Nearly everyone wants to enjoy the beauty and majesty of the National Parks at some point in their lives — the problem is when too many of us have the same idea at the same time. More than 300 million people visit the U.S. National Parks each year, and nothing can kill the buzz of getting outdoors and communing with nature quite so quickly as having to share the experience with hoards of other people.
Even at the height of tourism season, however, crowds are neither inevitable nor unavoidable. Here’s our advice for finding serenity amid the scenery when you head to the parks:
Travel During the Off Season
Generally speaking, summer is the busiest season with the biggest crowds in the national parks (one major exception is Death Valley National Park, where scorching summer temperatures make spring, fall, and winter visits far more preferable). But Yellowstone’s hot springs, pools and geysers can be equally enchanting during the winter, desert flowers are in bloom during the springtime in Joshua Tree (another park to avoid in mid-summer), and the changing leaves make fall an ideal time to visit Acadia National Park.
Remember, the parks are open year-round, not just between Memorial Day and Labor Day!
Visit Early or Late in the Day
Seeing the sun rise from the summit of Haleakala National Park or atop Cadillac Mountain in Acadia are not only quintessential National Parks experiences, but allow early risers to hit the trails before the crowds start filtering into the parks later in the morning. Park rangers say that the earlier in the day you arrive, the better (at least prior to 10 a.m.), especially when parking lots at popular parks can start filling up even before 9 a.m. in the summer.
Likewise, sticking around for sunset is its own reward and offers the option of lingering into the evening, when many parks offer stargazing, campfire chats, and other night programs that typically are enjoyed by far more campers than day-trippers.
Avoid the Weekends
Visiting the national parks is a vacation of a lifetime for many people, so you won’t necessarily avoid all the crowds by visiting during the week, especially in the summer. But at least you won’t have to cope with the sometime overwhelming combination of vacationing park-goers plus day trippers making a quick visit on their Saturday or Sunday off.
Choose the Road Less Traveled
We all know the names of America’s iconic parks — Yellowstone, Yosemite, Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon — and the reason we do is because they’re so incredibly popular. Yet the U.S. National Parks system is not only remarkably rich and diverse (there’s over 435 parks in all), but there are plenty of spectacular landscapes to explore at lesser-known parks, where crowds are rare.
More than 10 million people visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park each year, for example: only 12,000 venture into Gates of the Arctic National Park. But you don’t have to go to Alaska to avoid throngs of visitors: Lake Clark National Park, North Cascades National Park, and Isle Royale National Park are all parks in the Lower 48 that get far fewer than 100,000 visits each year. Lightly visited Capital Reef National Park in Utah is often recommended as an alternative to busy Zion. You can get all the info you need on these and other less-familiar parks by downloading the free Chimani National Parks app on iTunes or the Google Play store.
Seek Out Remote Corners
The simple act of going for a hike can separate you from the crowd at many national parks, which all too many visitors still experience from the window of a car or tour bus, or at a scenic overlook steps from a parking lot.
Venture into the backcountry and you’ll quickly discover what true isolation and freedom feels like. The same basic rules apply to most national parks: the more you have to sweat, the fewer crowds you’ll get.
For example, Grand Canyon National Park sprawls across more than 1,900 square miles, yet the vast majority of the park’s 6 million annual visitors never stray further than a few miles from the South Rim. Hiking more than a few hundred feet below the canyon rim is all it takes to transition from a theme-park atmosphere to wilderness, especially if you choose a route other than the popular Bright Angel Trail. And of course, the North Rim is far less crowded any time of year. Trying to avoid the summer traffic jams in the Yosemite Valley? Check out the nearby Hetch Hetchy Valley, also inside park boundaries.
Learn to Love the Rain
Most parks are open 365 days a year. Not all of them are going to be warm and sunny. Many casual visitors will simply stay home if the forecast calls for rain or other inclement weather, so be bold, zip up your waterproof hoody, and defy the raindrops for some cherished alone time in the parks.
Bring Your Own Food
You didn’t really come to the parks to eat overpriced cafeteria food, did you? Packing your own picnic lunch will keep you out of the lines at concession stands and provides the flexibility to stop and eat amid some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth. One of our favorite meals ever was simple cheese and crackers, noshed amid the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon’s Peekaboo Loop Trail — a far better experience than watching the yellow jackets buzz around the garbage cans back at the lodge.
Don’t Forget the Forest Service and Other Federal Parks
The parks administered by the U.S. National Park Service tend to get most of the public attention and love, but the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have hundreds of additional protected parks that your can enjoy. The fabled El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico is managed by the Forest Service, for example, while the Fish and Wildlife Service manages National Wildlife Refuges in every state in the country.
(Photo via NPS/Yellowstone National Park)