How to Beat Crowds in National Parks
You've waited a lifetime to lay your eyes on the Grand Canyon. And now that you're finally perched on the mighty chasm's rim, peacefully contemplating the view, two diesel buses pull up and disgorge hundreds of tourists all at once. Suddenly you've got lots of company, not to mention a grand headache.
Welcome to the ever-rising tide of tourism swamping America's national parks, which overall saw some 331 million visitors in 2017. Put in perspective, that number roughly equals the entire U.S. population.
Crowding in the country's most popular parks turns chronic in their respective peak-visitation seasons. And while it's easy to tell grumblers to simply plan their trip for a park's off-season, many folks can only travel in summer months when the kiddos are out of school.
To help you evade the huge influx of high-season visitors to scenic jewels like Yosemite and Yellowstone, we've rounded up America's 15 busiest national parks and provided tips on how best to avoid the masses. Don't forget to pack plenty of patience.
15. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Wondering how the country's second-smallest national park makes the list of most visited? The park's main attraction is smack-dab in the middle of an Arkansas town, where you'll find Bathhouse Row — a collection of historic, neoclassical spa buildings to soak your weary bones in geothermal hot springs. Aahh, sweet relief.
Among the most frequented facilities is Buckstaff Baths. It doesn't take reservations, so show up early to avoid a lengthy wait (doors opens at 8 a.m.). And while you're at it, drop a few more bucks for a Swedish massage. You've earned it.
14. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Annual visitors: 2 million
Peak season: year-round, but especially spring and summer
In May 2018, this park's Kilauea volcano erupted, destroying over 700 homes and dramatically altering the park's natural features and infrastructure.
Historically, the park's most congested spot was the Jaggar Museum and its deck offering views of the Halemaumau Crater's glowing lava lake. The severely damaged museum is closed indefinitely, and the crater's collapse and quadrupling in size have resulted in the loss of the lava lake. So crowds have shifted to the 1-mile Keanakakoi Crater trail, which offers close-up views of the expanded Halemaumau Crater.
Since the eruption, many trails have reopened (including Steam Vents and Sulphur Banks), yet several others remain closed (notably, the majority of the Crater Rim Trail). The situation is as fluid as lava, but as always the key to beating the crowds is visiting early in the day, easily achieved by staying a night inside the park, or in the nearby town of Volcano.
13. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Annual visitors: 2.2 million
Peak season: April to September
This lovely, waterfall-laden park near Cleveland and Akron is perhaps this list's least publicized, yet still manages to pull in huge tourist numbers — thanks in part to its lack of an admission fee.
Parking lots tend to fill by 10 a.m. at popular spots like Brandywine Falls, Blue Hen Falls and various access points to the Towpath Trail. So set the alarm and get an early start. If possible, make your first stop the extremely busy Ledges Overlook and its adjacent 2.2-mile loop trail, which visits a lush forest and sandstone cliff formations.
12. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Annual visitors: 2.5 million
Peak season: May to September
This canyon's red-rock hoodoos rising from a white blanket of winter snow stands among the Southwest's most sublime sights. And in the dead of winter, it's one you'll mostly have to yourself.
Spring through fall, dodging the crowds in a relatively small park like Bryce gets much trickier. You'll want to shoot for a brutally early start, by 6 or 7 a.m. if possible, to take in the canyon's marquee viewpoints before they're swarmed, beginning around 10 or 11 a.m.
Provided the weather's not raging hot, do your canyon hiking in the afternoon. If heat's an issue, instead saddle up for a horseback ride.
11. Joshua Tree National Park, California
Annual visitors: 2.8 million
Peak season: October to April
A roughly two-hour drive from downtown L.A., the desert park can get seriously packed during its fall-through-spring high season. We're talking epic waits upwards of 30 minutes at the vehicle entrance-fee stations near the towns of Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree. And once you're in, good luck finding parking at trailheads.
If you can't swing a weekday visit, when crowds thin a bit, arrive early at the most popular trailheads (Barker Dam and Hidden Valley). In the busy afternoon, opt for moderately difficult hiking trails like Lost Horse Mine or Lost Palm Oasis, which see somewhat less foot traffic.
If you're driving a sturdy, high-clearance vehicle, peace awaits at the far-west end of the park along the network of dirt roads in the Covington Flats area. It's home to a forest of enormous Joshua trees and a panoramic desert view from the summit of Eureka Peak.
Visiting in the summer off-season, when temps routinely top 100 degrees, is only advised if you're content to see the park from your air-conditioned car.
10. Glacier National Park, Montana
Annual visitors: 3.3 million
Peak season: June to mid-September
Unlike some parks, where "shoulder seasons" are a thing of the past (looking at you, Zion), Glacier still sees somewhat sparser crowds from roughly mid-September through October. Happily, this is also an excellent time to visit: trees are turning their fall colors and wildlife tends to be more active. Lodgings and services within the park shutter by the end of September, but you'll still find motels open in nearby towns.
If you do visit in the thick of summer, by all means try to nab accommodations inside the park. You'll be near popular hikes like Highline Trail and Trail of the Cedars, which are less trafficked early in the day. After 10-11 a.m., you'll have lots of company everywhere you go, especially on the must-do Going-to-the-Sun Road and its Hidden Lake Overlook.
9. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Annual visitors: 3.31 million
Peak season: May to September
The park's signature activity is taking a shuttle boat across sparkling Jenny Lake to the trailhead for Hidden Falls, a 1.4-mile round-trip hike. It's so popular that in peak summer months, boats run continuously from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
No matter when you visit, shoot for an early-morning or late-afternoon boat departure to avoid the mid-day masses. The same goes for the typically busy trails accessible from the park's main road, including the extremely popular trek to String Lake.
8. Olympic National Park, Washington
Annual visitors: 3.4 million
Peak season: June to September
Lush with rainforests and flush with weekenders from nearby Seattle, Olympic can be a marathon test of patience if you prefer nature's splendor sans hordes of people.
Visiting in the winter off-season cuts back on the crowds, but frequent, heavy rain can put a serious damper on outdoor activity. In pleasant weather, bypass the extremely popular Hoh Rain Forest in favor of lesser-known spots like the Deer Park and Quinault rain forests.
The sweeping views from busy Hurricane Ridge are a must-see, but you're wise to enjoy them in late afternoon when the mid-day crowds are headed back down the mountain.
7. Acadia National Park, Maine
Annual visitors: 3.5 million
Peak season: June to September
Escaping the summer crush in the heart of Acadia, on Mount Desert Island, takes a bit of homework. But your travel mates will hail you a hero when you trade a day in the traffic-jammed Bar Harbor area for a 1-hour drive (or ferry ride) to the gorgeous Schoodic Peninsula and a mellower scene in the town of Winter Harbor.
To truly get away from it all, consider a day trip to remote, rugged Isle Au Haut. From Bar Harbor, you'll need to drive about 60 miles to the town of Stonington and catch one of the daily boats to the island, where you're rewarded with a dramatic coastline, steep bluffs and solitude. The island sees less than 8,000 visitors per year.
6. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Annual visitors: 4.1 million
Peak season: May to September
Summer mobs at the Old Faithful geyser are nothing new. But sadly, in recent years, many other sites in this incredible park have become increasingly overrun with floods of people — many flowing out of tour buses.
Your best beat-the-crowds bet is hitting geothermal hot spots like Grand Prismatic Spring, Mammoth Hot Springs and the Norris Geyser Basin early (before 9 a.m.) or late (after 4 p.m.) in the day. But in a vast park with so much to see, you'll inevitably meet with the mid-day masses. In that case, go for a hike. Even at bustling Biscuit Basin, you'll lose much of the hubbub by trekking a mile to gorgeous Mystic Falls.
Another option is exploring the park's quieter east side. Spot bison herds in Lamar Valley, then head south to have lunch in the historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel's relaxed dining room.
Still wary of the infamous Yellowstone crowds? Go in winter. The park is blanketed in snow, roads are closed and you'll need to get around via snowmobile or snowcoach, but you'll have the place to yourself.
5. Yosemite National Park, California
Annual visitors: 4.3 million
Peak season: March to November
It's been called the “Disneyland of national parks” for a reason. While Yosemite covers more than 1,000 square miles, the vast majority of visitors flock to a single seven-mile-long-by-half-mile-wide spot: Yosemite Valley. In high season, cue the nightmare traffic jams, parking lot fiascos and 20-minute waits to use a restroom.
If you do find yourself amid the valley's soaring granite walls and waterfalls during busy times, seek a semblance of peace and quiet along the 11.5-mile Valley Loop Trail. You'll rub elbows with lots of folks on the trail's eastern half, but the farther west you walk (past Yosemite Falls along the base of El Capitan), the more people you'll lose.
To bypass the valley circus entirely, head for the less-crowded Tuolomne Meadows area, located high in the park's Sierra Nevada mountains. Along Tioga Road (usually open between late May and mid-November), you'll find superb picnic areas at Yosemite Creek and Tenaya Lake, plus several lightly trafficked hiking trails; the moderate Dog Lake trail is a nice choice.
Spend the night in the Eastern Sierra town of Lee Vining, where next-morning breakfast burritos at the Mono Market are a must.
4. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Annual visitors: 4.4 million
Peak season: May to October
If you're like most high-season visitors, you'll be bunking at a motel in the tourist-jammed gateway town of Estes Park. And bad news for your beauty sleep, the only way to beat the throng is by waking at the crack of dawn.
Avoid the park's incredibly scenic yet often car-clogged Trail Ridge Road when it's busiest, between roughly 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you plan to hike the popular trails along Bear Lake Road (Glacier Gorge, Bear Lake, etc.), arrive at trailheads no later than 8 a.m. After this time, parking lots often fill up, forcing you to reach them via the park's free shuttle bus.
Want to avoid the Estes Park-vicinity crush all together? Consider centering your trip around the park's far-flung west side, near Grand Lake. You'll find several lodges and, even during the summer stampede, a bit of soul-soothing Rocky Mountain solitude.
3. Zion National Park, Utah
Annual visitors: 4.5 million
Peak season: March to November
The park’s Zion Canyon, an awesome red-rock slice of Southern Utah, is so chronically congested that private vehicles are banned from entering it between March and November. To gain access, you'll have to use the park's shuttle system, or walk or bicycle to travel the canyon's sole road. Unless it's a weekday in the dead of winter, the only way to lose the crowds is by tackling a trail-less trod, such as a strenuous day hike to Observation Point or Cable Mountain.
For tourist relief by car, try the Mount Carmel Highway (SR 9), which snakes its way from the Zion Canyon entrance to the tiny town of Mount Carmel Junction, some 25 miles southeast. The scenery's a knockout and roadside trailheads range from the easy Canyon Overlook Trail to the moderate Many Pools Trail.
Another option, the park's beautiful yet often-ignored Kolob Canyons unit lies about 60 miles northeast of Zion Canyon, off Interstate 15.
2. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Annual visitors: 6.2 million
Peak season: (South Rim) March to November; (North Rim) May to October
The hordes head for the South Rim, and with good reason. The roads are open year-round, lodging and dining choices abound, and you'll be treated to the canyon's most iconic views — albeit while rubbing shoulders with summer swarms of tour-bus trippers.
Dodge the crowds by dipping below the South Rim for a hike along paths like the Bright Angel Trail. The vast majority of selfie-addicts stick to the rim-top trails and viewpoints, and in no time you'll leave them in the dust.
For a relaxed scene, aim for the canyon's less-frequented North Rim, which welcomes just 10 percent of the park’s total visitors. You won't find complete solace, but the limited overnight choices (a single lodge and campground) do a lot to deter the crowds. Drawbacks include the rim's relative remoteness (a 5-hour drive from Las Vegas) and closure of the North Rim access road from November through April (due to snow).
Lodging tip: can't score a room at the North Rim Lodge? About 45 miles north of the rim, outside the park boundary, the Jacob Lake Inn has motel rooms and cabins.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Annual visitors: 11.3 million
Peak season: June to August, and October
Though it's the nation's busiest park by a Tennessee country mile, it's surprisingly easy to enjoy the Smokies in peace if you know when and where to go. The summer and fall-color peak months see wall-to-wall tourists on weekends, but weekdays (particularly Monday through Wednesday) aren't too terrible. The chilly off-season winter months can be a great time for a quiet trip. But be aware that some roads may be closed due to snow.
In summer, the park entrance at the touristy resort town of Gatlinburg counts the highest number of cars by far. And no surprise, the nearby Cades Cove Loop Road and Roaring Fork Motor Natural Trail are their top destinations. Instead, explore outlying areas like Cosby, Big Creek and Cataloochee (on the park's east side), or head south to the Smokemont area to hike the lightly tread 6.2-mile Smokemont Loop Trail.