Adventure, camping, hiking, road trips, Travel Tips

National Park Guide for People Who Hate Crowds

avoid the crowds in the national parks

Ever since our short foray into Yellowstone fifteen years ago, we’ve been a bit down on our national parks. Yes, the scenery was amazing, but I didn’t remember the spectacular beauty that has been preserved for generations as much as I remembered the traffic. I did remember the moose, bears, elk, and bison that we encountered on our drive through the park, but not as much as the hordes of people scaring them away at every turn.  To make matters worse, we had dogs in Yellowstone.  Dogs don’t mix well with most national parks.

National park guide

Last summer we decided to give the national parks another go, this time without canines, and I’m so glad we did!

There are 400+ national parks, historic sites, and monuments in the United States. All are run by the federal government and dedicated to protecting a naturally or historically significant place for all the world to discover and enjoy. On our recent cross-country journey, we visited 9 national parks, 2 national historic sites, and 1 national lakeshore.  Yes, there were crowds and a bit of traffic, but with some planning, we were able to bypass much of that and focus on the unspoiled landscapes, animals, and cultural attractions that make up the National Park Service.  A true gift to the people for generations to come.

National Park Guide

Avoid the Crowds in National Parks

We learned a few things this year about how to avoid the crowds in national parks , and we want to share what we’ve learned with you. The truth is that many national park visitors are a fickle bunch. They stick to their car or tour bus, travel in the middle of the day, and despise bad weather. If you’re willing to hit the trails and get a little wet, you’re bound to find yourself alone in your national park of choice. Here’s a national park guide for avoiding crowds and immersing yourself in the beauty of these spectacular places.

  • Travel in the off season – especially if you are sticking to the more popular parks. In the middle of summer, we were only able to drive through Yosemite. There were no campsites, no parking spaces, and no solitude. We stopped for a photo-op and kept on driving. Weekdays are not as busy as weekends. Holiday weekends are the absolute worst. I have kids in school, so I know how hard it is to travel in the off season. If you have to travel in the summer, consider braving the heat and heading down to the Everglades, Joshua Tree, or the Petrified Forest.
Joshua Tree National Park for Families

Moonrise near Wonderland Ranch, Joshua Tree National Park

  • Visit the less popular parks – These were the ones that amazed us the most.  The experience was more personal and we had time to do and see more. Believe me, even the most underrated national parks are AMAZING! Our favorite? Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
The sun sets on a herd of bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park was not at all busy in June

  • Reserve your campsite or lodging ahead of time – and if you can’t, find out which campgrounds allow first-come, first-serve campers and get there early in the day to find a good spot. We have had really good luck camping outside the park the night before we wanted a spot, then heading in early and driving around the campground looking for people packing up.
  • Visit the parks on a rainy day – Seriously. Rain scares away so many tourists, and really brings out the beauty of a place.
  • Get off the roads and onto the trails –  80% of national park visitors never leave the roads, visitor centers, and parking areas. Even short trails are uncrowded, and if you do a little research beforehand, you can find extreme solitude, incredible beauty, and lots of wildlife.
Desert View Campground

Sunset from the secret trail – Desert View Campground, Grand Canyon

  • Wake up early or stay up late – You’ll find great light for photographs and no traffic on the roads (or the trails).  As a added bonus, animals are more active during these hours.

National Parks Guide

  • Talk to the rangers – The rangers are helpful, knowledgeable, and friendly. Ranger-led programs are often overlooked, but we were amazed by the breadth and scope of their knowledge, and their ability to engage even the stodgiest visitors.

 

So that’s it, a little guide to help you avoid the crowds in national parks. Do you have a favorite national park, and what are your tips for visiting? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. 
Pin for later? I’d really appreciate it!
Love the national parks, but hate the crowds? This handy guide has some tips for ways to avoid the crowds in national parks.

17 Comments

  1. Great guide!! And I can totally relate to disliking the huge crowds you find at some of these national parks, it makes it that much harder to disconnect and enjoy your surroundings. Getting off the roads and onto the trails is the best advice! I couldn’t believe how many people I met in Joshua Tree who only drove to spots to take pictures and stayed in their campsites the rest of the time. I really don’t think you can get the true essence of the wildlife and what the park has to offer that way.
    Mimi Rose recently posted…Learning How to Snowboard at Mt. Hood MeadowsMy Profile

  2. What great ideas! I especially like your idea of visiting on a rainy day, and talking with the rangers. I have relatively close access to parks in my area, and definitely remember your recommendations!
    Patricia @ Grab a Plate recently posted…Parmesan & Herb Roasted Cauliflower BitesMy Profile

  3. Great tips! It’s never fun to go looking for wildlife only to find the crowds are keeping the animals away!

  4. Did a 5 month road trip through the US and loooved seeing the national parks. Was incredibly lucky with the weather in March in Utah and got to see all those parks (Zion, Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capital Reef) without any crowds. It was an incredible experience!

  5. Your photos are great! I always love to visit parks and go hiking when traveling. These tips are so useful!

  6. Great photos and tips! I love traveling to beautiful places and really enjoy going in the offseason to avoid a lot of crowds. Yellowstone is terribly crowded in the summer and that can make it extremely hard to enjoy. I’m looking forward to going to Theodore next summer along with (hopefully) Glacier National Park.
    Ashley recently posted…Behind the Blog: My DeskMy Profile

  7. I love reading about your National Park adventures. I have your image pinned to Pinterest so I can refer to it later this summer for road-trip inspiration!
    Denay DeGuzman recently posted…Travel Like a Pro: Best Travel Accessories EverMy Profile

    • Awesome, Denay! I know I talk about traveling in the off season, but summer is definitely my time to get out there as well.

  8. I haven’t been to a really big National Park like Yellowstone, but I am lucky to live right next to Valley Forge park! I actually have to drive through it every day to get to work. It may not be a big one but it is beautiful, historic, and worth visiting.
    Becky @ Disney in your Day recently posted…Sign up for the Disney in your Day weekly newsletter!My Profile

    • Becky, I’ve never been to Valley Forge. I’d love to check it out! We only have one national park in Vermont, actually it’s a national historic park, but still run by the NPS.

  9. Great tips! I wish we had more time when we were up at Glacier NP this past summer. I would have liked to have gone on more of the trails versus just the main road attractions. There are so many national parks and I can’t wait to explore more of the less touristy ones! Thanks for the tips!

  10. Great tips! I visited Glacier National Park last year in March. We couldn’t do as much, but there were also very few people there so we were able to take in the gorgeous views by ourselves for the most part. Now I want to visit more National Parks, but I’m not a big fan of crowds. 🙂

    • I don’t like crowds either, Crystal, but once I figured out how to bypass the crowds, I fell in love!

  11. Great tips. I can’t wait to explore more of the country. Road trips are the best!

    • I agree, Mina. We had a long winter here in Vermont, and I’m with Willie. I can’t wait to get on the road again! Thank you for reading.

  12. Wow! You make me want to travel. Awesome photos,

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