It's no surprise that overcrowding is a big issue at some of the most popular national parks. For example, at the Grand Canyon National Park, the buildings, roads, and trails were designed to accommodate one million visitors each year, however, in 2013 alone, the park hosted more than 4.5 million visitors.
Record-breaking air pollution at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, due in large part to motor vehicle traffic, has clouded over the breathtaking vistas of this stunning park, and on many Fourth of July and Memorial Day weekends, Yosemite Valley's crowds have been compared to New York's Times Square.
Clearly, the best strategy to avoid dealing with the overcrowding at the most popular national parks is to stay away during the summer months, however, for those who have no choice but to travel during the summer, and are determined to visit the most popular national parks, this guide is for you.
When to Visit
To begin with, timing is of the utmost importance. Given how crowded it can be during the high season months of July and August, you may want to plan your trip to the parks in June, particularly during the first two weeks of the month. If you are unable to travel in June, keep in mind that Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day are by far, the busiest weekends, so be sure to avoid visiting at that time, if possible.
The park you choose to visit also has a bearing on when to visit even during the week. A park like Yellowstone, which is located away from major population centers, doesn't experience that much of a difference between weekday and weekend visitation, whereas a park like the Great Smoky Mountains experiences heavier weekend use since it is located only 550 miles from one-third of the American population.
Olympic National Park also tends to experience heavier weekend traffic, since much of its visitor base comes from Seattle, Tacoma, and the Puget Sound area, but it is very weather driven. If the weekend forecast for Seattle is bad, the park is considerably less busy, despite the fact that it might rain in Seattle, but turn out to be sunny at the park.
Each of the five parks has a core area that attracts large groups of people. At Yellowstone, it's the Grand Loop Road; at Olympic, it's the Hoh Rain Forest and Hurricane Ridge; at the Great Smoky Mountains, Cades Cove is the most popular destination; at the Grand Canyon, it's the South Rim; and at Yosemite, almost the entire concentration of people can be found in Yosemite Valley. For these extremely popular spots, the time of day is also a crucial element in avoiding the crowds and enjoying some side benefits as well.
At Olympic's Hurricane Ridge, the best time of day to visit is before 10 am or after 5 pm when you'll find less glare, more interesting shadows and mountain colors, and more visible wildlife. Keep in mind that during the longest days of the summer, evening sunsets at Olympic National Park are not until around 9:00 or even 9:30 pm. An early morning trip to Yosemite Valley will afford a spectacular view of light on the waterfalls and on mountain cliffs. At Grand Canyon, hiking early in the morning or late in the afternoon will not only help you to miss the worst of the crowds but will give you a better opportunity for viewing and photographing the canyon since the midday sun tends to flatten the view and soften the colors.
Areas to Visit
Many of the more than 9 million people who visit the national parks don't ever leave their vehicles. This is an incredible mistake. Do not become a windshield visitor by visiting the following suggested places:
- Yellowstone - Getting away from the masses is as simple as taking a hike. There are more than 300 backcountry campsites, including some along the shoreline of Yellowstone Lake, and there are almost two million acres of backcountry wilderness upon which less than 5% of Yellowstone's visitors ever set foot.
- Olympic - Instead of visiting the popular Hoh Rain Forest, visit the valleys of Quinault or Queets, where you'll also find old growth rain forest. At Queets, the three-mile Sams River Loop Trail passes both the Queets and Sams Rivers as well as through meadows, where elk are often seen early in the morning or late in the evening.
- Great Smoky Mountains - Visit some of the outlying areas including Cosby in the northeast corner of the park, where you'll find a campground, trails, and interpretive programs. In the North Carolina section of the park, Cataloochee is similar in many respects to the much more popular Cades Cove. An isolated valley, Cataloochee offers great views of the surrounding mountains, and also includes a number of historic structures and a primitive campground.
- Yosemite - Spend time in the Wawona District, a 45-minute drive from Yosemite Valley. Tuolumne Meadows on the east side of the park is also recommended.
- Surrounded by majestic peaks and domes, this sub-alpine meadow includes picnic areas and miles of hiking trails. Another good place to escape the crowds is at Hetch Hetchy Valley, located 40 miles from the Yosemite Valley. The area surrounding the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is home to spectacular scenery and is the starting point for many of the less-used backcountry trails in the park.
- Grand Canyon - Visit the North Rim area of the park, which only gets about 10% of the number of visitors as the South Rim. If you're at the South Rim, take the South Kaibab Trailhead to Cedar Ridge and back. At the North Rim, get a permit at the backcountry office and take a drive along the dirt road to Saddle Mountain in the Kaibab National Forest or to the tiny outpost of Tuweep.
To sum it all up, the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Olympic, Yellowstone, and Yosemite are all large parks which offer plenty of opportunities to get away from the crowds, even during the summer months.
The key is to get to the park early in the day, visit the popular spots during off-peak hours, and then spend the rest of your time enjoying hiking, picnicking, recreating, and camping in backcountry areas and other out of the way places. Order trip planners and other information from the parks and plan your visitation strategy in advance of your trip as much as possible. If you try to follow at least some of this advice, you'll definitely improve your chances of having an enjoyable and memorable experience at these magnificent parks.