TIPS FOR VISITING OVERCROWDED NATIONAL PARKS
In 2017 the National Park Service reported over 300 million people visited the US national parks. That amount of foot traffic can take a toll on even the most rugged terrain and for many outdoor adventure lovers, visiting an overcrowded National Park can sometimes be an eye-opening experience. We want to help you enjoy your National Parks trip while also protecting our National Parks for all to enjoy for years to come.
At Bearfoot Theory, we love the fact that more people in our National Parks means that more people are getting outdoors. Not only does that mean a healthier and happier population but also more folks who’ll want to protect our wild places, the living things, and indigenous people who call those parks home. Nobody wants to see these places filled with litter and waste or damaged — whether unintentionally or not — so it’s up to every visitor to learn how to respectfully enjoy our overcrowded and even those not-so-crowded National Parks.
And as it goes in all of the destinations we share, please practice good trail etiquette and remember to Leave No Trace. This means packing out all of your garbage, being respectful to others on busy trails, and following the established rules, especially when visiting our beautiful National Parks.
Here’s our guide for how to safely and responsibly visit a crowded National Park. We’ll see you out there!
What to Know Before You Start Your National Parks Trip
One of the best ways to avoid being a part of the problem and contributing to an overcrowded National Park is to do some research and plan ahead of time. Visiting Yellowstone National Park is no joke, yearly guests have to make Yellowstone campsite reservations for the summer right when they open online or chances are you might miss out on that prime weekend or spot. It’s the same with seeing a sunrise at Haleakala National Park. Or maybe it’s the Zion Narrows you’re interested in conquering, all of these National Parks trips require advanced planning.
Do Your Research
Every National Park maintains a website specific to their park. This makes it extremely easy for visitors to get all of the information they need to plan a trip, so make sure you check each site’s specific website for permits, passes and anything else you need to know beforehand.
Here’s a quick checklist:
- Entrance Passes: Some National Parks in the US require an entrance pass and fee. Log on to your park’s specific site for entry fee information. Often parks that don’t require an entrance pass have fewer lines since there is no toll booth that you have to stop at when entering the park. Getting an Annual Park Pass can also save time at busy National Parks, as there is often a separate entrance line for those with the Pass.
- Park Updates and Alerts: Every National Park will update its website to let visitors know about current situations in the park. Sometimes this means restrictions or changes to the norm that might affect your visit. Taking a mere ten minutes to hop on the Grand Canyon’s website, for example, before you go can make all the difference.
- Camping Permits and Reservations: As many campers already know, open campsites can be hard to come by, especially in popular National Parks. While some campgrounds in a National Park can be reserved on Recreation.gov, not all parks participate in this service and many are first come, first serve. Check out the park’s specific website before you go to learn more.
- Dog-Friendly Parks: A handful of parks allow pets in the developed areas like paved trails, lodges, and some trails. Again, logging onto the park’s specific site will fill you in and to help you plan, check out our list here!
- Deadlines: Many of the more sought-after trails and National Parks require permits and applications solely for visiting that have brief windows during which you can apply for a permit and make a reservation. We rounded up some of the most popular trails and parks with deadlines that you don’t want to miss. There’s nothing worse than planning a trip, packing your gear and realizing you can’t get in…
See my Sprinter among those tour buses in Yellowstone?
Read more about important National Park permit deadlines for popular trails
Consider a Lesser Known National Park for your Trip
While Zion and Yosemite should be on everybody’s bucket list, remember that there are 59 National Parks and 117 National Monuments, along with all of the other types of public land we are so lucky to have, and some of these less popular National Parks are equally as beautiful.
If crowds really bother you and the only time you can take a vacation is in the busy month of July, perhaps you should check out one of the National Parks that has fewer visitors.
Here are a few that we’ve covered on Bearfoot Theory.
- The Ultimate Hot Springs National Park guide
- Backpack the California Hiking & Riding Trail through Joshua Tree National Park
- Travel to off the beaten path Key Biscayne National Park in Florida
- Explore Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park
- Backpack in Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park
- Explore these unique dayhikes in Lassen Volcanic National Park
The “popular waterfall hike” in Lake Clark National Park, where we only encountered two other people.
Tips for Visiting an Overcrowded National Park While You’re There
Make the Visitor’s Center Your First Stop
Always make time to swing by an overcrowded National Park’s visitor center or ranger station before heading out for the day. This is where park rangers can help you plan your day in a way that maximizes fun, adventure and safety while respectfully enjoying the park. If you don’t need any help, it’s a good place to check in on park alerts and stay up to date important information.
Since it is chock full of park details, taking a moment to read the bulletin boards at the visitor center is simply a good way to reconnect with the park before you hit the trail. At the visitors center, you can ask questions about lesser known trails, recent wildlife interactions, and other up-to-date tips to ensure you have a good time. It’s also a good reminder, that these parks are wild places with threats, are the homes of people and animals, and the ancestral lands of indigenous people. Staying educated and informed is the best way to protect any park.
Know your Leave No Trace Principles & Park Regulations
Enjoying the outdoors responsibly means doing your part to keep things as clean and pristine as possible. Well-maintained trails and parks are a group effort and whether we realize it or not our impact, both positive and negative, will matter for years to come. Be a leader in the outdoor movement by taking the time to educate yourself on the 7 principles of Leave No Trace, campfire safety rules, and rock cairns. As our outdoor spaces see more visitors eager to enjoy them as well, overcrowded National Parks give us the chance to be a role model for others and practice meaningful environmental stewardship.
In addition, you should also educate yourself on specific park regulations. Know how close you are allowed to camp to water, current fire regulations, and other laws that need to be followed.
Read more about how to be an outdoor advocate for public lands
Visit Mid-Week & Hike Early or Late in the Day
Be strategic when planning your trip to an overcrowded National Park by visiting during off-peak hours and days of the week.
My favorite way to tackle crowded trails is to start very early in the morning to beat the crowds OR start late in the day after everyone is on their way back to their cars. Just make sure to bring a headlamp if you start late, in case you end up hiking after dark. By hiking in off-peak hours, I’ve had the top of Angel’s Landing all to myself (note the coffee in my hand in the photo below). Same with Clouds Rest in Yosemite. I’ll also note that hiking in the late afternoon can result in really nice lighting for your photos 🙂
Visit in the Shoulder Season
Even better is to visit our National Parks outside of peak season. A majority of National Park visits take place in the summer season when kids are out of school. If you have the flexibility to take a vacation in the shoulder season, you’ll face far fewer crowds and less competition for campsites and wilderness permits.
While some of the areas of the Parks aren’t as accessible in winter due to snow, a National Park trip can be just as beautiful in the off-season. Plus winter hiking and camping can give you some serious bragging rights.
Check out our favorite National Parks to visit in the fall
Pick Tougher Hikes
FACT: If you want to get away from the crowds, choose tougher trails. The further you hike and the higher you climb, the fewer people you will encounter.
A majority of people who visit the National Parks stick to the major lookout points and popular attractions, and won’t venture more than a mile from their car. If you want to avoid crowds, don’t Google “Best Trail in Yosemite” or “Best Things to Do in Yosemite” and expect to have those places to yourself. Instead, get a trail book and pick something rated as difficult. Plan ahead, get your permits and be rewarded with solitude.
This photo is from a backpacking trip through the Yosemite’s Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. We only crossed paths with a few other groups over the 4-day trip. The trail was physically challenging and also required a car shuttle or hitch-hiking – logistics that scare a lot of people off.
Practice Good Trail Etiquette
No matter how many people you’re surrounded by, being a polite and respectful hiker should always be a top priority in the outdoors. Sure there are some “unspoken, unwritten rules of the trail” but being nice to others and your environment should always go without saying. Don’t get us wrong here, an overcrowded National Park jam-packed with visitors can understandably annoy even the most patient hikers, so during your next trip to a park trip try to keep your cool, manage your expectations (especially if you are visiting a particularly crowded spot) and brush up on trail etiquette before you go!
Change your Perspective
Remember, if you visit an overcrowded National Park, you’re part of the problem too. Don’t just point the finger at everyone else. As outdoor enthusiasts, we are all contributing to busy Parks and trails. By following the overcrowded National Parks tips in this blog post, by practicing good etiquette, and Leaving No Trace, you can have a positive influence on other Park users and maybe even encourage others to follow suit.
Change your perspective and recognize that everybody is visiting these spots – like Old Faithful – because they are unique and worth seeing, crowds or not.