Finding solitude in US national parks
Toroweap North Rim is, unbelievably, the lowest viewpoint of the Grand Canyon. (Carol Polich/LPI)
You want to get close to nature, but the loud tourists want to get close to you. Here is how to get a slice of national park all to yourself.
If you are dreaming of scaling Yosemite's Half Dome, whitewater rafting through the Grand Canyon and driving the Blue Ridge Parkway. Guess what? So is everyone else. The National Park Service (NPS) gets 275 million visitors each year.
Here is the good news. You do not have to plan a trip months in advance to secure a campsite under the stars, have a hiking trail and a summit peak all to yourself, or find out where the wild things are. Take our advice - including tips from park rangers - and go!
Timing is everything
The best solution for dealing with the summertime crowds at national parks is to basically avoid them: visit out of season. But if you really must travel between May and September, choose your dates carefully. A perfect time to visit is the week right before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. Whenever you go, try to visit mid-week instead of over a weekend. For weekend trips, arrive as early as possible on Friday and leave later on Sunday night to avoid the worst traffic jams.
Second best may be better
Your heart may be set on visiting a top tier national park like Yellowstone, but think about your alternatives: second-tier parks that share some of the same natural features. Instead of fighting the crowds in Yosemite Valley, visit Kings Canyon. If spelunking is your thing, try Lava Beds or Great Basin instead of Carlsbad Caverns. If you do visit a superstar park, base yourself in a less-popular area - for example, the north rim of the Grand Canyon instead of the busy south rim.
A place to lay your head
The biggest challenge of visiting a national park is finding a place to sleep. Park lodges often book up a year in advance, and reservation campgrounds fill almost as quickly.
If you want to stay at a top park lodge like the Grand Canyon's El Tovar Hotel, check the lodge's website to see what their cancellation policy is. If it is 48 hours, for example, start calling to check for last-minute vacancies three or four days before your trip. You might get lucky!
If you are roughing it, show up at first-come, first-served campgrounds (every park has them) between 10 am and noon, just as last night's campers are vacating sites. Campgrounds in less-popular areas of the park, especially those accessible only by dirt roads, tend to fill up last and be more peaceful. If all else fails, camping may be allowed on national forest lands outside a few parks.
Jump the queue
Nothing kills enthusiasm for the great outdoors more quickly than nearing a park entrance and hitting a line of cars stretching a mile to the gate. How can you shorten the wait? The "America the Beautiful" annual pass ($80) is valid for free admission to all national parks and federal recreational lands for one year from the month of purchase. At many of the US's busiest parks, the pass lets you join a shorter line at the entrance station, or at least gets you waved through faster once you reach the gate. Purchase your pass in advance online at the USGS store.
Go against the flow, go slow
Travel against the grain by driving the park's popular scenic loops in reverse. Start your day early or late so that you miss most of the day-tripper crowds, which peak between 10 am and 4 pm. Remember that getting from place to place may take longer than you think, especially with summer road-construction delays. The biggest mistake you can make is to try and see an entire park in a day. Slow down and get to know a smaller piece of the park in depth, instead of trying to swallow the whole dang place in one big bite.
Ready, set, action!
The best thing about visiting national parks (especially in summer) is that many outdoor activities are free and do not require reservations. Ranger-led nature walks and campfire talks are scheduled daily. More unusual guided outings include boat trips, cycling tours, stargazing and snorkelling. Kids can pick up a Junior Ranger Program activity booklet.