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Avoiding Crowds in National Parks—Even at the Busiest Times

Brook Wilkinson | May 15, 2017

The U.S. park system is a national treasure that many parents want to share with their kids. But when you’re beholden to the school calendar, you’re forced to visit these parks at their busiest times of year: summer, spring break, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and other school holidays. Thus there are crowds. But there are also strategies for avoiding them. I’ve tested out many of these tricks at numerous national parks over the years, most recently when I took my son to Yosemite for spring break. Here’s what I’ve found works best:

Use the right park entrance.

Many parks have entrances that are less busy than others. In Yosemite, for instance, far fewer people approach from the east (a route that is open only in summer) than from the west. Be strategic about which entrance you use.

Choose inside-the-park accommodations.

The entry gates are often the worst choke points in a national park; we spent an hour in the car inching our way toward Yosemite’s Arch Rock entrance on a Sunday afternoon in April. You’ll pay a premium for accommodations inside any national park—and you’ll have to plan far in advance, as many hotels and campsites book up as soon as space becomes available—but you’ll save a ton of time by only having to enter the park once.

child at a mosaic workshop at yosemite national park

Zeke focuses at a mosaic workshop put on by the Yosemite Conservancy. Photo: Ryan Damm

Hit the iconic sights well before 9 am.

Time after time, I’ve found that even the most popular spots are nearly empty if you arrive before 9am—and ideally earlier. I know it’s difficult to get kids out the door at the crack of dawn, but prep as much as you can the night before, and consider offering an incentive if everyone’s ready on time (an afternoon ice cream?). If there are iconic sights on your hit list—Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite, Old Faithful in Yellowstone, Inspiration Point in Bryce Canyon—make a beeline to those first. By the time the crowds have descended later in the morning, you’ll be off exploring less trodden trails.

Explore in the evenings too.

Evening is less crowded than midday and can be transcendent. I once took a stroll into Bryce Canyon’s amphitheater by the light of the full moon, and it was magical. Moreover, I saw only two other people on what’s usually a busy trail in daytime.

Avoid mealtime mobs by having picnics far from commercial areas.

After the entrance gate, the largest crowd we dealt with in Yosemite was at the Village Store, a grocery and souvenir shop in Yosemite Village. I’m glad my son has a memento to remember the trip—and he loved the mosaic-making workshop that he took at the Yosemite Art Center next door. But I’m even happier that we were able to avoid Yosemite Village’s mealtime crowds by packing a picnic each day—something we were able to do because we’d booked a vacation home rental in Yosemite West, a community that is technically outside Yosemite but on the park side of the fee gates.

child hiking through a narrow rock crevice in yosemite national park

The guide dangled the promise of “a rock we can walk through” to push my five-year-old along the trail. Here, we make the tight squeeze. Photo: Ryan Damm

Hire a naturalist guide to get you truly off the beaten path.

Our guide took us on quieter trails that were alternatives to the ones we would have chosen on our own, and he made suggestions for how to spend the rest of our time in the park. He also opened my son’s eyes to this new place in a way I couldn’t have, explaining everything from the strange phenomenon of frazil ice to the culinary techniques of the Ahwahneechee people who once populated the region. Our guide experience was arranged by Mark Campbell, who has earned a spot on our WOW List as Trusted Travel Expert for U.S. national parks. Mark has handpicked the cleverest guides in the parks; the guide we used trains the leaders for trips by Backroads, Outward Bound, and the like. (Mark arranges only complete trips that include accommodations and special activities; he does not book guides only.) If you’ve got kids, request a guide who works well with them, getting down on their level and adjusting the pace appropriately, as ours did.

Choose dirt over pavement.

Many park visitors barely leave their vehicles, doing so only long enough to snap a photo and move on to the next marquee sight. When the roads are jammed, find a place—any place—to leave your car and hit the trails. No matter where you are, the farther you walk, the fewer people you’ll see. And it’s a national park, after all, so it’s virtually guaranteed to be scenic.

child learning about native americans in Yosemite national park

Our Yosemite guide shows Zeke the bedrock mortars made by Native Americans to prepare acorns and other foods perhaps 1,000 years ago. Photo: Ryan Damm

Interview park rangers.

When there are multiple ways to get to a popular spot, ask a park ranger which option is the least crowded. For instance, there are several different routes to Mirror Lake in Yosemite Valley. Our guide took us on a trail where we passed only a few other hikers, plus two school groups gathered in a glade; by contrast, the paved path that we returned on felt like a double-wide city sidewalk on a busy afternoon.

Disclosure: Mark Campbell provided a half-day tour of Yosemite free of charge. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, there was no request for coverage, nor was anything promised. You can read our sponsored travel agreement with him here

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

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2 Comments

  1. Regina Olshan

    Is there a source for booking guides and activities if you already have hotels booked?

    1. Brook Wilkinson Post author

      Hi Regina,
      Each park has offers a variety ranger-led programs, which can be fascinating and a lot of fun–but are quite different from the experience of having a private guide. You can find information about those programs on each park’s nps.gov website.

      Depending on your destination, you actually might realize a better value (not necessarily a lower rate, but meaningful added benefits and perks) by booking your accommodations through the right Trusted Travel Expert. To find out if that’s the case for wherever you’re headed, I’d suggest writing to Ask Wendy (you’ll find that link near the top of our website). Wendy can tell you whether to keep the hotel reservation you’ve made, or whether it’s worth contacting the right TTE about what additional benefits he or she can offer.
      Thanks for reading,
      Brook

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