How to Elope in a National Park
Today it’s all about the adventurous couple, the ones who love the outdoors so much — they want to incorporate it into their wedding day in a BIG WAY. Over the past few years, we’ve been featuring more and more rad elopements, with many of them taking place in national parks, and that’s sparked the interest of many readers… We’ve received countless questions of, “So, if I want to elope in a national park — how do I go about that? Are there fees involved? Who do I contact? Do I have to get a permit? Help! What do I do?” Well, we’ve done our research + are here to divulge all the answers. We’re even sharing some expert advice from two all-star ‘adventure/wandering photographers’: Anni Graham + Dawn Photo.
To start off, almost all of the U.S. National Parks allow for ceremonies to take place within their grounds — though “special use” permits are required, with an upfront fee (usually between $50-$200, depending on the park). Some people have asked, “Well, what if it is just us, the officiant + the photographer — do we really need a permit?” Our best advice, is absolutely YES. Why? If by chance you get stopped by a ranger that asks for the permit, how crushing would it be to have to put your wedding day to a halt? And two, the national parks are such a great service + a definite cause for supporting. Fair? We think so. 🙂 If you’re wanting to elope in such a place, applications should be submitted several months in advance (though you can sometimes get away with three weeks, however, we would just err on the side of having ample time!).
Anni Graham, the photographer of the above photo from Olympic National Park, shares: Each land management organization will have different rules, National Parks as definitely the most restrictive at the top of the list. Each national park will have contact information on nps.gov and I have never had difficulty getting in touch with a Park Ranger to ask about specific permits + rules. Each park also has their own website with information on wedding permits that are easily accessible. Permit fees vary from park to park, generally depending on the popularity of the park (Yosemite gets about 4 million visitors every year) and the type of environment it has (Rocky Mountain is an Alpine environment and very fragile, and they have really expensive permits).
How much time do I need to get a permit?
Each park usually has a time frame of when you can get your permits — for example, Yosemite allows you to schedule permits 1 year – 21 days before your wedding. Regardless it’s smart to plan with plenty of time in advance to ensure you get the permits, etc. Some parks also have designated areas for weddings and they can book out up to a year in advance. I know a lot of people will just avoid getting permits and try to sneak around, but what is worse than getting asked to leave or getting a fine for not going through the proper channels?
Do I get the permit or does my photographer?
Typically the couple will purchase the permit and they usually range from $100 – $300.
Are there any restrictions are involved?
There are a few other restrictions that are common like the number of people that can be there (usually < 50), there are restrictions to what kinds of props/rentals you can bring (you can’t make a hole in the ground to set up a trellis), dogs are usually not allowed, fire or sparklers are usually a big no, you can throw organic material like flowers but not confetti or glitter, things like that. They are great questions for the Park Ranger when contacted!
If a national park feels a bit restrictive, check out a state park or national forest nearby, it’s often just as incredible scenery, less crowded, and you can bring your dog!
How much time should I plan for the day? Photos at sunrise or sunset?
If you are hiking to a location, make sure you leave plenty of time to take it slow and enjoy yourself. I encourage a different pair of shoes if you want to hike in your dress, or to wait to change until we get to the end in case you get too warm. I love shooting at sunset because you have the whole day to anticipate the moment, but for really popular parks or lookout points, it’s going to be very crowded. If sunrise is a possibility, it might be an early start, but it’s quiet and calm, the crowds aren’t awake yet, and it feels like you have the whole place to yourself. It can be pretty magical. Sunset light is usually very yellow and warm, while sunrise light is whiter and a bit less dominating in a photo. I love both, so it’s really up to you which you would prefer!
We asked Anni what places she dreams of photographing an elopement at, and she told us: If I had to choose a dream national park to shoot an elopement at it would probably be Denali National Park up in Alaska or a hike in location somewhere in the Northern Cascades in Washington — it just looks like the most insane scenery of all time. But I also have a huge love for waterfalls, so I have a running list of Yosemite Falls (CA), Watson Falls (OR), Akaka Falls (HI), and so many more!!
Dawn Photo shares: Whenever I shoot at a park I’m normally there for about 4-6 hours to get Ceremony, Group (family) photos if it’s a intimate ceremony, and then enough time to get the portraits of the couple. Depending on the park it could take longer or less time!
Things to bring:
- Shoes to hike in are a must
- If you are hiking in you might want to bring a change of clothes
- Sweater/jacket – if you are up in the mountains or at a lookout point it tends to get unexpectedly chilly!
- Water/snacks or maybe champagne (for energy + morale, of course)
- A really easy prop for an elopement is a rug and some flower petals, or bring a cute blanket to sit on!
- Headlamp or flashlight if you are shooting at sunset and need to hike down in the dark
- If there is a chance of rain, bring a jacket + umbrella. Sometimes you just need to embrace it all and running around in the rain can be the most romantic thing, just bring a jacket to keep warm afterwards.
- It’s also not a bad idea to have a backup location like a lookout tower or cabin to run to after saying your vows for some more photos and sweet moments together.
How do I find the location?
If this is a park that you and your love frequent, why not make a date out of it and search for the perfect location yourselves? Other options include browsing Pinterest to see what has worked in the past, along with contacting the Park Ranger. Most national parks will not be able to block off a certain area for you — especially if it is peak season + one of the most popular tourist attractions (Yosemite Falls or Old Faithful in Yellowstone, for example). However, they can guide you to secluded spots that have worked in the past!
What about the weather?
Depending on where you plan to elope, the weather can be a significant factor. We wouldn’t suggest somewhere like Joshua Tree National Park in the summer, nor Denali National Park in the winter. Take these things into consideration and know that the weather could change at any minute. Make plans for this — bring the proper gear, such as boots, sweaters, a change of clothes, and a willing attitude. It’s all part of the adventure, right? 🙂
Great Parks for Eloping + Details for Getting Married at Each
- Arches National Park — Special Permit Fee: $55
- Bryce Canyon National Park — Special Permit Fee: $100
- Devil’s Tower National Monument — Special Permit Fee: $100
- Everglades National Park — Special Permit Fee: $100
- Glacier National Park — Special Permit Fee: $100
- The Grand Canyon — Special Permit Fee: $175
- Grand Tetons National Park — Special Permit Fee: $100
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park — Special Permit Fee: $50
- Joshua Tree National Park — Special Permit Fee: Varies
- Olympic National Park — Special Permit Fee: Varies
- Rocky Mountain National Park — Special Permit Fee: $150
- Sequoia National Park — Special Permit Fee: $175
- Shenandoah National Park — Special Permit Fee: $200
- Yellowstone National Park — Special Permit Fee: $50
- Yosemite National Park — Special Permit Fee: $150
- Zion National Park — Special Permit Fee: $100
In the chance that you’re opting for a more traditional venue, but want to incorporate a bit of adventure somehow… Why not take your engagement photos in an epic park?! One of our all time faves is this photo taken at Havasu Falls by Anni Graham Photography — find all the details HERE! One last note from Anni: I’ve found that the restrictions are much less at state parks, Native American tribal lands, or national forests — so those may be another avenue to explore!
We can’t wait to see what all you adventure seekers come up with + all the crazy, gorgeous elopement ceremonies! Feel free to share where your dream elopement location would be below + we’re looking forward to seeing some EPIC photos!