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How to Avoid Massive Crowds in the National Parks This Summer

PHOTO: Sigfrido Zimmermann/Shutterstock

The outdoors are shaping up to be popular, but it’s still possible to avoid the worst of the crowds.

This summer, travel is making a comeback, particularly in domestic tours through National Parks. This is understandable as it’s been proven time and time again how beneficial nature is for physical and mental health. However, as the weather warms up, our natural spaces become much more packed. This is predicted to be especially true this summer, as vaccinations and the re-opening of the country have sparked hope after a year of us being home-bound.

Understandably, we’re all itching to get back on the road and finally embark on long-awaited trips. Some of us will dive straight in with an international destination, but the majority of Americans will likely be sticking close to home thanks to ever-changing border measures, red tape, and uncertainty surrounding vacations farther afield. So, many are opting for vacations closer to home. Take a look at social media or talk to any acquaintance and it seems like everyone and their mother (and brother, aunt, dog, etc.) are heading out to camp, hike, and appreciate America’s natural wonders. However, it’s still possible to avoid the worst of the crowds, keep reading to find out how.

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Avoid the Most Popular Parks

What comes to mind when you picture your ideal journey through the American countryside? Probably the vistas of the Grand Canyon, Glacier wildlife, or Yellowstone’s Old Faithful surrounded by buffalo. All amazing and well worth seeing at some point.

However, summer is the busiest time, especially the “big name” ones, including those mentioned above. So, if you’re open to it, consider avoiding the most in-demand parks such as Zion, the Grand Teton, Yosemite, etc., during the high season. Save those for a less busy time of year and a bit later in post-pandemic life when the entire country isn’t desperate to travel.

How do you know if you should avoid a particular one? Well, if it’s a location you see constantly popping up on your social media timeline or in conversations with others planning holidays, that’s probably a good indicator. Additionally, if accommodation, day passes, and rental cars seem to have limited availability, you may want to look elsewhere.

There are 423 in the system, you have options! Additionally, numerous state and county options are also home to immense natural beauty and can serve as great alternatives. Note these usually require a separate pass/permit from those in the national system. Check the state parks’ website for where you’re planning on traveling.

Book in Advance

Recently, many of the largest and well-known parks have announced that they will be requiring pre-booking for summer access. So, if you’re even considering a trip, check the dates to see if it’s even a possibility. If it looks like there’s plenty of availability, reserve for intended dates as this can change quickly. Don’t forget to check on accommodations, camping, and car rental availability (cars, in particular, are predicted to have a huge shortage) to make sure all the pieces of your itinerary are good to go. If a shuttle is required to travel between the accommodation and entrance, book that as far in advance as possible. Often this isn’t possible until you arrive, but don’t forget as this can book out within minutes! Even for lesser-known locations, it’s always best to book in advance for peace of mind. It’s also the best way to ensure a prime camping spot or resort choice.

Stay in the Area and Visit During the Week

It can be tempting to fit in as many places as possible and only spend a day (or less!) in each as we only have so much vacation time. However, for the most pleasant experience, slow travel is something to seriously consider.

Try booking a campsite, hotel, or Airbnb in the area (or in the park, if available) for three to four days. This will allow you to really explore and give you multiple opportunities to access the most popular viewpoints, trails, and landmarks. Something too busy the first time around? No problem, you’ll be there all week! Weekends are going to be especially packed with locals spending free time hitting their nearby paths in addition to visitors on holiday. So, if you can, plan visits for weekdays.

Go Early in the Morning or in the Evening

If you stay in the area for a few days, you can visit in off-peak hours. Most day-trippers roll through in the middle of the day, after getting up and having breakfast, and if they’re not staying the night, will be on the road well before dark.

Most people also understandably want to visit during the day, which is great. But if you want less congestion on your outing, maybe opt for an early morning hike (sunrise views anyone?). The morning typically means fewer crowds since a lot of people, especially those on vacation, aren’t willing to get up at the crack of dawn. Although, if a particular spot is known for spectacular first light, maybe ask staff for lesser-known options.

If you can’t stomach getting up in the wee hours (totally understandable!), then the evening, when the park begins to empty, can be a good alternative. Just make sure to time outings correctly so rangers aren’t looking for you after nightfall and note if there are closing hours you need to be out by.

Don’t Just Take the Most Popular Trails

Just like you shouldn’t exclusively opt for the famous parks, don’t just head to those listed on every blog and publication’s “top 10 hikes.” Obviously, check them out, but also incorporate random ones that are often just as good. Ask rangers, staff at your hotel or campsite, and outdoorsy friends. Check out the state’s trail association and choose a random one in the area you’re visiting.

Yes, we all want that perfect picture to remember our visit to the Smoky Mountains and no one wants to miss Mount Rainier’s Skyline but make sure to have a few chilled-out hikes as well where you really just relax and connect with nature without a bunch of other people cramping your style.

If you weren’t already planning on exploring the beautiful natural landscapes of the U.S., hopefully, this has provided inspiration in addition to helpful tips. Crowds are to be expected in popular spots, but by following even just a couple of these tips, you’ll have a much more enjoyable trip.

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