Tips for Avoiding the Summer Crowds at National Parks

Olympic National Park

TripSavvy / Alisha McDarris

Overcrowding is a big issue at some of the most popular national parks and large loud crowds and bumper-to-bumper traffic can really kill the mood when you're trying to enjoy the peace of the outdoors. For example, air pollution at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, due in large part to motor vehicle traffic, has obscured some of the park's stunning vistas and on holiday weekends, Yosemite Valley's crowds have been compared to Times Square in New York City—hardly the escape from civilization most nature-lovers are imagining.

The best way to avoid the crowds in the most popular national parks is to avoid traveling in the summer, but this is not an option for everybody. For those who have no choice but to travel during peak season and are determined to see some of the most popular national parks, there are a few ways you can try to avoid the worst of the high season.

When to Visit

Timing is of the utmost importance when it comes to deciding what part of the day, week, or season in which you'll be visiting. Given how crowded it can be during 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, Fourth of July, and Labor Day are by far, the busiest weekends so you'll want to at least avoid visiting at these times if possible.

What time of the week you should go also depends on the park and its proximity to big population centers. For example, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming is located far away from major cities and densely populated states, so it doesn't make much of a difference whether your visit on a weekday or weekend. On the other hand, the Great Smoky Mountains are located within just 550 miles from one-third of the U.S. population and the city of Asheville, North Carolina just a two-hour drive away. Here, it's much easier to visit over a weekend so weekends tend to be much busier.

Olympic National Park also typically has heavier weekend traffic, since much of its visitor base comes from Seattle, Tacoma, and the Puget Sound area, but it depends on the weather. If the weekend forecast for Seattle is bad, the park is considerably less busy. However, there's always a chance that it can be raining in Seattle while it's sunny in the park.

The time of day you visit and opting for a more niche experience can also make a big difference. For example, at Grand Canyon, hiking or taking a mule trip 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 midday sun tends to flatten the view and soften the colors. Likewise, an early morning trip to Yosemite Valley will afford a spectacular view of light on the waterfalls and mountain cliffs.

Whichever park you go to, the key is to get there early in the day, visit the popular spots during off-peak hours, and then spend the rest of your time enjoying hiking, picnicking, and camping in backcountry areas and other out of the way places.

Where to Go

The Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Olympic, Yellowstone, and Yosemite are all large parks that offer plenty of opportunities to get away from the crowds, even during the summer months. Many of the more than annual average of over 300 million people who visit national parks in the U.S. don't ever leave their vehicles, which is a huge mistake.

Make sure that you can get a fuller experience by the park by getting out of your car and venturing out to where most other tourists don't. Even if you're not visiting one of the big national parks, reading over a few sample itineraries for these great parks may give you an idea of how you can make your next national park visit more special and less crowded.

  • Yellowstone: Getting away from the masses is as simple as taking a hike. The busiest area is Grand Loop Road, but there are almost two million acres of backcountry wilderness upon which less than five percent of Yellowstone's visitors ever set foot. If you prefer to stay awhile, there are more than 300 backcountry campsites, including some along the shoreline of Yellowstone Lake.
  • Olympic: Instead of visiting the popular Hoh Rain Forest, visit the valleys of Quinault or Queets, where you'll find more of the park's old-growth rainforest. At Queets, the three-mile Sams River Loop Trail passes both the Queets and Sams Rivers. It also crosses meadows where elk are often seen early in the morning or late in the evening. In addition to the Hoh Rainforest, another typically busy area is Hurricane Ridge and the best time of day to visit is before 10 a.m. or after 5 p.m. when you'll find less glare and more interesting shadows on the mountains.
  • 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 busy Cades Cove. An isolated valley, Cataloochee offers great views of the surrounding mountains, and also includes several 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 in the main valley is Hetch Hetchy Valley, located 40 miles from 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 percent 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.