Here in the U.S. we are so very lucky to have protected lands that are well cared for and open for us to explore. Some of the most unique and beautiful views in our country can be found in our 62 National Parks (even more if you count the national memorials, forests, and recreation areas!), and with the "adventure boom" we're experiencing, many people have found joy and excitement in the outdoors! So much so that our National Parks are receiving more requests than ever to host weddings. And it's understandable for sure! If you've loved spending time together adventuring, it only makes sense that you'd want to incorporate adventure into the happiest day of your relationship. So the big question is, how do you get married in our National Parks?
There are SO many aspects that go into planning a wedding, but planning a traditional wedding is very different from planning an adventure wedding. Rather than planning seating charts and floral arrangements, you're choosing whether you want to hike to a waterfall or go off-roading in the desert! But that's not the wedding world most people have experienced growing up, so there are a lot of questions and uncertainty surrounding the subject of eloping in the great outdoors. But no worries! Here are some things to consider if you're thinking about eloping in our National Parks...
1. Hire the Pros who are Experienced with Adventure Weddings!
First things first - you definitely want to make sure you're hiring someone who can guide you along on your adventure! As an adventure wedding guide (who doubles as a photographer) I help all of my couples plan the perfect day and advise them on best practices to set them up for success. Adventure wedding guides help with location scouting, finding the right trails, getting the permit info you need, send packing lists, building timelines, and more. Plus, with them doubling as your photographer, you'll have your guide along with you all day documenting the experience and they'll be prepared for anything that comes your way.
You'll also want to make sure that the officiant, musicians, and any other vendors who are a part of your day know what they're getting into if you're planning a big hike or off-road adventure. Fun Fact: I got ordained for any of my couples just in case they're not able to find an officiant who will join them on a hike!
2. Secure the Correct Permits
Almost all of our national parks allow wedding ceremonies, but just like a big wedding, you can't just show up somewhere and get married without telling the venue and paying for the space. You always want to make sure you speak with someone at their office to ensure you're filing the right paperwork and following their rules & regulations. There's nothing like a park ranger kicking you out halfway through your ceremony! And make sure that you're filing your permit far enough in advance. Some parks require you to file within a certain time period (at least 30 days' notice).
The cost of permits varies from park to park, ranging from $50-$500. For example, Zion National Park has a $100 permit fee, New River Gorge's fee is $50, and Rocky Mountain's fee is $300.
You could get around that though...
Alternatively, you can have your ceremony outside of the park (at your cabin rental for example) and just do portraits within the park. Places like Arches National Park don't require a permit or fee (other than park entry) in that case! But again - each park is different so you always want to make sure you have permission to do photos in the park first. NPS has been known to look through social media and fine people who post photos from parks they didn't secure a permit for.
3. Follow the Park's Rules & Regulations
Guest Count Restrictions - Another item that varies by park, but is important to think about if you're inviting family and friends to witness the occasion. I've seen them as high as 100 people and as few as 10, and that includes your vendors.
Ceremony Location Limitations - There are often designated spaces for weddings, no matter if you have guests or just the two of you. So unfortunately you may not be able to hold your ceremony at a specific spot that you might have had your eyes on, but you can still have your portraits done there later.
Flower Restrictions - Yes, they even have rules on flowers in some parks! That's to ensure that seeds from invasive species don't accidentally end up in their parks and affect the natural habitat. Some parks don't allow real flowers at all, and others require that only local flowers be used. Grand Teton National Park, for example, requires that you not bring any flowers on Wyoming's Noxious Weed list, which includes baby's breath.
Learn What You Can & Can't Bring - Often you're unable to erect altars, set up chairs, use decorations, or throw materials (like birdseed and rice).
Music & Sound Levels - Parks do put a limitation on amplified music, so if you bring a speaker or hire a musician, you'll need to be mindful of that.
Pets - Many couples who elope choose to include their dogs in the day, but be sure that pets are permitted in the park beforehand.
4. Timing Is Everything
Planning a successful elopement relies a lot on the time of year, week, day you choose!
Best Time Of Year - Take into consider 2 things: the weather and popular visitation times for tourists. Anywhere in the southern U.S. is going to be H.O.T. from end of June to September, and longer the further south you get. So I highly advise against planning a wedding in places like Zion National Park and Lake Powell (falls under Glen Canyon National Recreation Area) in the midst of summer. On the opposite side of things, many northern and high-altitude parks get snow early in the fall and later in the spring leaving some roads and parts of parks impassible. If you're a total snow bunny and love the idea of seeing those snow-capped peaks, it's all about doing your research, being prepared, and being flexible.
Summer break and holiday weekends are also the busiest times for traveling, so places like Arches and Glacier National Park will be crowded with other visitors. So bad that it really just ruins the experience entirely. Plus, those two parks specifically have reservation systems that you need to use months in advance to even enter the park. So if you're looking for privacy, good weather, and low-stress, planning in the fall and spring can be great options!
Best Time Of Day - My favorite time of day to shoot an elopement in the busy season is at sunrise. And I know that early wakeup is not ideal for most people, but hear me out - not only is it much cooler in the summer months, but there are far less people to battle with for parking and great scenery. Plus the lighting at that time of day is absolute magic! Sunset is also a great time for photos and ceremonies, though you're much more likely to encounter other people during your experience if you choose somewhere easily accessible to other guests.
Best Time of the Week - if you can, I highly recommend choosing a weekday over a weekend! Again - avoiding crowds is a huge way to assure that you're able to enjoy your wedding day.
5. Leave No Trace
I could go on and on about the principles of Leave No Trace, all of which are pretty much required to be followed by every park. But instead, I'll direct you straight to the source: lnt.org/why/7-principles
But here's what that means in wedding terms:
Leave with what you brought - This means all garbage, flowers, decor, etc.
Leave what you find in the park behind - you can't pick flowers or collect rocks
Respect the wildlife - Meaning you can't carve initials into trees, rocks, etc. You must stay on the trails so as not to destroy the environment. Many parks have very delicate plant life, and even if you can't see it growing, your footsteps can have a huge impact. And you always want to keep your distance from animals you may encounter - don't feed the bears or the chipmunks! (not being able to make friends with the chipmunks is probably the hardest part of LNT for me)
Plan ahead and prepare - I make sure I provide information and resources to all of my clients to help them prepare but be sure to pack the right clothing and footwear for the environment and weather you'll be in, stay hydrated, bring sunscreen, and keep your phones charged just in case of emergency.
Be considerate of others - Remember that while this is your wedding day, we are not the only people there to enjoy the park. So unless we have a reservation for an exact spot, we cannot expect others to sacrifice their experience for our photos and your ceremony.
6. Plan Some Fun into your Timeline!
Adventure weddings aren't just about the ceremony and portraits - it's about doing what you love with who you love! And there's a whole lot to do than just go hiking. Here are some ideas...
Plan an off-road Jeep Tour! Sometimes this can be a great way to get to a beautiful and secluded ceremony spot that has far less visitors to encounter without the hike.
Kayaking or boating are a great way to cool off, and you can find some seclusion this way too!
Hot air balloon ride
Helicopter ride - another means of transporting to a remote location!
River tubing - pack up the cooler and float down the Colorado River in your white wedding swimwear!
Ride a ski-lift or gondola to the mountain top in the summer for some great views
Find a nearby brewery or winery and have a couple of drinks
Pack a picnic and share a charcutery at an overlook together
Stargazing - head back out after dark and watch the stars from your favorite park!
Sandboarding or Sandsledding
Soaking in a hot tub
Roasting marshmallows around the campfire
7. Figure Out State Marriage Laws
If you're planning from outside of the state you'll be getting married in, be sure to research the marriage laws for where you'll be traveling to. Find out what you'll need to bring, how far in advance you'll need to apply before having your ceremony, if you have to apply in-person or if you can apply online in advance, who can perform the ceremony, etc.
Does the idea of trying to find the right park based on what you need and want for the day seem exhausting? Or maybe you want to find a similar alternative to a National Park you love? Let the pros handle that!
All Wild North Weddings couples fill out a questionnaire after they book that will tell me what they're looking for in their dream wedding destination. Once that's complete, I dive headfirst into location scouting, and present my couples with some options that they'll love! We'll find all of the best views, trails, and activities to make it the best day ever. And then photograph every amazing moment of the experience they share.
Ready to start planning the adventure of a lifetime? Let's talk! Fill out the contact form at the bottom of any page, or learn more about what Wild North Weddings has to offer here:
More Resources and Inspo for Planning your Elopement Day!
Hey there! I'm Carly D'Angelo-Hall - a photographer specializing in documenting weddings across the U.S. If you love adventure, experiencing new things, and if you like to live "outside of the box", let's talk about how I can help you create and capture the wedding day of your dreams! Visit wildnorthweddings.com to view all-inclusive wedding day and adventure session packages.