Located in the central eastern part of California, on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite National Park spans nearly 12,000 square miles, 95 percent of which is wilderness.
“We average more than 300 weddings a year in Yosemite National Park,” says Kenny Karst, Manager of Group Services at the park’s Ahwahnee Hotel. “As a wedding destination, Yosemite gives you so much more than a metropolitan hotel ever could: waterfalls, granite domes, pristine blue skies, clean air, and incredible vistas.”
Couples can marry year-round at a variety of park-approved sites or at one of the park’s four lodges. The front lawn at the elegant Ahwahnee Hotel thrills wedding guests with inspiring views of Upper Yosemite Falls and Glacier Point, while the 19th century Victorian-style Wawona Hotel is close to the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. For a more casual atmosphere, couples can use the cabins at Curry Village or the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. Couples often have intimate ceremonies at a park site or at the Yosemite Valley Chapel, returning to a Yosemite lodge for their reception.
“Our lodges have world-class chefs and catering,” says Karst. “And the park has something for everyone and every budget—from the opulent elegance of the Ahwahnee, which can accommodate up to 250 guests, to the rustic tent cabins at Curry Village.”
“We have couples dressing to the nines, in elaborate wedding gowns and tuxedos, but we also see couples get married in shorts and flip-flops,” says Karst. “That’s the beauty of Yosemite. You can do something truly unique here.”
Ever since audiences watched Jim and Pam from “The Office” get married on the iconic Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls, more and more couples have been flocking to this natural wonder to say “I do.” Niagara Falls is located in America’s oldest state park, and is also part of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area.
Sally Fedell, owner of The Falls Wedding Chapel, says their business has grown dramatically in the past 19 years. Couples marry year-round at the falls, though most choose spring, summer, and fall. In winter, couples can exchange vows right at the railing because there are few tourists.
Fedell recommends ceremony sites such as: under the “wedding tree” at Prospect Point, which offers magnificent views of both the American and Canadian Falls; the semi-secluded Great Lakes Garden, just a short walk from the falls; and the Sky Chapel Helicopter, in which 30 to 40 couples per year tie the knot 1,900 feet over Niagara Falls during a 20-minute ride. “It’s an exhilarating experience,” Fedell says. “Everyone wears headsets, and we have it timed so you’re pronounced husband and wife right when you fly over the gorge. When you get back on the ground, you’re married!”
Stephanie and Garick Chan met at a volunteer event planting trees for TreePeople, an urban environmental nonprofit in Los Angeles.
“It’s kind of a no-brainer as to why we choose to be married in Sequoia National Park,” says Stephanie with a laugh. “We’re both nature people: He loves gardening, and I’m really passionate about conservation. I knew I wanted to be married outside, and this is the most magnificent of places, which luckily is right in our backyard.”
Stephanie and Garick were married in December on a picturesque bridge behind the park’s Wuksachi Lodge, surrounded by mighty sequoias, towering Sierra Nevada peaks, and 12 family members and friends. More than anything, Stephanie wanted it to snow on her wedding day—and she got her wish.
Despite the wintry weather, Stephanie and Garick looked ahead to spring by giving each guest a wooden birdhouse to paint during cocktail hour. Says Garick: “The birdhouses captured the spirit of Sequoia and the theme of the wedding. Everyone talked, painted, and took home a nice reminder of the park and our day.”
Planning is important for every wedding—but with national and state park weddings, it’s essential. In Yosemite, for example, park lodging books more than a year in advance. A Special Use Permit is required for all weddings in national parks—even at the lodges—but it’s inexpensive (usually about $50) and easily acquired through the National Park Service.
If you choose to have your ceremony at a park site, you also must adhere to each park’s rules and regulations, which often limit the number of people allowed at certain areas, prohibit birdseed- and rice-throwing, and/or limit the use of other decorations, including chairs and flowers. “The park has rules, of course, but nothing that detracts from the enjoyment of having a wedding here,” says Karst. “And people who choose to get married here … understand the reason for the rules that protect the environment. The park is deeply rooted in their hearts.”
Of course, couples who choose simple ceremonies in national or state parks know that unspoiled natural settings need little to no embellishments. “Couples love the fact that Yosemite [is] already decorated for them!” says Lisa Cesaro, spokeswoman for Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, which manages Yosemite’s lodges. “There’s no way you can make it any better.”
At the White Sands National Monument in eastern New Mexico, couples marry amid waves of sparkling sand dunes—a pristine vista of white stretching as far as the eye can see, thanks to the crystallized gypsum that forms the sand. White Sands is home to the largest gypsum dune field in the world.
“It’s really a blank canvas for creativity,” says Rebecca Wiles, Chief of Interpretation at the monument. In summer, most weddings take place at sunset, when temperatures are cooler and the sand glows pink. Couples can have full, catered receptions within the dunes, and they often bring in tents, arches, chairs, red carpets, RVs or trailers for changing rooms, and even a horse and carriage.
“We also don’t limit where you can have a wedding, except if you have a large group. If you have a small group of, say, 10 people, you can get married on top of the dunes, and then take a hike if you want!” says Wiles. “People have gotten really creative out here.”
The Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota allows smaller wedding ceremonies year-round (except for the week of Independence Day) on the Borglum View Terrace, where couples say “I do” beneath the beneficent gaze of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt.
“A lot of couples who choose to get married here do it because the national parks are important to them,” says Maureen McGee-Ballinger, Public Information Officer and Chief of Interpretation and Education at the memorial. “They visited Mount Rushmore as kids, and the sculpture is a hallmark of where they’re from.”
Patricia Kelly is a Minneapolis-based journalist and marketing communications writer.