US National Parks are some of the most beautiful places this country has to offer, especially for a wedding. Not only do they offer a stunning back-country atmosphere, but they also include comfortable amenities like bathrooms and parking lots; the perfect blend of rugged for the adventurous and beauty for the dreamers!
As beautiful as they are, there are a lot of rules and regulations to follow in order to get married in a National Park.
In this guide, I walk you through 10 steps for getting married in a National Park, whether you're eloping or hosting a bigger wedding with guests. I also provide links to additional planning resources that you can reference throughout your planning (so you'll want to bookmark this page)!
Step 1: Hire your elopement photographer
The first step to getting married in a national park is to hire your elopement photographer or wedding planner. Even before you necessarily choose a national park or a date, hiring your elopement photographer first can be essential to a seamless elopement process.
Reasons you should start your planning with an advocate at your side
The biggest reason you should hire your photographer first is many of them are familiar with federal rules and processes. Elopement photographers are a wealth of knowledge and experience in regards to National Park weddings...
- we know how to scope for the perfect location
- we've probably already navigated the National Park permit process
- most elopement photographers respect the outdoors and are well-versed in Leave No Trace principles
- we have connections and can find you other amazing vendors!
- many of us have chosen to specialize in elopements because we genuinely love helping our couples every step of the way
You'll likely become overwhelmed if you go into your elopement planning with the idea you have to do everything yourself. Hire someone who will serve as your advocate and as a solid resource to lean on throughout the planning process!
Things to look for in the perfect elopement photographer
When looking for your elopement photographer, find someone who:
- will help you find the perfect National Park for you
- can send you vendor recommendations and referrals
- is familiar with the National Park permitting process
- is passionate about LNT principles and genuinely loves the outdoors
Once you find someone whose work and ethos you love, take a look at their travel schedule! Many elopement photographers have their travel schedule planned out months or years in advance, and they are probably already going to some incredible places. They may even be going somewhere that could inspire your own elopement location!
(See my travel schedule here!)
Step 2: Choose your perfect national park
If you go into your planning with a specific date set first, you're going to have a more difficult time finding a location that suits your perfect experience. I recommend choosing your location first, then choosing your date accordingly.
Throughout this process, keep an open mind! Your perfect national park is probably somewhere you've never even considered.
How to find your perfect national park
Sit down and brainstorm all the elements of your dream elopement, even before choosing your date. Dismiss the idea of boundaries like money or travel, and for a moment dream of your perfect wedding experience:
- What's the weather doing? Is it snowing, or is the sun shining?
- Are mountains surrounding you, or are your toes buried in the sand?
- Are you near your home town, or far away in a foreign place?
- Is it just the two of you, or are you surrounded by your favorite people?
- What activities are you doing; are you horse-back riding on a beach, snowmobiling in the mountains, or picnicking in a golden field?
How I help my couples choose their elopement location
I send an in-depth questionnaire to all couples who elope with me. In the questionnaire, I ask questions in regards to the couples health and fitness, preferred weather/climate, guest count, and ideal activities/itinerary. Then, I use this information to put together a detailed list of locations with example itineraries for each. That way my couples are choosing their location based on their perfect experience and priorities for the best wedding day!
Step 3: Choose your date
After you've chosen your National Park, it will be time to choose your wedding date. If it's experience you're after, elements like ideal weather, accessibility, and fewer crowds will be more important than planning around a specific date.
When is the best time of year to get married in a National Park?
Most National Parks have their own time of year that is ideal for eloping. For example, National Parks like Glacier and Yosemite are under a couple feet of snow in the winter, leaving most of the park inaccessible. These same locations then become overly crowded as soon as the weather improves. This means these locations have a very small window of time where they're fully accessible and the weather is beautiful, but they aren't overly crowded from vacationers.
- Desert: late Fall through early Spring
- Mountains: late Spring, late September through mid-October
- Coastline: late Spring, last two weeks of September
Dates you should avoid for your National Park wedding
Another thing to consider when choosing your National Park elopement date is day of week.
I recommend contacting your chosen National Park and asking them which weeks they are expecting a high volume of visitors and avoid those dates. Choosing a week day that is also away from any federal holiday or school breaks will save you from crowds.
Step 4: Find your accommodations
Next it's time to find a place to stay. Many people getting married in National Parks assume they will just stay at some lodging accommodation within the park. However, there are both pros and cons to staying inside the National Park, and sometimes alternative options outside park bounds will be your best bet.
Reasons for lodging inside the National Park
- You're guaranteed admission into the park (and may save on admission fees depending on the park)
- A good thing to keep in mind is that every vehicle that enters the park (guests and vendors) will be required to pay the National Park entrance fee. You can save a lot of money (and headache) by carpooling guests and vendors into the park as needed, and by obtaining a week-long or "America the Beautiful" annual pass.
- You're guaranteed a parking spot for your rental car and easy access to any available shuttle services
- You won't have to worry as much about shuttling guests into the park for your ceremony
- You'll be closer to your ceremony location, making your elopement day itinerary easier
Reasons against lodging inside the National Park
- National Park lodging is typically expensive and crowded
- Doing wedding preparations (hair, makeup, food, etc.) outside the park will save your vendors from potential permit and entrance fees
- You'll have a more difficult time finding accommodations with laundry services or a full kitchen (See these 10 reasons to go grocery shopping while traveling)
- Getting an Airbnb with multiple bedrooms will allow you to spend more time with your guests
- Your AirBnb can double as a backup ceremony location in case of bad weather, or as your reception venue
- Some accommodations outside park bounds are even more beautiful and an experience on their own (UnderCanvas and AutoCamp are perfect examples of this)
- It may seem like a lot of work to drive an hour or more from your accommodation to your ceremony location, but that drive is probably beautiful and will be a part of your National Park experience!
Step 5: Hire other vendors and obtain appropriate permits
Once you have a date and location, many of your vendors will be required to obtain permits. Permits can take weeks or months to approve depending on the number of guests and vendors that will be involved. The National Park has the right to deny your permit request due to lack of space, accessibility, or availability - so be sure to budget in that lead time.
This is an area where it's really helpful to have an advocate (ie. your elopement photographer or planner) who is experienced working in National Parks.
- Photographers and Videographers. All of your photographers and videographers will likely require a commercial use permit. Most of the time, National Park entrance fees are waived with a commercial use permit, so your photographer and/or videographer probably won't need both.
- Commercial Use permits can cost hundreds of dollars depending on your chosen park. I personally include any photography permit costs required in my package prices. However, not all photographers do this so this is a question you'll want to ask.
- Drones are prohibited in National Parks for both personal and commercial use. Not only are drones illegal, they are dangerous and have serious penalties attached to their use. Unmanned aircraft not only poses a safety hazard to both wildlife and park visitors, but the loud noise they make is disruptive.
- Florists and Stylists. It is common for National Parks to have rules against any non-native florals and big installations such as wedding arches, stages, etc. All flowers brought in can drop seeds and pollen that affect the park's native ecosystem. Elaborate installations are also prohibited because of their harm to the ground and surrounding space.
- Catering and Music (DJ, Band, etc.). National Parks have heavy restrictions on catering and music for similar reasons florists and stylists have restrictions. Many times, outside caterers and musicians are completely prohibited from working in National Parks, and other times they are restricted to certain areas. This means you cannot depend on bringing in any food or beverage you want, nor can you depend on amplifying your favorite songs.
- Depending on the type of ceremony or reception you are dreaming of, I recommend hosting your party with food, alcohol, and music either at a designated wedding venue outside the park or at your AirBnb. This will give you much more flexibility in your planning, and won't give you the headache of learning all the strict National Park rules. It will also ensure the safety of the land and give other park visitors a more pleasing experience.
- Please read more on the NPS rules and regulations on alcohol and music before you begin your planning.
- Hair and Makeup Artists. Your hair and makeup artists will not require commercial use permits. However, they will have to pay a park entrance fee if they physically enter the park for your wedding. Again, this situation can be avoided for all of your vendors if you are staying and/or getting ready at an accommodation outside the park bounds.
Step 6: Plan your national park ceremony
Before you start planning your national park ceremony, you will need to know how people are attending. You'll also want to estimate the number of cars that will be required to shuttle everyone to the ceremony location.
Reasons to know your guest count before planning your National Park wedding:
- Accessibility. Most National Parks have dedicated ceremony spaces for you to choose from, many of which will be close to a parking lot. However, some ceremony locations require walking or hiking to access. You'll want to have a general understanding of the health and fitness level of all your guests so you can find the perfect ceremony space for you.
- Bathrooms. Having a bathroom nearby will be helpful for a long ceremony or one that requires a lot of traveling to get to.
- Rain plan. When you get married in nature, you have to work with everything nature offers, both good and bad. However, if there is heavy rain, snow, or winds, you'll be happy to have a plan B in place.
- Parking. Every car that enters the park will be required to pay an entrance fee. On your National Park wedding permit, you will also be required to declare the number of cars anticipated for the event.
- Seating. Most designated ceremony locations won't include seating. You may not require seating if you are having a quick ceremony and all of your guests are able-bodied. However, if you have older guests or plan on having a longer ceremony, providing your guests a place to sit will keep them safe and comfortable.
Alternative options for your National Park wedding ceremony
Some couples dream of exchanging their vows at a specific location within a national park that isn't necessarily suitable for guests. In this situation, I recommend splitting up the day:
- Spend the morning together with a sunrise vow exchange
- Join your family later in the day for your formal ceremony and reception
- You could also plan a multi-day wedding: spend the first couple days together, then your family joins you on later days
Step 7: Apply for your state marriage license
To get legally married in a National Park, You will need a valid marriage license for the state and/or county the National Park is located. You may also require an officiant and/or witnesses to legally bind your marriage. Some states require both, some only one or the other, and other states require neither (meaning you can self-solemnize)!
The marriage license process varies between different states and counties. I recommend starting with your specific state's website for more information. You could also reach out directly to your chosen National Park and ask them where they recommend you apply.
If this process seems daunting or confusing, a way around it is by legally getting married in your home state before or after your National Park celebration. Plenty of couples do this and in no way does it take from the experience!
States that allow self-uniting marriages:
- District of Columbia
Step 8: Apply for your national park wedding permit
Your next step is to get your National Park wedding permit! All National Parks require a permit for you to get married or host a wedding. To obtain a wedding permit, each park requires the couple, not a planner or photographer, to complete a permit application and pay any associated fees. While the application and fee varies, the process is relatively the same across each park.
Links to more information on National Park marriage permits:
- Acadia (Maine)
- Arches (Grand County, Utah)
- Big Bend (Texas)
- Bryce Canyon (Garfield County, Utah)
- Canyonlands (Utah, multiple counties)
- Capitol Reef (Utah, multiple counties)
- Death Valley (Inyo County, California)
- Glacier (Flathead and Glacier counties, Montana)
- Grand Canyon (Arizona)
- Grand Teton (Teton County, Wyoming)
- Great Smoky Mountains (Sevier County in Tennessee and Swain and Haywood Counties in North Carolina)
- Joshua Tree (Riverside and San Bernardino counties, California)
- Mount Rainier (Pierce County, Washington)
- North Cascades (Washington, multiple counties)
- Redwood (Humboldt County, California)
- Saguaro (Pima County, Arizona)
- Sequoia (Tulare County, California)
- Shenandoah (Page County, Virginia)
- Yosemite (California, multiple counties)
- Zion (Kane and Iron Counties, Utah)
step 9: Plan your national park reception
Just like wedding ceremonies, most National Parks have dedicated spots for receptions. Most National Parks have restrictions on what furniture/decor you can bring in, including wedding essentials like music, florals, food, and alcohol:
Wedding reception details that are prohibited in National Parks
If you are getting married in a National Park, don't plan on bringing a tent, heavy florals, or amplified music. Alcohol is prohibited in many areas of most National Parks, and your caterer should be aware of restrictions regarding food and beverage.
Not only are florals and installations prohibited, but also are combustibles. Sparklers and smoke bombs are not allowed due to their risk of harming the natural floral and fauna. Parks like Yosemite, Redwoods, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain are already threatened with annual drought and forest fire. Bringing in fire is literally only adding fuel to a flame - not good.
Also don't expect to be throwing any confetti or rice, even if it is labeled as "eco-friendly" or "compostable." Animals consume them and get very sick, and foreign seeds and plants can be harmful to the native ecosystem.
Alternative options for your National Park wedding reception
If a big elaborate party is the kind of reception you are dreaming of, I recommend splitting your wedding between two spaces:
- Hosting only your ceremony or bridal photos in the National Park
- Plan your reception at a dedicated wedding venue outside the park
National Park weddings are all about immersing yourself in nature and focusing on the simplicity in love. Most couples who get married in National Parks dream of a wedding that doesn't focus on the details, but rather time together in nature.
Step 10: Enjoy your beautiful wedding
Getting married in a national park is not only a privilege, it's an honor. Our national parks are some of the most beautiful places in our country, especially for a wedding backdrop. To experience a national park wedding is to appreciate the bigger picture of what getting married actually means, and allows you and your loved ones to celebrate amongst nature.
Having the opportunity to host your favorite people in one of the most beautiful places our country has to offer is something to be so proud of. You can guarantee everyone will be talking about your wedding for the rest of your lives.
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