In early 2016, my wife and I were researching for a road trip that took us to 8 different National Parks over 3 weeks during the peak summer season. Every time I’d look for advice on how to deal with summer crowds, the advice would be something like, “Try visiting in 6th week of Smarch and nobody will be there!” or “The Grand Canyon is the most popular thing at the Grand Canyon, try seeing something else!”
Well, the fact of the matter is that most people can’t visit during Smarch because of work, school, or the other 527 reasons that make peak season peak for a reason. Most of you, like us, travel over the summer because that’s when you can. And we go specifically to see those really cool things that attract millions of people each year.
So this begs the question, with the majority of the 325 million people visiting National Park sites each year doing so during summer months, how exactly do you avoid the crowds?
1) Know that Peak Park Hours are Roughly 9am-6pm
Most day visitors come in the park after breakfast and leave before dinner with fantastic reliability. Figure out ahead of time which famous landmarks are most important to you and try to visit them before or after these busy hours. If you’re staying outside the Park, enter no later than 730-8am. Long lines can build at the fee stations by mid-morning hours, destining you to a day of traffic and jostling for parking.
2) Look for Peak Hour Alternatives
Visiting a park’s most famous site at 11AM is just asking for a bad time. In each of our Park Guides, we try to provide an exciting option or two that attract far fewer people. When the crowds descend upon Old Faithful, visit Lone Star Geyser. When people pack atop Moro Rock, climb Little Baldy. Not only will you have a wonderful experience doing a hike off the most-beaten path, but your visits to the more popular sites will be less stressful in the morning or evening hours.
3) Plan On Dinner Inside The Park
This is the best kept secret we could possibly share. Picnic areas that overflow with families at lunchtime are vacant by late afternoon. In mid-July at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful—so we’re talking the most popular attraction at one of the most popular parks at the most popular time of year—we ate dinner completely by ourselves. We’ve pulled this summer trick at several parks and our experience has been the same: near or complete solitude. While almost everyone is returning to their hotels or campsites to eat, you now have the last couple hours of daylight to leisurely enjoy world-famous icons on a full belly.
4) Wake Up Earlier Than Everyone Else
I get it. I just advised you to stay in the park until 9pm because of that late summer sunset. All you want now is to enjoy a nice campfire or a few drinks at your hotel bar. If doing that is important to you, go for it. Don’t let me dictate any part of your vacation, but going straight to bed gives you a better chance at an early start. Parking at the most popular sites is remarkably easy when the dew is still fresh. It’s the National Park version of being early enough to ride Space Mountain twice before the standby line is even 10 minutes long.
5) Literally Walk Away From The Crowds
There are crazy statistics where a stupid high percentage of Park visitors venture less than a half-mile away from the roads. In Yellowstone, it’s something like 95%. Do some research, find a suitable trail that leads a few miles away from the roads, and watch those crowds disappear. Peak hours mean very little when you hike into the backcountry a bit. If you’re unsure about long hikes or have never done it before, check out our Intro to Day Hiking.
6) When Possible, Hike to Popular Attractions
If you insist on hitting up park hotspots during peak hours, we suggest hiking to them. More often than not, there are rather lightly trafficked trails to popular spots that let you skip the parking shenanigans, avoid long traffic lines, and feel like you earned your reward the old fashioned way. Hikes like Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point in Yosemite, Rim Trail in Bryce Canyon, and the South Rim Trail to Point Sublime in Yellowstone are surprisingly sparse between vista points. While you’ll still have to deal with crowds at the developed tourist spots, hiking in removes the sticky car hassle everyone else has to fight.
7) Bring A Bike To Parks That Offer Shuttle Services
In several of the most popular parks (think Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, etc.), the NPS offers a shuttle to help alleviate some of the traffic congestion. While the shuttle systems are wonderful ideas, they can become overwhelmed during the most popular hours of the day. Waits of 45 minutes to an hour just to shuttle a few miles down the road are not that uncommon. Having a bike will give you the option to cover those miles relatively quickly without having to deal with traffic or fight for parking spaces.