Pulling Off the Iconic 'National Park' Wedding

The ins-and-outs, dos-and-don'ts of getting married in a National Park.

Another Titleist caromed off a tree, bouncing around amidst early-August pines and settling into its new home nestled upon the forest floor.  My head tossed back in disgust, hat lifted and smoothing my hair back I buried the tee into the softened earth with the oversized end of my driver before pouting my way back toward the cart where I immediately picked up my phone. 

My golf game had been golden that summer.  The best in several years actually, calm and relaxed, smooth, my swing a consistent motion delivered with repetitive ease.  On this Tuesday, however, it had proven quite the opposite, stress had seeped in and gotten the better of me, a deep-seeded infection festering at the surface in lucid frustration.

Holly and I were to get married in a week and a half, roughly a thousand miles away, and our officiant had decided to back out.  

One of the biggest selling points of the destination wedding is the proposed level of reduced stress which accompanies it.  My wife and I had never craved a giant soiree full of carefully selected flowers, a towering white steeple, and friends and family slobbering over us.  Honestly, it took us eight years together just to get to the point of exchanging vows, and at this juncture we had lived under the same roof for five of them. 

But as the iconic love story goes, she kind of wanted a ring and I desired health insurance, and we decided to wander west to Yellowstone National Park, the place of our first trip together, to, as they say, make it legit.

All said, here is the general to-do-and-don’t list to pull off the immaculate and picturesque escape ceremony in the National Park of your choosing, as learned through our experience:

1. Plan Your Trip, Per Usual

Treat it just as if it were a normal trip.  Select dates, get them off work, reserve campsites, you know, all the typical operatives of a lengthy vacation in general.  You will have a lot going on so its nice to have some of this stuff figured out and taken care of well in advance.  Characteristically, we are fly by the seat of our pants travelers, grabbing last second sites and sleeping in the car in random parking lots if we must.  Under these circumstances, however, the added stress is hardly a necessary component.

Being accommodating can be the death of you.  After the initial disclosure of our intentions, friends and family lobbied to join us and it became a horrific escapade of dates and necessary lodging requirements.  If your guests are not travelers, specifically the outdoorsy type, they probably have no idea of what’s in store in the vast expanses of the wilderness, and despite excellent intentions, things won’t quantifiably work out the way they, nor you envision.

Logistically, it was too difficult to find transportation, lodging, etc. and even explain how to coordinate the event to everyone after a day or two of inquires.  So we invited our friends from out-of-state to meet us, packed a tent and it was just to become a vacation in which we also got married.

2. Obtain A Park Permit

Come on, nothing is free these days and you should know better by now.  Well, I suppose you could trade in the National Park setting for an equally enchanting ceremony upon BLM land but that’s an entirely different ballgame.  Essentially, as NPS described to me, the permit is basically a way to keep matters in hand and stop giant assemblies from happening without their knowledge and impeding on the visitation of the general park visitor.  In fact, it’s not even a wedding permit per se, but  classified as a ‘Special Use Permit’.

This document will ask you a variety of questions pertaining to the  specifics of the event; including how many guests, location and time specifications, and backup plans.  The truth is that if you were doing something small, you could probably get away without the permit, however, you will be drawing attention to yourself and is a nominal fee worth ruining your big day? 

Each park has a different application fee for usage.  Yellowstone National Park’s is $75.

3. Obtain Your Marriage License

Legality plays a large role in getting married.  Closely check the rules for the state in which you plan to play out your wedding.  They all have different guidelines, and if you are traveling for a short period of time it might be a logistical nightmare to pull it off without the appropriate structure.  I know some states require a three-day waiting period to get the license after you apply, and because many national parks aren’t exactly next door to courthouses, you could find yourself wasting valuable time in transit between.

Also, be aware of where you want your wedding to take place.  Places like Yellowstone reside in multiple states and you are, allegedly, supposed to have them align (more on that later) with where you specifically perform the ceremony.  Plan your route to the park around picking up the license as well, and be aware of their hours of operation (ie. weekends, holidays, time of day) when you arrive to help facilitate matters.

For our Yellowstone wedding, we decided on a Montana marriage license.  As of 2011, the rules were far less stringent, and Livingston sat right in our route in from the north entrance.  We planned to get married in Wyoming and figured who would know or care for that matter.

4. Hire A Wedding Officiant

Which brings us full-circle to my awful round of golf.  We started our search for officiants several months prior.  Online shopping for legit individuals proved to be difficult and expensive, considering that the majority would be coming from Bozeman, Billings or Jackson, WY, which meant paying extensive travel costs in addition to the ceremony fee, all for a service we wished to take up approximately five minutes.  The sum north of $350 seemed incredulous to us, but it continuously looked like reality, and that was if we found someone with availability. 

Additionally, our selection of a Friday afternoon was a bit lethal because most folks who do this also have regular, 9-5 type jobs.  We figured a weekday afternoon would be an easier accommodation and also cheaper, lesson learned.

Our first selection, the golf game murderer, canceled because he had an important business meeting rescheduled for that day.  Or so he told us.  Scrambling, we had a friend get ordained online just in case.  I would recommend this even if it is only to be utilized as a backup plan. 

We ended up contacting the minister of Mammoth Hot Springs Chapel, who agreed to perform the ceremony for us, although he also canceled on us once before I insisted on the urgency of such matters.  And in turn, we ended up saving ourselves about $250 because he happened to be located on the premises.

We requested a service that was not religious, however he compromised on doing things his own way.

5. Settle On A Location

Location.  Location.  Location.  The be-all-end-all of business storefronts and photographers.  We had permitted our wedding location to be at Artist’s Point, in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone area of the park.  In fact, this was where we had set up camp, which we originally considered a huge benefit.  However, that lies in the neighboring state of Wyoming and our new officiant was a bit of a rules hawk regarding which license we had.

He required that we exchange our words in Montana.  We ended up on the banks of the Gardiner River, the opposite side of Boiling River if you are familiar, just across the state line.  It was beautiful and as we would find out, probably a good decision due to the level of privacy we were permitted.

6. Can I Get A Witness?!

Remember somebody actually has to see this whole thing transpire.  We had two friends fly in to meet us from Texas, our travel buddies that we get to see far too infrequently, and they served as our witnesses, living proof, best-man and maid-of-honor, however you want to describe it.

We picked them up from the Bozeman airport and coordinated travel plans with their arrival.  It was their first time to the park also, so we were incredibly excited to share the landscape with them.

7. Pictures, Please

You don’t choose to perform nuptials in the world’s most naturally exquisite places and simply overlook this aspect.  The vast majority of our budget went here.  We wished for someone capable of capturing both us and the landscape, two distinct styles and merge them together in timeless ceremony.  Researching photographers was a nightly affair for a while, flipping through pictures and weighing ability against cost.  It was much more fun than shopping for an officiant. 

Because National Parks are often sprawling places, be aware of any needs your photographer might have and how much you want them to travel in your designated amount of time.  We did a three-hour block which allowed for a decent amount of traveling between locations where we desired pictures.  Moving takes time, so when you think three-hours of picture taking is excessive, well, that's not really three-hours of snapping photos.

Also, consider the physical capability of your photographer to an extent.  Some of the best views don’t come from the parking lot and need to be walked to.  Ours ended up climbing up boulders to get some exceptional shots.

Insider tip:   The iconic landmarks end up being kind of cheesy.  We were so excited for our photos in front of Yellowstone Falls, but in the end those turned out to be our least favorite and hardest to take given the masses of people there.

8. Video Evidence

We had our friends tape the event.  It was not so much of importance to us but for our family back home.  They were excited to see it, or at least pretended to be.  It probably hasn’t been watched since the year we’ve been married but it’s always nice to have I suppose.

I’d definitely lean more toward still photos, obviously, and wouldn’t bother with a professional videographer unless it was of optimal importance to you.

9. Safety First

Hiking can be a tumultuous affair, so we held our ceremony at the beginning of our trip to avoid the pitfalls of injury and infinetly lasting, photographed scars.  It also lobbied against a vacation fight ruining the mood.

Our plan didn’t stop buffalo from chasing me down the Canyon Rim Trail the day before our wedding, however, thanks to an ambitious, amateur photographer spooking them and splitting our group up.  I finished the hike and hitch-hiked back to the group, and it all became simply a good story.

In all seriousness though, you don’t need a broken arm, twisted ankle or bleeding face playing center stage, so I suggest putting off the hardcore outdoors stuff for post-ceremony.

10. Gotta Look Good!   The Pre-Ceremony Affair

Plan!  Where will you get ready? Who’s doing your hair?  We opted for a tent during our entire stay.  My wife did her hair and makeup in the rustic bathroom kitty-corner to our campsite, and we got dressed in the public bathroom at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel (we swung in a few days prior to okay this).  Think of little things, like traveling with a wedding dress and suit for a thousand miles in a sweltering hot car and not having an iron.  We brought along a miniature steamer so we could rid ourselves of wrinkles and did not dress until we were a handful of miles before the event location to avoid premature dirt.

11. Stranger-Danger Preparation

Our photographer explained that in certain cultures its good luck to take photos of people getting married.  We gave lots of people good luck!  Folks, strangers were leaning over the bridge during our ceremony snapping pics of us, a random assortment of people hold us in the camera or photo albums to this day I assume, kind of cool and kind of creepy.

The places you go will largely dictate this.  The more touristy the location (ie. Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Falls) will be crowded and people more interested.  Obviously, the more obscure the place the most privacy, quiet and easier to clear the background. 

The random applause is kind of cool, yet the constant people in shots and shouted-out questions get a tad tiring.

12. What if?

In all honesty, we did not have any type of back-up plan, particularly in the event of inclement weather.  We did have one for the officiant portion, but had our photographer not shown up for whatever reason we would have been left with cell-phone cameras. 

We got incredibly lucky!  Dark clouds rolled in as we were clicking our final photos.  Rain drops splattered on the windshield as we rolled back into the campground.  Everything outdoors is weather-permitting, so I would recommend having everyone on board with a few versions of back up plans.

Contingency plans can never hurt.

13. Fin---Honeymoon Time

Let out a big sigh of relief.  It’s finished.  You did it.  The officiant to supposed to handle the paperwork from here on out.  Our friends treated us to a wonderful dinner at the restaurant next to our campground.  We ended the evening with a campfire and cocktails.  It was all very relaxed.

The next day we hiked up to Mount Washburn and photographed buffalo in Hayden Valley.  Also, now is the time to take risky treks up slippery waterfalls as the pictures have been taken and you can live with a black eye.

14. The Return To Reality

Once we returned home we wanted to celebrate further with friends and family, hence we hosted a wedding reception complete with dinner, drinks and dancing.  It was a lower key, casual yet incredibly fun cap to our Yellowstone wedding.

All in all, I would not trade our experience in for anything different.  It’s always an excellent story to tell, a head turner when people hear you exchanged vows in one of our National Parks.  For us, also, it was a return to the place we first fell in love so there is a clear sentiment with that location.  And ultimately, you just simply can’t beat the awe of the scenery which surrounds you in every direction during that moment in your life.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Jake & Holly OpenRoadRevival

Man--Woman--Doberman Canvassing the open road in search of more. Trading materials for memories. Reading, writing, and finishing my novel! =) sometime in 2018