10 Tips for Touring National Parks Sites During Peak Season

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park.

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park.

America’s national parks system is the focus of a profound celebration in its centennial year, and increases in tourism to all NPS sites — parks, memorials, historic sites, monuments, recreation areas, and seashores — are marked. Acadia National Park saw 198,549 visits in May of 2016 — an increase of 13% compared to May of 2015. Yosemite National Park has already seen 1,433,428 visits since the start of 2016. By comparison, consider that the first data that tracked tourism to nationally protected sites was collected in 1904, and recorded 120,690 visits to six national parks.  

During National Park Birthday week, August 25-28, 2016, all NPS sites will be fee-free. When we visited Utah’s mighty five national parks in April, we considered some strategies for touring during what is sure to be a busy summer season.

1. Check the local school calendar.

By the time of the National Park Service’s 100th birthday in August, many public schools in the U.S. will already be back in session. We visited Zion during the New York City public school break, but locals with children, who value time in the parks just as much as visitors, were not on spring vacation. East Coast school districts tend to end the school year in late June, and many districts throughout the country are back in session in August.
 

2. Consider a range of national sites, not just parks.

Canaveral National Seashore.

Canaveral National Seashore.

Yellowstone National Park is number five on the NPS’s list of visited national park sites, while Zion, a park that is only 7% the size of Yellowstone, is right behind at six. Selecting less visited NPS sites to complement your itinerary can be very keen logistically, with less crowds. Cedar Breaks National Monument is approximately one hour’s drive from both Bryce and Zion and has similar geologic features to both; Dixie National Forest is a unique concentration of hoodoos in a range of desert pinks and oranges with a fraction of the number of visitors. Consider starting the day at a less populous site and arriving at a busier one in the later afternoon. For NPS Visitor Use statistics, click here.

3.  Consider lodging within the park.

The Bryce Canyon Lodge, Bryce Canyon National Park.

The Bryce Canyon Lodge, Bryce Canyon National Park.

This tip involves planning ahead, as many of the park lodges sell out months in advance. Also, in terms of a points earning strategy, maximize by booking your stay with a points earning credit card, as you won't be staying at a points earning chain hotel. This option supports beginning the day early and affords more natural wonder after dark, when the stars emerge, become infinitesimal and discernible, and glisten like sugar.  

4. Use the America the Beautiful Parks pass.

The annual NPS visitors pass is a time saver at the entry gate, and an asset for the budget as well. Read more about the benefits here.

While There…

5. Emphasize an early start.

Landscape Arch, Arches National Park.

Landscape Arch, Arches National Park.

Our itineraries encourage an early start to the day. We arrived at Arches at eight in the morning, and were of the first visitors on the Devils’ Garden trail; by ten in the morning we already been to Tunnel and Pine Tree Arches, Landscape Arch, and the Navajo and Partition Arches. Several arriving cars were interested in our parking spot when we completed our hike.

6. Begin at the end.

With our early start at Arches we cruised past the Courthouse Towers, The Windows, Rock Pinnacles, and Fiery Furnace, and parked in the empty lot at the Devil’s Garden trailhead, at the north end of the park. We worked our way back toward the entry after lunch, finding parking more advantageous.  

Park shuttle, Zion National Park.

Park shuttle, Zion National Park.

7. Avail yourself of park shuttles, when available.

It might mean relinquishing some autonomy, but the tradeoff is a greater immersion in the extraordinary environment and infrastructure of the park, and less concern over parking throughout the day.

8. Linger, or return, in early evening.

Especially if you are touring several parks in one trip, we recommend building in some early evening time, when the dusk works magic. We spontaneously decided to stop at Arches when we first arrived in Moab, at 6:30 p.m. The sun began to set as we, and a few lone photographers, studied Balanced Rock. The clouds were silvery satin pillows, the blue sky intensified by contrast, underneath. Isolate juniper trees became multitudes of silhouettes. Our next day was that much more leisurely, as we were ahead of schedule. And, there was no line for entry!

9. Study the sunset.

Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park.

Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park.

We watched the sunset atop Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park with a sizable group of visitors, yet all seemed to intuitively inhabit their own isolation pods, entranced by the changing light. Thoughts clarify during the sunset hour. Introspection is intuitive, and even when they are nearby and great in number, the tourists seem to disperse organically.

10. Loosen the itinerary.

At any point on our itinerary, if we couldn’t park, or felt the trail too crowded for comfort, we had alternatives in mind. We were prepared to let things go. Ranger Frank Barrows is quoted, “It’s okay if you don’t make it to a summit or get the perfect Instagram photo, just being outside and exploring can be the memory your child cherishes.” For adults as well, it can be liberating to just be there, keeping the itinerary loose. It seems unimaginable, but we did not see Delicate Arch when we went to Arches!