Visitation to America’s national parks has topped 331 million in recent years, and the crowds don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. With all those fanny-packed, selfie stick-wielding tourists flooding in, should you even visit a national park? Absolutely. I’ve spent the past two decades exploring some of America’s most popular national parks, and I’ve learned that avoiding the crowds is surprisingly easy. You just have to know a few tricks…
1) Visit anytime other than summer
At parks like Yellowstone and Acadia, over 60 percent of annual visitation occurs between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Crowds are rarely an issue the rest of the year. Furthermore, so-called “off months” are often the best months. Yosemite’s waterfalls are at their peak in May, Acadia’s foliage is stunning in October, and Joshua Tree is best in early spring when temperatures aren’t scorching and the wildflowers are blooming. And don’t forget winter. Many parks are at their most beautiful under a fresh blanket of snow, and you can often enjoy the scenery on snowshoes or cross country skis.
Of course, travel during the school year is difficult for many families. Fortunately, these next tips work just as well during the popular summer months.
2) Get up early
Sunrise is a breathtaking experience in any national park. But most visitors, snug in their hotel rooms or tents, sleep right through it. Wake up early and you’ll be treated to incredible views without the crowds—even at the most popular viewpoints. And don’t forget your camera. Sunrise bathes the landscape in soft, beautiful light—perfect for gorgeous photography.
3) Go for a hike
Most national park visitors experience the scenery from the comfort of their cars, and they rarely venture far from them. It’s a sad state of affairs, but if you’re looking to avoid the crowds it’s great news. Go for a hike and the crowds will thin out immediately. Choose a challenging trail and you’ll start to wonder what all this “overcrowding” fuss is about. And remember: hiking trails often lead to the most spectacular viewpoints.
4) Avoid the hot spots
National parks often have one or two “must-see” destinations: Old Faithful in Yellowstone, Tunnel View in Yosemite, Mather Point in Grand Canyon. But take Robert Frost’s advice and choose the road less traveled. It really will make all the difference. Follow the herds and you’ll find more herds. Head someplace different and you’ll likely discover, as I have, that some of the most beautiful places in our parks are some of the most overlooked. This is where a good national park guidebook (hint, hint) can really come in handy.
5) See the stars
After a long day of sightseeing, most national park visitors are eager to hit the sack. But nighttime is when Mother Nature puts on one of her finest shows. Many national parks are located in remote areas free of light and air pollution, which means clear skies perfect for stargazing. If you don’t look up at the stars you’re literally missing half the show. Most parks offer free astronomy programs, and many parks host local astronomy clubs that delight in sharing their telescopes with non-members.
6) Pack a picnic basket
Park restaurants are often swamped with crowds at mealtimes, resulting in long, slow lines for often mediocre cafeteria food. The solution? Pack a picnic basket. In addition to saving you time and frustration, a picnic will likely be tastier, healthier and cheaper. Best of all, you can enjoy it at a stunning viewpoint while everyone else is waiting in line.
See more from James Kaiser, including his bestselling travel guides at: jameskaiser.com.