With 42 National Park visits racked up over the years, I've seen my fair share of crowds. And as any frequent park-goer knows, the crowds don't just mean longer lines and traffic jams. Some parks get so popular they have to close areas or require advance reservations now.
Trust me, nobody wants to waste precious vacation time stuck in yet another line or traffic jam just to enter a park. But even worse is arriving at your destination ready to explore, only to find out it's too crowded to get in or your must-see vista is now obscured behind a sea of selfie sticks.
Unfortunately, the overcrowding situation seems to get worse every year. On a recent summer visit to Yellowstone in 2023, we were stunned by the teeming crowds compared to our prior trip in 2017. And 2017 already felt incredibly busy compared to our visits in 2011 and 2013!
The good news is that insider tips I've gathered from over a decade of park hopping can help visitors dodge the worst crowds. With some advanced planning and strategic timing, you can still find serenity amidst the masses. Here are my hard-won secrets for avoiding crowds at even the most popular National Parks.
1. Research before you visit
Before visiting a national park, check its usual crowd levels.
You'll usually find information on their website about the best times to visit and tips for avoiding crowds. It's also worth checking the park's social media pages for crowds and wait time updates.
Some parks even have live webcams on the National Park Service website that show the current conditions at the entrances.
For example, Yellowstone National Park has a few active static webcams showing the current conditions at their entrance.
Seeking insights from directory pages and forums can also be helpful. If you find the park you plan to visit is typically busy, you can start planning more carefully, employing the rest of the tips on my list.
The point is - not all of the parks are as busy! Leading right into my next tip.
2. Discover The Hidden Gems: Remote Parks That Offer Peaceful Explorations
If you're looking for a peaceful and crowd-free national park experience, consider visiting some of the lesser-known national parks. They are often out of the way, and more remote, but the road trip itself is half the fun!
Among these hidden gems is Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, renowned for its water-based adventures and scenic beauty. My family will always cherish the evening we spent by the visitor center there, waiting for the resident beavers to show up.
Another haven is The Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park in Colorado, famous for its dramatic, steep canyons and star-filled night skies. And far less crowded than Rocky Mountain National Park, which is in the same state, but is so busy you need to make reservations to visit.
Other serene parks are Nevada's Great Basin National Park, its ancient pine forests and caves. Driving there and back through utter wilderness, dotted with the occasional ghost town, was an absolute treat.
Such remote parks, with their diverse landscapes and tranquil settings, provide perfect opportunities if you're looking to escape into nature without the hustle of crowded tourist spots.
Looking for more ideas? Check out these parks -
3. Choose Quieter Park Entrances for Easier Access
Choosing the right entrance can make a significant difference in avoiding crowds. It's wise to research the park in advance to identify which entry points are typically less congested.
Take Yellowstone National Park as an example: the West Yellowstone entrance often faces long waiting lines during peak seasons. In contrast, entrances at Gardiner, Cooke City, or Cody are usually much less frequented.
Choosing a less popular entrance point saves time by avoiding long lines and provides easier access to the park's attractions. By contrast, when we stayed in West Yellowstone, we had to carefully time our entrance time to avoid a long wait at the park gates (see my next tip).
If Yellowstone is a destination on your itinerary, check out this post - What To See & Do Around Each Of The 5 Yellowstone Entrances
4. Get to the Park Early for a Calm Start
Keep in mind that some parks have limited parking, so it's important to arrive early to secure a spot.
If you plan to hike, getting an early start will also help you beat the heat and avoid the midday crowds.
In some places - like Logan Pass at Glacier National Park - if you're not there early enough, you're unlikely to find a parking spot and won't be able to hike the Highline trail there.
Aim to be at the park gates before 7 am to make the most of your day. If you're able to arrive even earlier, that's even better!
Glacier is a great example of a national park requiring much advance planning. See my post 11 Tried-and-True Tips for Glacier National Park
5. Avoiding Crowds with Late Afternoon Visits
If you're not a morning person, you can still avoid the crowds at National Parks by visiting the park gates after 3 pm.
Most people leave the parks in the late afternoon to get dinner and return to their lodging. This can be a fantastic time for enjoying quieter moments and catching spectacular sunsets.
As the crowd thins out, you might even have some areas to yourself. It’s a great chance to soak in the park's beauty and snap some amazing photos without competing with other visitors.
It's important to note that some park gates may close early, so make sure to check the park's website or call ahead before planning a late afternoon visit.
Additionally, some attractions or trails may have limited hours or may close earlier than the park gates, so plan accordingly.
6. Smart Timing for Popular Attractions
Another tip is to visit these spots during early morning or late afternoon hours when crowds are thinner.
In Zion National Park, for example, the Emerald Pools draw many visitors. So, it's best to hike here early or late in the day to avoid crowds.
During midday, when these popular spots are busiest, you can explore quieter areas like the Court of the Patriarchs, which is particularly beautiful in the late afternoon light, or the Zion Human History Museum.
7. Hike Trails for Solitude
Most people stay at the popular scenic stops and overlooks. Once you start hiking a trail, the crowds dissipate, and you can often have the place to yourself.
Plus, hiking is a great way to exercise while enjoying stunning views. One way to find less crowded hiking trails is to do your research. Look for trails that are less popular or more challenging.
If you want to avoid the crowds altogether, consider hiking during the off-season. They'll usually have fewer visitors during the fall and winter months. Of course, not every park is a good option for winter hiking, but many are.
8. Pack Snacks to Skip Busy Park Eateries
One of the biggest time wasters at national parks is waiting in line for food. Instead of getting stuck in a long line and wasting time, pack your own snacks and meals.
Not only will packing your snacks save you time, but it can also save you money. Many park eateries are expensive, and you can easily spend a small fortune on food if you're not careful.
You'll even have the added bonus of enjoying a meal with a beautiful view rather than being stuck in a crowded eatery. Just don't forget to clean up and throw your trash in the bin after!
9. Relax and Enjoy, Even in the Crowd
Lastly, it's important to remember that a sense of relaxation and enjoyment can still be found, even in crowded settings.
National parks naturally foster a kind and relaxed atmosphere, where people often share a common appreciation for nature's beauty and tranquility.
This shared experience can create a friendly and respectful environment among visitors, even during busier times.
So, if you find yourself in a crowd, don't worry too much. Embrace the opportunity to connect with fellow nature enthusiasts and soak in the majestic surroundings.
Making the Most of Your National Park Adventure
Visiting national parks can be a fulfilling and serene experience with a little planning and flexibility.
From researching crowd levels, visiting less-known parks, choosing quieter entrances, and timing your visits wisely, these strategies can significantly enhance your enjoyment.
Whether you're an early bird catching the sunrise or a late afternoon visitor soaking in the sunset, there's a peaceful moment waiting for you.
And remember, even in crowded spots, the camaraderie and shared love for nature among visitors add to the park's charm.