As parks across the U.S. gradually reopen, some—Yosemite and Rocky Mountain National Parks, for instance—are talking about requiring reservations in order to limit the number of daily visitors. That’s a good first step toward adequate physical distancing among parkgoers, but there are additional strategies to utilize if you want to keep largely to yourself in the most popular parks. Remember that there are more than 10,000 national and state parks in this country. We’ve always recommended going off the beaten path, and this summer that could be important not only for your enjoyment of the quieter back roads and emptier vistas, but for your health. Just be sure to read the CDC’s guidance on domestic travel, use “Every State’s Coronavirus and Travel Information” to find out about quarantines and restrictions in the places you plan to visit, and learn what’s open and closed in each national park via the NPS website.
Wake up early, and explore in the evenings too.
If you can’t bear the thought of skipping an iconic spot that’s on your bucket list—say, Yosemite Falls or the South Rim of the Grand Canyon—it will be essential to time your visit right. The earlier you get up and out the door, the fewer people you’ll see on the roads and trails. Know the typical flow of traffic in the park you’re visiting. Most people seeing Bryce Canyon National Park, for example, drive through it from north to south; if you start early, you’ll stay ahead of the crowds the entire day. At night, check out Bryce’s amphitheater by the light of the moon. It’s magical, and likely few people will be there.
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, keeping in mind that some may still be closed due to COVID-19 restrictions (you can find details on what’s open and what’s closed in each park via the National Park Service).
Don’t neglect state parks.
Near any national park, you’re likely to find one or more state parks that are nearly as spectacular, but less visited. Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park, for example, has a landscape like nowhere else on earth, with spooky hoodoos shaped like toadstools and witches and alien invaders. These hoodoos (thin spires of rock with curvaceous profiles) are quite different from the ones that have made Bryce Canyon famous: The former have rounded edges, as if they’ve melted into shape, while the latter are more rigidly striated. But even my well-traveled, adventurous Utah relatives have never been to Goblin Valley. This part of southern Utah is so remote that the Henry Mountains I could see in the distance were the last mountain range to be mapped in the lower 48 states, back in 1872.
Take the road less traveled.
Rather than sticking to the interstates, plot your route along smaller roads; even if it adds time to the drive, you’ll likely be rewarded with better views (and maybe emptier bathrooms at the rest stops). If you’re navigating between Utah’s Arches National Park and Bryce Canyon, for example, taking Scenic Byway 12 adds less than an hour to your route. The most spectacular section of this road runs from Tropic to Torrey, with several miles of pavement that cling to the knife-edge of a mountain ridge with gorgeous canyons spilling down on either side dotted with scrubby pines, earning it the moniker “the Hogsback.” Byway 12 also winds through Capitol Reef National Park (one of the country’s few national parks that you can visit for free, since the highway runs right through it). Do be cognizant of local residents’ feelings about outsiders, though; while some communities are ready to welcome visitors, others are concerned that such an influx could overload their meager health-care services.
Avoid the commercial areas and visitor centers.
Limit your time indoors as much as possible. That means packing picnics, researching trails before you leave home, downloading maps to your phone, and foregoing the usual souvenir t-shirt.
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. No matter where you are, the farther you head down a trail, the fewer people you’ll see. And it’s a national park, after all, so it’s virtually guaranteed to be scenic.
Seek out private accommodations.
Read Is This Hotel Safe? for guidance on how to choose the cleanest place to spend the night. A number of ranches out West have standalone cabins or cottages that naturally lend themselves to social distancing, and they are devising ways to keep meals and activities as private as possible. RV trips are another option—but if you’re thinking of taking an RV trip this summer, read this first.
If you’re interested in a luxury road trip to see national or state parks, Ask Wendy who the right travel specialist is to plan your trip.