Everyone should see America’s natural crown jewels: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon. But jostling for camera space at Glacier Point or watching Old Faithful erupt with several hundred other people can drain some of the fun out of otherwise awe-inspiring national park experiences. Don’t worry. The national parks are more popular than ever, but you can enjoy them without the crowds. Here are five ways to get the most “aaaah” and the least “argh” out of your visit.
Catch the sunrise and lose the crowds. Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park (Lauren Danner photo)
1. Go early.
Most visitors don’t arrive before 9AM. Get up before dawn and get inside the park. At Death Valley, watching the sunrise from Zabriskie Point is a well-known park experience. The rising sun illuminates the vividly colored mineral layers, painting the hills apricot, cinnamon, and gold. Best of all, most folks are still asleep. When we went to Zabriskie Point, there weren’t more than 15 other people there. Pre-dawn is also prime time for wildlife viewing in most parks. Get a good headlamp and start your hike an hour before dawn. You’re likely to see critters that will spend the rest of the day avoiding heavily traveled areas and sheltering in the shade.
Start your hike after 4pm and have the trails and wildflowers mostly to yourself (Mount Rainier National Park photo by David Danner)
2. Stay late.
Those same visitors who roll into the parks mid-morning will be mostly gone by 4PM. During long summer days, you can fit a nice hike in by starting as late as 5PM, as we did at Mount Rainier one July. The trails were mostly empty and the wildflowers glowed in the angled light. Bonus: this is a great time for photography. Find a good vantage point and watch the sunset, reveling in the views and the quiet. Keep an eye out for wildlife, too. Many animals begin hunting and foraging in the hour before sunset and continue into the evening.
3. Stay over.
If you have enough lead time, reserve a campsite, cabin, or hotel room inside the park. Lodging in many of the most popular parks fills up a year in advance, so pre-planning helps. But play it right and you can get a last-minute space. We arrived in Yellowstone early one morning in July and nabbed a first-come, first-serve campsite without a problem. We spent the next four nights meeting fellow campers from around the world, strumming guitars by the campfire, and listening to bears try to break into the campground garbage dumpsters. They’re very persistent. Staying over also means you can enjoy stargazing and evening ranger programs.
While everyone else at Glacier National Park’s Logan Pass mobbed a lone bighorn sheep, the trails behind the visitor center were empty. (Lauren Danner photo)
4. Leave pavement.
Some 97% of national park visitors stick to roads, paved trails, visitor centers, and scenic viewpoints. If you hike, that works in your favor. You can lose most visitors less than a mile from the crowded areas if you lace up your walking shoes and step onto a dirt path. At Glacier National Park, we stopped at Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Road. While the parking lot was jammed and most folks crowded around a lone bighorn sheep grazing on the lawn, we slipped behind the visitor center to explore. The paths were empty except for a mom and baby mountain goat who watched us disinterestedly, then put their heads down and nosed through the snow for forage. We enjoyed a snowball fight before wandering back to our car.
5. Avoid high season.
If you can avoid high season at most parks, you’ll find far fewer people. Realistically, that’s not always possible. Our trips to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier, and Mount Rainier took place during our daughter’s summer vacation, but by following the first four tips we avoided most of the crowds. In some parks, especially in the Southwest, high season is fall and winter, so you’ll want to plan accordingly. We visited Redwood during spring break, and while there were plenty of folks there, it wasn’t overrun. In the off season, be prepared for changeable weather and fewer services. A corollary to this tip is to avoid weekends. If you must go during high season, go during the week. Yes, plenty of people will be there on multiple-day trips, but weekends bring hordes of day-trippers to the parks. By going midweek, you can avoid these additional crowds.
Avoid the most popular parks. In 2017, the top ten most visited national parks received 15% of all national park visits. You read that right. Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Zion, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Acadia, Olympic, Grand Teton, and Glacier national parks recorded a combined total of 52 million visits out of nearly 331 million systemwide. And while everyone should definitely see the great national parks that are America’s best idea, there are another 358 national park units (including national monuments, national historic sites, national battlefields, national recreation areas, national historical parks, national trails, national preserves, and many, many more) to explore. So yes, go see the Grand Canyon. But consider visiting Chaco Culture National Historical Park (55,000 visitors in 2017) or Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (260,000 visitors in 2017) on your next trip to the Southwest. You’ll get all the glorious scenery of the desert without the tour buses, long lines, and forest of iPads blocking your view.
Or pick one of the least-visited national parks and head there. A number of these are in Alaska, but there are plenty of options in the lower 48 as well. Check out Gates of the Arctic (AK), Kobuk Valley (AK), Lake Clark (AK), Isle Royale (MI), North Cascades (WA), Katmai (AK), Dry Tortugas (FL), Wrangell-St. Elias (AK), Congaree (SC), Great Basin (NV), Guadalupe Mountains (TX), Pinnacles (CA), Voyageurs (MN), and Black Canyon of the Gunnison (CO).
No matter which park you choose, get out there and enjoy your public lands!
About the Author: When Lauren Danner (@WildWithinHer) isn't out hiking on our public lands with her husband, Mr. Adventure, she writes about the Pacific Northwest and environmental history, outdoor recreation, and public lands policy from her home in Olympia, Washington.
Lauren's fascination with national parks led her to write a book about the history of North Cascades National Park. Crown Jewel Wilderness: Creating North Cascades National Park is available now from Washington State University Press and at your local bookstore.