10 Tips for Touring National Parks Sites During Peak Season
American’s national parks have never been more popular, visitation is way up as over 1.5 billion visits have occurred in the last five years. 2017 alone saw 330 million visitors for the NPS. Acadia National Park had 198,549 visits in May of 2016 — an increase of 13% compared to May of 2015. By July 4th, Yosemite National Park will have already seen 1.4 million visitors. 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. That many people pass through the gates of Yellowstone each week in June.
With these large crowds, some strategy is needed to avoid having a crowded and unhappy parks experience. We’ve put together a few tips to help you get the most out of your vacation days.
1. 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. For $80 you get a years worth of entry to all the 118 NPS units that charge an entry fee. Read more about the benefits here.
2. Consider a range of national sites, not just parks.
Yellowstone National Park is number five on the NPS’s list of top 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 and sees a fraction of the number of visitors; Dixie National Forest is next door to Zion and Bryce is a unique concentration of hoodoos in a range of desert pinks and oranges with a fraction of the number of visitors. Consider and early start to the day at the more popular site and arriving at a less busy one in the late afternoon. For NPS Visitor Use statistics, click here.
3. Check the local school calendar.
By the time of the National Park Service’s birthday rolls around each 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 in April, 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.
You can avoid large family crowds by considering visitation to western and midwestern parks in August and eastern parks in May and June.
4. Consider lodging within the 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. Do note that in park lodging tends to be more expensive, but this can be worth the cost in terms of time saved, what we call Vacation Value Time.
5. Emphasize an early start.
Our itineraries encourage an early start to the day. An early can not be stressed enough, it truly is the key to great park adventures. We arrived at Arches at eight in the morning, and were one 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, in the now full lot, 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.
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.
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!