National Parks have been called America's "Best Idea". Over the past decade, the number of visitors to our national parks has grown immensely. Some of the most crowded parks now require entry reservations to help manage the crowds and traffic, in an effort to ensure that our natural resources within the park are preserved. While I hate that idea, I completely understand it and unless and until someone comes up with a better way, I'm all for managing the amount of visitors to help keep our parks as beautiful as ever. Over my years photographing in and around National Parks, I've found some strategies that have helped make my visits enjoyable and productive. I share a few of them here. Read on!
Making the Most of Your Visits to National Parks
Arrive (Very) Early!
As a landscape photographer, the most magical times for me are sunrise and sunset. This means I am in whatever park I'm going to well before most other people. I know this isn't everyone's cup of tea, but if you hate crowds, hate the idea of needing a reservation, and want to be able to move as freely as possible, this is the best time. You won't have to drive around looking for parking, and you may find yourself alone on the trails, even the popular ones! Most parks that require reservations don't require them until later, with the exception being Cadillac Mountain in Acadia.
One of the major benefits to being early is that early morning is one of the prime times to see wildlife. Many forms of wildlife, from birds, to bison, to wolves, to bears, are active during the early morning hours, and often go into hiding during the midday when the park gets more crowded. So being the early bird gives you a good opportunity to see a lot of different animals in whatever park you're in.
The biggest plus to arriving early is seeing the the sights in the best light possible. There's nothing like that early morning light on Hallet Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, or seeing the first light shine on Otter Cliff in Acadia, or watching the sun rise over the Sierras from the top of Sentinel Dome in Yosemite. It's a magical time in any of the parks, and well worth losing some sleep if you can.
On my recent trip to Yellowstone, I was very conscious of how crowded the park can get. So I followed my above recommendation quite a bit. We were up before dawn and in the park before sunrise, which was around 5:30am. By 11am, we began to make our way out of the park to avoid the crowds, heading into West Yellowstone for lunch and some shopping. One day, we headed up to Bozeman, Montana along the Gallatin Canyon scenic drive, which was well worth the trip!
We would have an earlier dinner, and then head back into the park to find a spot for sunset. This gave us a few hours to explore and see some things still. While we were heading back into the park around 5:30pm, we couldn't help but notice the line of cars heading out of the park. It was very easy to get where we wanted to go and again, the crowds were smaller.
I would pick a spot to watch and photograph sunset, and we'd stop along our way there. Adjusting our schedule slightly to have an earlier dinner and then head back into the park later really helped us avoid traffic headaches and parking issues. The time was much more relaxed and enjoyable and stress-free. It's worth considering if you're traveling to one of the busier parks.
Find Less Visited Areas
When we start researching our visits to national parks, it's usually very easy to find the most popular places. These are the ones with iconic images all over the internet. Spots like everywhere in Yosemite Valley, Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone, or Cadillac Mountain in Acadia. However, all of these parks have some lightly visited areas that are well worth the visit if you care to find them.
For instance, in Acadia, the Schoodic Peninsula, the only part of the park on the mainland, is visited by only about 20% of all visitors to the park. This is a park that gets almost 4 million visitors annually, and less than 1 million see this area. It's beautiful, but the issue is, it's an hour from Bar Harbor if you drive. There's also a ferry available. Schoodic is one of my favorite spots to watch the sun set, looking back across the bay toward Bar Harbor and Cadillac Mountain.
Visit Less Popular National Parks
I know many won't want to hear this, but if you want to be able to really experience a national park and not be elbow to elbow with others, or sitting in traffic, the best bet is to go elsewhere. There are many parks that don't get crowded, yet still have plenty to offer. One such park is North Cascades National Park.
North Cascades is a beautiful park, but it's a bit decentralized, unlike Acadia, where the Park Loop Road seems to be the hub, or Yosemite, where Yosemite Valley offers a lot to see and do in one spot. North Cascades has been described more as a hiker's park, but the North Cascades Highway is a beautiful drive with a lot of great views to stop and appreciate. North Cascades only had 38,000 visitors in 2022, compared to Acadia with 3.4 million to an island of only 54 square miles, or Yellowstone and Yosemite which both topped 4 million visitors.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is another incredibly beautiful park, with lots of wildlife including bison, wild horses, and more, and it only received a little less than 700,000 visitors in 2022. Located in western North Dakota, it's beautiful country, there are some nice hikes, and lots of scenic views. Medora, North Dakota is a great little town to hang out in as well.
Visit During Shoulder or Off-Seasons
I love visiting parks during the off season. There are fewer crowds, lodging is less expensive, and everything just seems all around easier. Earlier this year, I visited Rocky Mountain National Park in January. I know winter weather isn't everyone's idea of a good time, but I can't think of anything more beautiful than snow-covered mountains and frozen lakes. There were fewer people and no reservation system to worry about, while during the spring and summer months, reservations are required for access to places like Bear Lake. If you come prepared, it's pleasant being in the mountains with snow, and the views are amazing. Parts of the park are closed off during the off season, but there was still plenty accessible that's well worth seeing.
Several years ago, I got to visit Yosemite in March at the tail end of a business trip. That part of California had an early spring so the road to Glacier Point opened early, and the valley was just beautiful. It was also far less crowded than it is during summer months. I spent an entire day in the valley, never once waiting for traffic or having issues finding a parking spot.
Acadia is at its busiest from late June through the end of September. But it's absolutely magical in early June when the lupines are in bloom, and wildflowers are everywhere. The town of Bar Harbor is just awakening from its winter slumber as well, and there's anticipation of summer in the air. Then, there's early October, when most people have returned to work or school and the park is less crowded, but the foliage is a riot of colors. It's a great time to be there and again, less crowded.
Last year I visited Death Valley National Park in January. Death Valley saw 1.7 million visitors in 2022, so it's not the busiest, but to me, winter was absolutely the best time to visit. Temperatures hit the 80's during the day, and cooled off even more at night, whereas in the summer, temperatures rise into triple digits. The park isn't crowded and has lots to see and experience, and I enjoyed the January visit. Being January, I'm sure that helped keep the crowds down a bit, but I would worry about high temperatures in late spring and summer.
Explore the Areas Around the Parks
There are typically a lot of places of interest just outside the national parks as well. These are worth spending a few hours or even a day checking out, and avoiding the crowds in the parks. Near Shenandoah National Park, places like the town of Luray and Luray Caverns offer a nice side trip. Outside of Acadia, there are countless small towns and villages along the coast, with harbors and other scenic points to be explored, or preserves to be hiked. The Schoodic National Scenic Byway is a fantastic drive.
Outside Yellowstone, the northeast entrance to the park is the beginning of the Beartooth Highway. This road, called "the most beautiful drive in America", runs from the northeast entrance of Yellowstone to Red Lodge, Montana. It takes about two hours to drive if you don't stop, but I bet you don't get far without pulling over! There's a lot to see, including wildlife and scenic vistas of alpine lakes, there are plenty of hiking trails, and when you get to Red Lodge, there's a lot of great shops and restaurants. It's worth taking a day and driving this road to see it.
It's my experience that almost every national park has similar areas surrounding them that are worth exploring a little while you're there. It's worth digging deeper to find them. I love visiting national parks and I hope these tips help make your visits a little more enjoyable!