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.
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.
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. If you can visit your favorite national parks in the winter, you will find a different kind of beauty that many people never get to witness. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.