Of the 59 national parks in the United States many are well-known and heavily-traveled. About 20 of them see over one million visitors annually, and at times that can make traffic and crowds annoying to deal with. If you’re like me and have a strong desire to avoid people and get in touch with nature on a more intimate level, you may be interested in these travel tips I have learned over the years…
#1: Avoid the major parks in the height of summer
Most people know about major parks like Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, Zion, Grand Teton, Acadia, and Glacier. Each of these parks see over two million visitors annually, and with good reason. The natural wonders they offer are breathtaking, filled with spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife, gorgeous plants, and fascinating geology.
At the same time, these parks become engorged with crowds during peak travel season in the summer (July-August). If you don’t mind miles of traffic jams, full parking lots, booked-up campgrounds and lodges, long concession lines, and crowds so dense they’ll ruin any encounter with nature, more power to you. But if you want to experience the natural wonder of these special places in the way they deserve, above all avoid the peak summer season.
The spring and autumn shoulder seasons (April-June and September-October) often allow visitors to see these locations in a more relaxed setting while avoiding the harsh weather of winter. Shoulder season visits can have some caveats, however. In the spring snow accumulation often persists at many high-elevation parks, making many roads impassable. Some roads don’t even open until June or July (Crater Lake comes to mind). On the other side of summer some parks see a second peak in visitation in October with the appearance of gorgeous autumn leaves (like Great Smoky Mountains and Acadia). Most other parks don’t experience this fall color rush, however, making them ideal destinations in autumn. September and October are perhaps my favorite months for visiting most parks.
Winter (November-March) can sometimes be the most rewarding time to visit since crowds are at a minimum (except for the Christmas season, which can be surprisingly busy). Winter weather can range from pleasant to downright rotten at most parks, making a winter visit a bit of a gamble. But if you’re up for a challenge and the weather cooperates, you can have one of the best times of your life. For what it’s worth, however, many parks with northern locations or high elevations have road closures to contend with. If you know what you may be in for and prepare accordingly, you can still have a a great time.
Southern parks are relatively safe from harsh weather in the winter (Dry Tortugas, Everglades, Biscayne, Big Bend, Guadalupe, Saguaro, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and Channel Islands), and although that makes them easy to visit this time of year, they also tend to be relatively busy (but usually not bad).
#2: Visit a lesser-known park
Two-thirds of our national parks see fewer than one million visitors per year, and some don’t even see 100,000. The lesser-known parks are often free from large groups of people, even in the peak summer season of July and August. These best-kept secrets of the National Park Service are worthwhile destinations, harboring a variety of natural features that invite exploration…all without crowds that can ruin the experience.
I’ve visited Voyageurs, Great Sand Dunes, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, North Cascades, Theodore Roosevelt, Badlands, and Wind Cave during peak summer season, and although somewhat busy the traffic and crowds were still pretty sparse. On top of that, lesser-known parks like these can often seem almost empty outside of summer.
#3: Visit a park early in the morning
Most people, for whatever reason, don’t seem to get “up and at’em” until around 11 am. If you’re a morning person this can really work to your advantage. Venturing out at first light can grant you several hours of relatively quiet enjoyment of the serenity and beauty of nature. Wildlife are often active in the morning twilight, and the rising sun can provide some spectacular views and photo opportunities.
My wife and I visited Rocky Mountain National Park in August (a major park in peak summer season) but we drove through from 6 am to 10 am. In that time we only saw a few cars but got to see abundant moose, elk, deer, marmots, pikas, and other animals all without the crowds.
#4: Visit a park late in the evening
Although not quite as good as an early-morning visit, a late-evening visit can also be rewarding. By this time of day many people have gone back to their rooms or campsites for dinner, making crowds relatively thin. Animals again become active in the twilight, and the setting sun can provide for some excellent scenery and photographs.
When visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park in June, my wife and I were treated to an amazing encounter with a couple of black bears just before dusk. A mother sow and her cub wandered across the road near our campsite in the Cataloochee Valley, and it was an experience to remember. On top of that, some of my favorite photos have been taken against national park sunsets.
#5: Venture onto less-traveled roads
Most parks have main roads that most visitors stick to. Whether it’s Newfound Gap Road in Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite Valley in Yosemite, or Going-T0-The-Sun Road in Glacier, these primary routes bear the brunt of most tourist traffic. In spite of this, there are often other less-traveled roads to be seen that still pack a punch. Great Smoky Mountains has the Cataloochee Valley, Yosemite has Tuolumne Meadows, and Glacier has Bowman Lake and Medicine Lake. Getting away from the hot spots can often be less crowded and more rewarding.
When my friends and I visited Badlands National Park last summer we came in from the west on the rugged gravel Sage Creek Road and camped at Sage Creek Campground. This less-traveled edge of the park harbored numerous bison, pronghorn, and prairie dogs that were much less common on the paved and well-traveled eastern roads of the park. If we had stuck to the “main drag” we never would have witnessed these majestic beasts in their natural setting.
#6: Get out of your car
National park visits average only about four hours in length, and most visitors barely leave their vehicles. Although a lot of the “high points” can be seen from a car on the road, there are countless other things to experience off the beaten path.
Venturing off on foot for even a mile or two is often a great way to escape traffic and crowds. On top of that it usually exposes visitors to many fascinating organisms and landscapes they never could have seen from their car.
While camping at Avalanche Creek in Glacier National Park, my friends and I decided to hike a few miles to Avalanche Lake. This quiet and isolated locale was perhaps the most gorgeous place we saw in the entire park. Here snow-capped peaks hugged towering waterfalls and one of the most amazing reflective pools we had ever seen. Hikes, even short ones, have always been highlights on my national park visits. They’re typically quiet, personal, and yield the most spectacular rewards.
#7: Plan accordingly
The National Park Service, Yelp, TripAdvisor, independent blogs, and many other websites provide invaluable resources for travelers. The information they offer can help one learn when crowds are dense, when visitation is light, where to go, what to do, and what to expect from weather, road conditions, and available lodging and amenities. An hour or two of research at home can save a lot of time once you get to where you’re going, and help you accomplish your goals with minimal effort.
#8: Don’t be “one of those people”
Certain national park visitors sometimes engage in inconsiderate behavior that only makes congestion worse. Their time-consuming actions often lead to a back-up in lines, crowds, and traffic, creating a headache for other people.
The most annoying encounter I have with other visitors is when they don’t plan ahead and have no idea what they’re doing. They’ll talk to the ranger at the visitor center for half an hour, trying to get even the simplest grasp of what there is to see and what they should be doing. This ties up park resources, preventing other visitors from asking simple questions or even making a purchase from the gift shop. The information the visitor requests is almost always available online or in the park guide, and if they had done the most basic research beforehand they could have saved everyone a lot of time.
The second most annoying encounter I have is among people who stop in the middle of the road to look at something. It could be a scenic view, a magnificent animal, or something else. Regardless, park roads are often littered with turnouts that allow people to pull over, get out, and look at things without holding up traffic. There’s no excuse to just stop in the middle of the road.
Finally, the third most annoying encounter is among people who drive slower than dirt and don’t use turnouts to let others pass. Not everyone in a given park wants to crawl along at 10 mph. Some people are trying to get to a scenic overlook before the sun sets, some are trying to get to a campground before it’s full, and some just want to see the world at something slightly faster than a glacial pace. If cars are backing up behind you, be a considerate fellow traveler, pull over, and let them pass. The innumerable signs that say “Slower traffic use turnouts” aren’t just there for decoration.
In the end a little research, knowledge, and consideration for your goals and desires (as well as the goals and desires of others) can make your national park experience something wonderful. A lack of research, knowledge and consideration, however, can make it miserable. The stressors of traffic, crowds, and lines can be avoided with a little planning, and will only make a visit to a national park that much more enjoyable.