1. Figure out the format.
You could do both ceremony and reception at a national park or just the ceremony in the park and then a reception somewhere else. Want everything all in one place? Many parks have what are called “concessionaires,” or private hotels and resorts on the park grounds. These hotels typically also offer more traditional event services like wedding coordination, on-site catering and rentals like tables and chairs. That said, because these venues are located in a national park, you’ll still have to follow regulations for sound amplification, limitations for bar hours and décor restrictions (see number 4). If there isn’t a hotel or resort on site, you’ll have to figure out another option. Maybe the reception is held in a picnic area or nearby pavilion. Our take on that route: This works well for small, casual weddings but is far more difficult to pull off if you’re looking at guest list of more than 50 people.
Tip For The Taking: Not to totally deter you, but if you’re just after the natural beauty of the park, but aren’t set on actually marrying in one, you might consider scheduling time to take photos in the park instead of having the entire event there.
2. Apply for a permit.
You’ll more than likely need to apply for a permit in order to host your wedding at a national park. That goes for ceremony-only park weddings too. To apply for one, you’ll have to go through the national park’s permit office. Check out NPS.gov (the official website of the National Park Service) for a listing of all the local park permit offices and their contact info. Also, not all permits are the same; some require that you apply up to a year in advance while others you won’t be able to apply for until two or three weeks before. In other words, you’ll want to do your homework extra early.
Tip For The Taking: Just like any other wedding venue, national parks have busy seasons too. Some parks won’t even issue permits during busy tourist months so don’t assume that it’s an option until you’ve done your research.
3. Find a secluded spot.
If you have dreams of getting married in front of Old Faithful in the middle of the summer, you might want to rethink your plans. Most, if not all, national parks won’t be able to block off an area in front their most popular tourist attractions. Instead, you’ll want to work with the national park to find a secluded spot (one that won’t result in dozens of tourists mulling around in the back of your ceremony). National Park Service public affairs specialist Mike Litterst, suggests calling the park’s public affairs office for a list of suggestions. Oftentimes, park’s point persons know what spots in the park have worked for weddings in the past.
Tip For The Taking: Don’t underestimate the amount of space you’re going to need. Think of it this way: For a sit-down dinner you should factor 25 to 35 square feet per guest. Even if it’s just the ceremony, you’ll need at least 10 square feet per person and you’ll want to factor in an extra 20 to 30 square feet of space for the altar and bridal party.
4. Make a plan for rentals and decor.
Preserving the environment is one of the National Park Service’s first priorities, and as a result, there are quite a few rental and décor limitations. For example, many parks won’t allow any sort of décor or staging that might require stakes or securing any décor to the ground (so things like tents and even shepherd’s hooks lining the aisle would be out). Find out what the restrictions are, and then work with your florist to come up with a design that involves alternatives to tents and ceremony arches. For example, event planner Jill Hinchman-Hartnett from A Savvy Event weighed down a ceremony arch in Yosemite with cinder blocks and then hid the blocks with flowers. It can be done. You just have to get creative.
Tip For The Taking: Take full advantage of your surroundings. Rocks, driftwood or even antlers found in the park can be amazing décor elements. And instead of an arch, use a beautiful tree or even boulder as a way to define the space.
5. Choose a caterer who knows the rules.
Here again, there are restrictions about where and when you can have food and drinks—and it all depends on the individual park. The best way to make sure you’re in the clear, is to organize a package with a concessionaire in the park, whether it’s with the on-site restaurant or hotel. If that’s not an option, or you have your heart set on a different food setup that requires an outside caterer, you’ll probably be limited to picnic areas.
Tip For The Taking: Wildlife like deer, rabbits, squirrels, birds and bears (yes, bears!) come with the territory when you get married in a national park. You’ll have to be extra cautious with where and how you store food and drinks, which might mean storing food in tightly closed containers or in a secure facility.
6. Assess and address the bathroom situation.
Either you’ll have to find a spot with easy access to restrooms or you’ll have to rent them (that is, as long as the park allows it). If you are hosting the entire wedding in the park and it’s not going to be near the restrooms, you’ll obviously have to rent them. If its just the ceremony, your best bet is to let guests know ahead of time that there won’t be bathroom access and to keep the ceremony on the short side!
Tip For the Taking: It’s crucial that you factor delivery costs if you’re going the rental route. “Bringing in a restrooms is possible because these typically run on generators, but to get a company to deliver may exceed the rental cost,” says wedding planner Jill Hinchman-Hartnett from A Savvy Event.
7. Hire a coordinator for setup and breakdown.
If you’re using a concessionaire facility like a hotel or resort they may have staff available to take care of this for you. Otherwise, because it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to leave anything setup overnight, you’ll have to figure out who’s going to take care of prep and cleanup. Hire a day-of coordinator and her team, or a cleanup crew to help take care of those logistics and save you peace of mind.
Tip For The Taking: The logistics involved with a national park wedding aren’t exactly simple. So find and hire wedding vendors who have done it before. “My best advice for planning a national park wedding is to look to vendors in the area who are experienced and know the ins and outs of the park,” says wedding planner Laura Stagg from Forevermore Events. They’ll not only know which questions to ask and rules to watch for, but they’ll be able to help you come up with and execute creative ideas.
8. Decide how your guests will travel to your wedding.
There’s typically a fee for entering a national park, so plan out the transportation carefully ahead of time. That may mean you organize an area for guests to meet and hire a shuttle or bus to drive into the park, so that you pay for one pass instead of 50. For those guests coming in just for the day, it might be an inconvenience to pay a fee only to leave later that night; so it’s a nice gesture to cover the cost of guests passes in those cases.
Tip For The Taking: You might have to get park passes for all of your wedding vendors just to get them into the park. Ask your vendors whether they have their own passes already or whether you’ll have to buy them beforehand.
9. Spread the news about terrain and weather.
Communication is essential for a national park wedding. Let guests know that any info and updates will be on your wedding website and then make sure you follow through on your end. A few must-have pieces of information: any shoe recommendations (for uneven terrain); info about checking in at the gates (if guests are driving themselves); and the backup plan (in case of rain or park closures).
Tip For the Taking: When guests arrive, make them feel even more comfortable with surprises like warm shawls and toasty drinks like hot cocoa or tea for a chillier spot; or fans, bug spray and bottled water for the warmer areas.
For more information on national park weddings check out the I Heart Parks guide from the National Park Foundation.