebrations work for elopements and small weddings (up to 50 people)—don’t expect to have a wedding with 200 guests—and know that each park varies when it comes to guest count allowances. If you’re hoping to avoid the (often persistent) crowds, consider sunrise and sunset for photos, and even think about planning your elopement or wedding on a weekday or an off-peak time. “Even 10 a.m. versus 2 p.m. will make a difference,” says Vaelynn.
Understanding the Permits
Where do I apply?
Getting a permit is required when getting married in a national park depending on the size of your party (For example, Acadia does not require one for parties of 10 people or less). Finding out if you need one and getting your application accepted should be step one in your planning process—it’s the same as picking a venue and wedding date. Each national park has its own site on the official National Parks Service website with a section dedicated to permit information.
How far in advance should I apply?
Vaelynn advises that most parks require a permit at least 30 days before the wedding day, but some may have a shorter window of three weeks. Despite this, Vaelynn recommends applying at least six months out if possible. Most parks will accept a permit up to a year before your event. “You should submit a completed application along with the application fee to the park where you want to hold your event as far in advance of your planned date as possible,” the National Park Service notes.
How much is a permit?
Every park is different and permit rules can change depending on the season, so set aside some time for research. Generally, permits tend to cost about $100 to $200, sometimes less.
Can my permit be denied?
According to the National Park Service, reasons your permit could be denied include if your event:
- “Cause injury or damage to park resources.”
- Is “contrary to the purposes for which the park was established.”
- Will “unreasonably interfere with park programs or activities.”
- “Create an unsafe or unhealthful environment for visitors or employees.”
- “Result in significant conflict with other existing users.”
Know Your Location
There are also some regulations in place to make sure the parks stay as beautiful as they are, so be aware of what you can and can’t do. “Getting married in a national park is more popular now, which can lead to land degradation issues. More people at parks means more damage, so parks are trying to regulate more,” says elopement photographer Bridget Stephenson. Leave No Trace is a national park service initiative that outlines how park visitors can minimize their damage to the natural landscape—it’s good to familiarize yourself with this before you begin planning.
When choosing your location within the park, you will need to first find out the capacity regulations of the park; certain areas are designated for larger parties. Most parks have common areas for weddings, such as Temple Sinawava at Zion, Indian Cove Amphitheater at Joshua Tree, and Beetle Rock at Sequoia, for example.
You will also want to make sure it is an accessible spot for all your guests. Stephenson chats with couples beforehand to get an idea of who is coming and scouts a location that doesn’t require a ton of walking or a steep incline. Also, communication is key. “Half the battle is informing guests about the conditions,” says Stephenson. “I’ve seen guests show up in super high heels and they look incredible, but it doesn’t work with rock paths.”
Choose a less popular spot in the park to hold your ceremony so it will feel more intimate. Of course, being in a public place, crowds are not totally unavoidable, but experts agree that most park guests are respectful of weddings and stay out of the way. “National parks are big enough that even if it’s crowded there’s enough variety in locations to capture wonderful intimate photos,” adds Josue Avalos, a wedding videographer and founder of Suit and tie Media.
For the reception, most people rent out a house near the park for all their guests to enjoy dinner and dancing. You will want to research local vendors or get recommendations from your photographer or planner (though many national park elopers do the planning themselves) for catering the reception.
Why Choose a National Park Wedding?
During the pandemic, intimate weddings and micro-weddings became more popular, which, in turn, led to a boom in national park elopements.
Stephenson specializes in shooting elopements at Acadia National Park and says she will likely opt for a national park wedding when she gets married. “Just do it!” she says to anyone who loves nature and hiking and who has a special connection to a certain park.
“If you’re doing it just for the photos, I wouldn’t go through all the trouble and all the logistics; you can always just do a photo shoot,” she notes. Why? Because you need to do due diligence with permits and be prepared for a rugged experience dealing with the rough terrain and elements. It’s not your average wedding day. “But if you truly love the outdoors and love nature and a traditional wedding is not for you, go for it. Plan a day that’s all about you,” says Stephenson.
How to Choose the Right Park
“Figure out what type of scenery is your favorite, then narrow down locations based off of that. Then research where you’re allowed to have ceremonies in those parks and choose which backdrop is your favorite,” advises Vaelynn. And when it comes to choosing your location, Avalos says that it’s always special when a park is a meaningful place for the couple. Aside from sentimental value, it’s also smart to think about the terrain, time of year, and accessibility of the location.
Vaelynn has shot weddings at Zion, Glacier, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Arches, Olympic, Death Valley, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades—so she knows the drill. Mountainous locations, she explains, have a shorter window in which you can access them for a wedding because in high alpine environments there can be snow even into mid-July, which could cause some road and trail closures. In desert climates, March, April, May, October, and November are ideal months, she says, because in the summer temperatures can soar making it uncomfortable or even impossible for older guests to attend. Early morning and evening ceremonies will also help avoid the heat (and the crowds). The advantage of a desert park over a mountainous park is accessibility; there is more flat terrain, which makes it easier to move around. In a mountain park, you’ll likely need to do some hiking to get to the best spots.
Here, Vaelynn offers a few pro tips on some parks:
- Olympic National Park, WA: “There are a lot of accessible locations that are beautiful. You get a mix of forest, coastal, and mountains.”
- North Cascades, WA: She recommends this park with gorgeous views for a more adventurous couple with hiking prowess. “A lot of the views require a bit more work to get to. It’s more rugged; there are no major towns nearby where you can stay.”
- Arches, UT: While beautiful, this park is very crowded. “If you have a ceremony there, you’re going to have people around…National Park weddings are on public land, so it’s important to understand you are sharing these locations with other people who also have a right to be there.”
- Canyonland, UT: This is a less crowded desert option that is “underrated.” “There are beautiful views right off the parking lot.”
Your Photographer Is Crucial
There’s a whole world of wedding photographers who specialize in national park or adventure elopements; they tend to become a hybrid of a guide, a wedding planner, and a hiking buddy for couples as they traverse the rugged parks on their big day.
Vaelynn sends her couples a 50-page PDF about the park they choose detailing everything there is to know about the process of planning a wedding there. Similarly, Stephenson, who knows Acadia like the back of her hand, takes care of guiding couples through the process (and through the park). Photographers will also offer recommendations for local vendors and places to stay.
But, photographers agree that while choosing someone local who knows the area is helpful from a logistics standpoint, you should never compromise on your vision. Choose a photographer you really connect with and whose work you love, and go from there. Maybe you gravitate towards more documentary-style work, or maybe you prefer more traditional posed photos. All of that not only affects how the photos come out but also how you spend your day with the photographer.
“Select a creative team based on similar values,” advises Avalos. “For example, we market ourselves as diverse, multicultural, and intimate. Others market themselves as religious or traditional.” Find a match, and go from there. And, speaking of spending your day with your photog…you certainly will! This is someone you will be going hiking and picnicking with. They will serve as your hair and makeup person, your tour guide, and your emotional support throughout the day. And, they’ll likely love doing it.
“Being outside is my happy place,” shares Stephenson. “When I realized people could get married in Acadia, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I shot my first wedding there and it was what I was meant to do. It was so magical.”
Avalos agrees, saying “smaller weddings feel better to capture because we get to spend more time with couples; you see more of the emotion come across.”
Preparing for a Rugged Day Outside
Anticipate Rough Terrain
“I actually had a bride wear her wedding dress and build an apron to hold her dress up under her waist, and hiked up a side of the mountain in her wedding dress at sunrise. Then she went down the cliffs to meet guests,” shares Stephenson, adding that she has to train to stay fit for photo shoots as she’s often hiking with all her equipment. She comes prepared with blotting sheets, bobby pins, makeup, and whatever else couples need for touch-ups.
“If you’re having this type of wedding you need to be prepared for the outdoors. When you’re looking at photos, you are seeing epic views, but not behind the scenes—people are sweating; it’s not as glamorous and perfect as it might look,” says Vaelynn. “There are some parks that require less of that adventure and you can bring more family, and some parks are more rugged and require hiking to get cool views.” Due to the terrain, experts certainly recommend bringing hiking boots and gear and then changing at the top of your hike—unless you’re an extreme bride! “Make sure you are prepared to get a little dirty,” says Vaelynn.
Plan for the Weather
Another reality of doing a park wedding (or any fully outdoor wedding, really) is that you are at the mercy of the elements. “When You get married in these places you kind of sign up for the weather. Be ready to experience it in all its glory or all its—sometimes—rain,” says Vaelynn. “I had a couple plan on a location in the park and when we got there, that whole section was in a cloud. It was a white out,” she recalls. “So we drove to a different section above clouds”
She has some tricks of the trade, like changing the time of day of the ceremony to avoid a storm, but sometimes there is no other choice but to postpone a different day. Because most parks require permits, you will need to take note of the rules for postponing. Vaelynn likes to have a backup site right outside the park that is beautiful and does not require a permit, just in case. The good news is permit issues will only affect the ceremony with guests.
Service May Be Spotty
Being out in the wilderness often means no cell reception. It’s of the utmost importance to have a clearly outlined plan for yourself, the guests, and your vendors so everyone knows what to do and where to meet in case they can’t get in touch with one another.
Avalos has experienced the trickiness of this first-hand. “At Joshua Tree, there’s no cell phone reception at the park. On one wedding day, there was a helicopter rescue of a hiker, so they had to shut down traffic while we were commuting to the park. Half the vendors and the bride showed up, but there was no groom and no cell reception. The bride was freaking…luckily it wasn’t that the groom had run off, though,” he jokes. In the end, the wedding was pushed back an hour.
Despite the occasional inconvenience or change in plans, if you take the time to prepare and choose the right person to guide you through the process—and through your park of choice—you’ll have the experience of a lifetime (and some amazing photos to help remember the adventure).