Every year, more than 275 million people visit U.S. national parks, with the heaviest crowds descending between June and August. Which means if rafting through the Grand Canyon, hiking in Utah’s Zion National Park, or scaling the Half Dome at Yosemite are on your adventure agenda in the upcoming months, you should definitely keep reading – unless you like battling for a campsite, dodging video cameras, or sharing a trail with shrieking kids.
Still, with some savvy planning, you can still find a way to carve out a slice of solitude during your visit. Here, a few tips on how to avoid the masses at national parks this summer. You’ll leave refreshed, not rattled – just like nature intended.
Go early – or late. And we mean early – at Yosemite and Yellowstone, for example, getting there around sunrise, or by 9 a.m. at the latest, will ensure you’ll enjoy several peaceful hours before the crowds start to show up. You’ll also avoid lines at entrances. If you’re not an early bird, then plan to arrive after 4 p.m. after the heaviest crowds have left – and you might even get to enjoy some quiet sunsets.
Time it right. Plan your trip midweek, if at all possible, and avoid holiday weekends like the Fourth of July and Labor Day like the plague. However, some parks report a dip in visitors the weekend before July 4th.
Take the less traveled route. At the Grand Canyon, the North Rim gets about 10 percent the visitors of the South Rim because of the extra 200-plus miles it takes to get there from Flagstaff, Ariz. This little detour is well worth the effort, because it’s a beautifully scenic drive to get there and you’ll avoid the massive hordes both at the park’s entrance and throughout the South Rim.
Rest easy. Snag a prime campsite by showing up at first-come, first-served campgrounds (every park has then) between 10 a.m. and noon, when the previous night’s campers tend to leave. Campgrounds in more secluded areas of the park, especially those accessible only by dirt roads, tend to fill up last and are often more peaceful. A fallback plan: Some national forest lands around parks allow camping; look for the friendliest ranger to ask.
Stock up ahead of time. Avoid overcrowded, and overpriced, restaurants and dining facilities in parks by packing a picnic lunch ahead of time. Also make sure your vehicle is fueled up, as gas stations around national parks are hard to find, expensive and sometimes completely sold out.
Skip the lines. Nothing like a massive line at the park entrance to kill an adrenaline buzz. Instead, buzz past the lines – and be the envy of everyone else – with an annual visitor’s pass ($80) that covers entrance fees into most national parks and provides special entrance access. Buy your pass online in advance at http://store.usgs.gov/pass/index.html.
Traveling with someone 62 or older? Then snag a $10 senior pass at the entrance of any park, good for the pass owner’s lifetime, allows the pass owner and three adults traveling in the same car free admission to the park, plus deep discounts on other activities.
Find more ideas for avoiding the masses in our Top 10 Crowd-Free National Parks, then get the low down on where to stay from our Top 10 National Parks Lodges.