How to Have an Amazing Wedding Without a Venue

Most of the weddings that we're part of don't happen at traditional venues. Typically we're photographing couples getting married in National Parks, on public land, at vacation rentals, and in their friend's backyard. You don't have to have a wedding at a multi-thousand dollar venue to have an inspiring wedding day, and in fact, I think the more stunning places tend to be the ones that are free of buildings and rules and a wait staff. 

If you decide to forego the traditional venue, it can make things a bit more complex, but these moving pieces allow you to be more creative and have more freedom with how you spend your wedding day. We spend so much time scouring the internet, looking at google satellite view, reading wedding blogs, searching Instagram hashtags, and scouting locations for our couples' weddings & elopements, and we absolutely love these unique places we find. While venues are great for their convenience and efficiency, I believe weddings can be so special when you find a location that's unique to your story.

When we were planning our wedding in Big Sur, I contacted several venues only to find out they were booked for the next three years, or their starting prices were well above my budget and any extras (like coordinating or catering) were going to cost not only an arm but a LEG too. It seemed like most of these places wanted to make the most money for the least effort. I wanted something unique, a real experience for us and our guests, and I wasn't willing to give up my limbs for it. 

As we searched and scoured, I found this one beach about an hour south of the main Big Sur area and realized it was part of a network of public lands that made up the Los Padres National Forest. It was perfect. It had parking and bathrooms, and when we visited, it was way less crowded than the famous Big Sur beaches. All we had to do was pay a day-use fee for the cars we parked there and we and our small group of family & friends basically had the beach to ourselves. We had Whole Foods cater and Nate's sister made cupcakes. I wouldn't trade that experience for any fancy venue or perfectly plated meal any day. It was intimate & wild, free of schedules and rules. We spent the evening running on the beach with my nephews and singing songs around a campfire with our friends. 

We've helped lots of our couples plan their weddings in less-than-traditional places, and I wanted to offer a few things I've figured out over the years to anyone interested in planning something similar.

 

National Park Wedding

Getting married in a national park is one of the easiest and most budget-friendly ways of having a wedding in a non-traditional place. Most parks require a small fee of usually less than $200 to reserve a permit for the site you want to get married in, and that's basically it. Each park varies in terms of where you can get married, what the rules are, and how many guests you can have, but some simple internet research about your favorite park can point you in the right direction. 

There are a few benefits to getting married in a national park.

1. You get to give your guests a unique experience in a beautiful place. When one of our couples got married in Zion National Park, they decided to have a morning wedding to allow their guests to spend the rest of the day hiking around the park. It's like giving your friends and family an excuse to get outside and explore somewhere new and inspiring. 

2. You have endless opportunities for photos. As a photographer, I love shooting in national parks because we get access to some of the most beautiful locations for photos. Megan & Brandon's wedding at Rocky Mountain National Park allowed us to go after the ceremony up to a spot above treeline and take some photos in an area that's a heck of a lot more unique and beautiful than anything a traditional venue could offer. 

3. By having your wedding in a national park, you're helping support the National Park System, which in my opinion, is probably the best idea the U.S. has ever had. Permit fees & admission into the parks are what support the preservation of these beautiful places and helps further education about them. 

NATIONAL FOREST/BLM WEDDING

The difference between National Parks and National Forests is that Parks are more regulated, you pay entrance fees, and they are more developed with established campgrounds, visitors centers, and rangers. National Forests can be just as beautiful as National Parks, but there are far fewer regulations. They may not be as developed, but there tend to be fewer crowds. Often times they have easily accessible areas around lakes and in meadows, they have large group campgrounds and sometimes amphitheaters. To get an idea of where National Forests are located, when you open google maps, they are the large sections of green, usually around mountain ranges. If you live in Colorado or California, you know that roughly half of your state is National Forest land.

Dylan & John's wedding was in the San Juan National Forest in a remote area accessible only by Jeep. They rented large tour jeeps for their guests and shuttled everyone up the mountain to this beautiful clearing in the meadow with views of the surrounding peaks. For weddings in National Forests, you do still need a permit. These can vary in price depending on where you're having it, but its typically less than $200. If you're considering getting married in a National Forest, contact the ranger station to see what regulations they have in place.

If you're having your ceremony in a National Forest, consider having your reception at a restaurant in town or have a food truck come out. You can have a picnic with everyone by a lake, or contact a rental company about having chairs & tables delivered.

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BACKYARD WEDDING

Several of the weddings we've been part of have been at people's houses, at vacation rentals, and sometimes Airbnb's. Typically this is better for smaller weddings & elopements, but we did have one larger wedding that had their reception in the backyard of their vacation rental in Breckenridge. If you're having a smaller wedding and you want all of the amenities (umm...bathrooms...), consider looking into vacation rental houses. Talk with the host to see if they allow events/parties and if there are extra fees for it. And check out this list of the most amazing Airbnb's in each state.

This can be especially fun for elopements. This way you can make your elopement into your honeymoon too and you don't even have to go anywhere. Brandon & Katie got married at an amazing off-grid vacation rental only accessible by suspension bridge. It was stunning.

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One thing that is extremely important to prioritize when planning a wedding in a National Park or Forest is Leave No Trace, or basically, leaving a place better than you found it. This year Rocky Mountain National Park changed its policy toward weddings in the park and they no longer allow ceremonies in wilderness areas, most likely due to people not following Leave No Trace principles. If you're having your wedding in a national park or forest, educate your guests about Leave No Trace and designate some friends or hire someone to stay and clean up afterwards.

Our work is built on real moments in inspiring outdoor locations. We believe that saying your vows in a place that makes you feel small establishes the importance of the commitment you're making with your partner. We want to support for your story, and if that means hiking to the place you first backpacked together, or taking your family to your favorite view in Colorado, or renting a house where you and your guests can spend the weekend together, we want you to know it is totally possible. You don't have to throw down $10k+ for a fancy venue to have an amazing experience with your guests.

We've helped several couples plan their non-traditional weddings and have tons of tips to offer. For Colorado weddings, we are constantly updating a list of lesser-known locations for weddings of all sizes. And we've become experts at finding secluded locations even in places we've never been. If you're interested in working with us, we would love to help you find an amazing non-traditional location to tell your story. Let's grab a beer and swap adventure stories.

Reach out here.


Cedar & Pines is an adventure wedding photography duo made up of Nate and Megan Kantor, a married couple based in the mountains of Colorado. They believe in honest wedding photography, capturing the small candid moments to the epic landscape views. They love photographing intimate weddings and adventure elopements from the mountains of Colorado to destination weddings in California, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, Washington and the ends of the earth.

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