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One thing that makes a national park experience less fun is fighting the crowds on and off trails. I mean really, who likes waiting in line just to get into the park for two hours? Or waiting in a line on a hiking trail? Or looking for a parking spot for half an hour? No one. That’s who. Well, good thing you’re here because I’m going to share with you the best ways to avoid the crowds in national parks.
This is my number one tip and at the top for a reason. I would say this is the best way to avoid national park crowds. For example, Zion. Yes, it’s still busy, but compared to the summer crowds, it’s practically empty.
In the summer, you have to take the Zion Shuttle into the main part of the park, and for good reason. If everyone drove, you would have to walk miles just to get to the trail you want, if you could even park at all. BUT between November and most of February, you can drive into the park yourself.
Arches is another great example. If you go in the summer, you could be waiting for a while to get into the park, but in the winter (during the week usually) you can just drive right in. In the summer we couldn’t find a parking spot at the Windows or Devil’s Garden but in the winter, we almost had them to ourselves.
You might run into a lot of businesses that are closed for the season, but it’s still totally worth going and there will be enough hotels and restaurants open to still have an enjoyable visit.
A lot of parks have multiple areas or districts and there is usually one that is more popular than the others, making it way busier, too. Two that come to mind right away are Zion and Capitol Reef in Utah.
Zion has three areas: Zion Canyon, Kolob Terrace Road, and Kolob Canyon. Zion Canyon is the most popular, by far. The shuttle is required for most of the year, it’s that busy. Kolob Terrace Road is the home of The Subway hike and a few other trails. There are also some ranches down that road. Kolob Canyon is the smallest section, with the scenic road only being about five miles, but it’s extremely easy to access. There are a few hiking trails that offer some stellar scenery.
Capitol Reef has three districts: Fruita, Waterpocket Fold, and Cathedral Valley. Fruita is the main area here with the scenic road leaving from here even though it’s not technically Fruita I don’t think. But they’re in the same area and easily accessible. The Waterpocket Fold is the southernmost part and considered backcountry with a lot of multi-day hikes. Finally, Cathedral Valley is a 56-mile loop requiring a four-wheel-drive high clearance vehicle north of Fruita.
Basically, the more remote the area, the fewer people you will encounter. I very rarely run across other hikers in the Waterpocket Fold and the trails are just as spectacular. Kolob Canyon is a great alternative to Zion Canyon with far fewer visitors.
Go early in the morning or in the evening
I mean early. Most people tend to go around 10 AM and leave around dinner time or in the late afternoon. The earlier you go, the better. This is something I need to work on more myself. Most people will be out getting breakfast or just sleeping in (guilty) so you’ll have more of the park to yourself.
And on the other hand, if you go in the evening, or stick around until then, you’re more likely to encounter fewer people since they’ll all be leaving the park for dinner. When we hiked the Narrows in Zion, it was packed when we started around noon, but we only saw a few people on our way out. Doing hikes like Delicate Arch at sunrise is a good way to have it to yourself, or at least almost to yourself.
While it may be busy during the day, at least you can get some solitude if you get there early and leave later.
Camp in the parks
This sort of goes with the point above. Camping in the national parks will give you access to the parks nice and early. It will help you get on the trail first since you’re already in the park and you won’t have to wait in the entrance line then drive far to the popular trails.
I think Yellowstone would be a great park to camp in because it’s so big. It takes forever to drive around the park, like two hours from one end to the other. It would be perfect to camp and explore one end then camp at the other end to explore that one. It would definitely help you see things and do some hikes without a million other people.
By camping in the park, you just have an advantage that everyone staying outside of the park doesn’t have. An alternative if you don’t like camping and aren’t on a super tight budget is to stay in the lodges in the parks, think Bryce Canyon Lodge, Old Faithful Inn, Zion Lodge, or the Majestic in Yosemite. Same benefits, but more comfortable. This at least has you in the park and close to some things. In Yellowstone, it would still be a trek to the rest of the park.
Research parks ahead of time to find less popular trails
This one isn’t super necessary, but it will help. For instance, everyone knows to see Old Faithful or hike to Delicate Arch, but what about Fiery Furnace or Sulphur Creek in Capitol Reef? Knowing less popular hikes is a great way to avoid crowds.
There are some trails that will pretty much always be busy, and for good reason, but it can take away from the experience. But on the other hand, there are tons of trails that see far fewer people. Some parks don’t have tons of hiking, but it’s still possible to get away. Others have hundreds of miles, I’m looking at you Great Smoky Mountains. They have 900 miles of trails in the park, which is crazy! If you’re going to Zion, consider Canyon Overlook, Hidden Canyon, or Taylor Creek Trail.
Check out the National Geographic Guide to National Parks and the Secrets of the National Parks book to help plan your hikes out a little bit. They are both awesome books and work really well together. While not everything in the secrets book is a secret, it has some good insight.
After visiting in the offseason, this is my favorite thing on this list. I’ve been to two of the ten least visited parks (as of 2017) and I can’t wait to go back to both of them. While offseason is my favorite, this is definitely the most effective.
While Canyonlands might only get 700,000 some visitors a year, that’s a lot less (hundreds of thousands less) than neighboring Arches. The least visited park in 2017 only had just over 11,000 visitors. That’s crazy. Imagine how much of the park you could have to yourself.
Some parks to consider going to that are still easy to access are Great Basin in Nevada, Congaree in South Carolina, Pinnacles in California, Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, Big Bend in Texas, and Petrified Forest in Arizona. There are so many others to choose from that often get overlooked by bigger neighboring parks.
Go during the week
Sometimes this helps, sometimes it doesn’t. Popular parks like Yellowstone, Zion, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon will still probably be busy, but smaller parks might be a little slower. During the summer, it will most likely still be busy because it’s road trip season, but weekends will be busy with people off of work and taking weekend trips.
This isn’t a foolproof tip, but if you plan a little, it can certainly help your visit go a little smoother. This could be a good time to visit more popular areas of parks, then head to the less popular on the weekends. It may not make a huge difference on its own, but combine it with the other to be more effective.
Avoid holidays and local events if you can
Finally, this is a big one, avoid holidays and local events. Holiday weekends (Memorial Day, Labor Day, Fourth of July) will be busy with families on vacation. Plus, it’s summer and you’ve got everyone on road trips, too.
When we were recently in Moab, it was super slow at Arches, then on a Saturday (maybe Presidents Day weekend), there was a big bike race thing that brought tons of people to town and there was a huge line to get into the park. Like, summer sized line. We saw that and decided to go to Canyonlands instead.
If you are traveling around a holiday, consider doing a local hike that isn’t in a park. That might help you get away from the crowds. In Moab, Potash Road is a good place to spend an afternoon. You can see petroglyphs, dinosaur tracks, some arches, and do some hiking. If you can, just avoid traveling around holidays or avoid visiting parks on holidays. It can be harder to plan around local events since you just might not know about them. Sometimes they’re just unavoidable, too. Don’t change your whole trip to avoid a holiday or event, just make the most of it.
How do you avoid crowds when you visit national parks? Do you like traveling in the offseason? Do you like visiting lesser-known parks?