If you’re planning a trip to a national park you’re probably seeking a tranquil experience in nature- and you’re not alone. While many national parks in the United States have seen a sharp rise in visitation over the past decade, it’s not hard to avoid crowds in popular national parks with the right strategies.
It’s amazing to see so many people cultivating a deeper connection to the great outdoors, but let’s face it, being in a crowded space can take away from the awe-inspiring national park experience you’re looking for (and lead to greater impacts on the environment when crowds exceed an area’s carrying capacity).
The following 11 tips have all been tried and tested by me- Kate. I’ve had trails to myself in Glacier National Park, found complete solitude in a typically busy area in Yellowstone National Park, and experienced Delicate Arch in Arches National Park with no one else around. Now I’m sharing my insider tips to help you find solitude and avoid crowds in popular national parks!
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How to Avoid Crowds in Popular National Parks
1. Start Early
The number one way to avoid crowds in popular national parks is to get an early start. Most people are coming to the park for a vacation, which often includes plans to sleep in. Your best chance for finding solitude in a national park is to get into the park and on the trail before sunrise. Not only will you get amazing light for photos, but you’ll likely get to your intended destination when most people are just getting out of bed!
In national parks like Yellowstone getting an early start and beating the tour buses is essential if you want to avoid getting caught in heavy crowds. I arrived at the west entrance of Yellowstone at around 8:15 am on a Saturday last August and was very surprised by how empty the roads and parking areas were. I visited a few geothermal sites and had the trails to myself. As I was leaving one of the sites, a tour bus pulled in and let off dozens of visitors. I was grateful to be one step ahead of the crowds!
In some mountainous national parks, like Glacier or Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s customary to get an “alpine start” to avoid getting caught in afternoon thunderstorms. Trails in these parks won’t necessarily be crowded early in the morning, but will likely be busier than most trails usually would be that early.
2. Stay Out Late
On the flip side of things, going for a sunset hike or staying at a popular viewpoint until the crowds dissipate can provide moments of solitude. You’d be surprised how quickly places will clear out once the sun sets. Oftentimes that’s when the light starts getting good for photos, which is even more reason to stick around!
Generally the prime time for hiking in national parks is between 9am-3pm (of course, specific trails may differ). That’s when most people are either starting their hikes or already out on the trail. While you may not have a trail completely to yourself during a late afternoon hike, you’ll probably encounter fewer people than you would earlier in the day.
If you’re hiking at sunset or planning on being out after dark make sure that you carry a headlamp to help you see!
3. Choose Your Lodging Wisely to Avoid Crowds in Popular National Parks
Depending on the national park that you’re visiting, it may be more or less advantageous to stay inside the park. The primary benefit of staying inside of a national park, whether in a campground, cabin, or lodge, is that it makes it super easy to hit the trail bright and early. You can avoid spending time driving into the park, and potentially avoid traffic and delays.
The biggest drawback to staying inside of a national park is the possibility of crowds, depending on the park. Oftentimes lodges are located in congested areas and provide some of the only in-park dining, so they see traffic during the day above and beyond guests. This happens at places like Zion Lodge, Yosemite Valley Lodge, and Old Faithful Inn.
Some parks, like Grand Canyon, concentrate their lodging so there are a lot of people in one area (with that said, the north rim of the Grand Canyon only has 1 lodge and campground, and sees much lower levels of visitation than the south rim). Generally speaking, the more remote the lodge or campground is, the less busy it will be.
Here are some things to consider when deciding whether or not to stay inside of a national park:
- How big is the national park?
- How many lodges or campgrounds are there?
- Are they clustered near heavily trafficked areas?
- How close is lodging or camping outside of the park?
- What is the difference in price staying inside vs. outside of the national park?
- Does the park have a reservation system that limits the number of visitors?
Here are some national park resorts for a quiet & intimate experience:
- Olympic National Park: Kalaloch Lodge
- Glacier National Park: Many Glacier Hotel
- Grand Canyon National Park: North Rim Lodge
4. Take the Path Less Traveled
Most popular national parks have a handful of trails or scenic destinations that see the bulk of visitation. While there are certain locations that are worth weathering the crowds, like Old Faithful or Delicate Arch, choosing a less popular trail is a great way to encounter fewer people.
Even hiking more than a couple of miles from a trailhead will help you get away from the bulk of the crowds. For example, if you’re visiting the south rim of the Grand Canyon, you can walk a few miles along the Rim Trail (or take the shuttle and walk a little away from the stops), and find peaceful views of the canyon without throngs of other people around.
Generally speaking, difficult hikes tend to keep the crowds away. Of course there are exceptions, particularly when the juice is really worth the squeeze- trails like Angels Landing and Half Dome have become so popular there are permit systems in place. While the permit systems help to reduce overcrowding on the trail, they’re still extremely popular hikes. It’s important to always research the trail you’re doing ahead of time to assess the potential popularity and learn about any special considerations.
Pro Tip: Look at the number of AllTrails reviews for each trail in the national park you’re visiting. The fewer reviews the less trafficked the trail is likely going to be!
5. Head Into the Backcountry to Avoid Crowds in Popular National Parks
The best place for solitude in a national park is deep in the backcountry. A permit is always required for overnight trips in national parks. Each park has its own backcountry permit reservation system, but most can be found on recreation.gov.
Be aware, some national park backcountry permit systems are highly competitive with reservations booking up the same day they become available. If there’s a specific backpacking trip that you want to do in a national park, make sure you research the permit system early and set an alert in your calendar for when they become available.
The upside to backpacking in an area with a heavily regulated permit system is that you’re guaranteed to find some peace and quiet if you’re lucky enough to snag a coveted spot!
6. Visit During the Off-Season to Avoid Crowds in Popular National Parks
Summer (late May-early September) is primetime for most national parks in the United States because the days are long, weather is nice, and kids are out of school. While summer might be the most pleasant time to visit most national parks, it’s also usually the most crowded.
Planning your trip during the spring, fall, or winter (depending on the park) helps to avoid crowds in popular national parks. You may also get to experience unique conditions, like snow or fall foliage. Generally crowds thin out after Labor Day once kids are back in school. September is one of my favorite times of year for visiting national parks because there are fewer people around, lodging is usually cheaper, and the weather is typically still nice.
Of course, do your research before planning your trip. Some national parks may not have amenities or roads open during the winter. Others may have limited operations. If there’s a trail that you really want to hike, make sure that it’s accessible during the time of year that you’re traveling.
7. Save Popular Hikes & Destinations for the Middle of the Week
Every national park has its most popular hikes. They typically come with some sort of draw that makes them popular, whether it’s a scenic viewpoint, a lake, waterfall, summit, rock formation, etc. While this isn’t always the case, the most heavily trafficked trails in national parks tend to be on the shorter side with easy-moderate difficulty.
Different national parks have different visitation patterns (and those patterns may differ during certain times of year), but generally most national parks see an uptick in visitation over the weekend. Especially if it’s a national park that is close to a major city or population center.
I recommend planning your entire national park trip during the week (Tuesday-Thursday), but if that’s not possible, saving the most popular hikes for a Friday or Monday vs. the weekend can help cut down on the crowds!
8. Go During Crummy Weather*
*I want to preface this tip by saying that I am NOT encouraging you to go hiking in dangerous weather conditions. This includes, but is not limited to, thunderstorms, heavy winds, and heavy snow. You should always research the weather ahead of time and be prepared for the conditions you may encounter (snow, rain, wind, etc.).
With that out of the way, visiting a national park when the weather is less than ideal (but still safe!) is a great way to avoid crowds. I’m talking about weather that includes intermittent rain, light snow, cloudy skies, drizzling, etc. Most people tend to avoid visiting national parks in “bad” weather, which gives you an opportunity to enjoy some solitude if you’re properly prepared. Moody weather also tends to bring opportunities for unique photography.
My husband and I were able to experience Delicate Arch by ourselves by hiking at sunrise the morning after a snowstorm in Moab (it’s not uncommon to encounter snow while hiking in the desert during winter!).
9. Be Prepared
Not only is being prepared one of the seven Leave No Trace principles, but it’s also essential if you want to make the most of your national park experience. Do extensive research on the national park that you’re visiting ahead of time. You want to have an idea of i) the top hikes and activities that you want to do and where they’re located; and ii) the hikes and activities that are most popular and whether they’re more or less popular during certain times of day.
From there, you can build out a loose itinerary for your national park trip that is designed to avoid the crowds. My trips to national parks typically start with an early morning hike. If it’s a full-day hike my plan is to be deep in the backcountry during peak hours (typically 9am-3pm) to avoid heavy trail traffic. If it’s a ½ day hike, I usually plan some downtime or go on a scenic drive in the early afternoon. Then I head back out for another hike around sunset.
Check out these 3-day national park itineraries:
10. Head to Lesser Visited National Parks & Other Public Lands
While this technically isn’t a way to avoid crowds in popular national parks, it does get you away from busy areas while still getting outdoors. There are 63 designated national parks in the United States, and while parks like Zion, Great Smoky Mountains, and Yosemite may see millions of visitors each year, there are plenty of lesser-visited national parks out there.
Most of the least visited national parks are located outside of the continental United States in Alaska and American Samoa. The least visited national parks in the continental United States include North Cascades National Park, Isle Royale National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, Great Basin National Park, and Congaree National Park.
The United States is also home to other federal public lands, like national forests and BLM land. These public lands provide opportunities for hiking, camping, and other outdoor recreation activities. Oftentimes you can find other public lands right outside of national parks. Not only are these public lands dog-friendly (which most national parks aren’t), but they also see fewer visitors than national parks while still having beautiful scenery.
Alternative National Park Destinations:
- Instead of Bryce Canyon National Park, visit Red Canyon in Dixie National Forest.
- Instead of Rocky Mountain National Park, visit Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests.
- Instead of Arches National Park, visit BLM land in Moab.
11. Manage Your Expectations
Even with all of these tips in mind, you should expect to encounter other people when visiting a popular national park. If you go into your trip expecting to experience total solitude you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. On the other hand, if you go into your national park trip expecting for other people to be around and you end up having a trail or viewpoint to yourself, you can view it as a win!
Remember, most people visiting national parks are there for the same reasons that you are. People want to disconnect from their day-to-day lives and reconnect with nature. They want to enjoy a scenic hike with their loved ones. They want to experience awe by seeing natural wonders that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
While crowds can be frustrating, at the end of the day, if you’re in a crowded place, you’re part of the crowd. There’s plenty of space and opportunities for everyone to safely and responsibly enjoy our national parks!
By implementing these 11 tips you’ll be sure to have an enjoyable national park experience. Remember to be courteous to others and always practice Leave No Trace!