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For decades, one of the great American summer pastimes has been visiting national parks. The appetite to visit places like Yellowstone, Glacier, Zion, Acadia, and more than 400 other national parks only got stronger in recent years, and there doesn’t appear to be any end to our desire to see them.
There are right ways and wrong ways to visit national parks, whether you are doing it as a summer vacation or going during a different time of year. Here are a few tips based on years of experience visiting the parks:
Try to Avoid Peak Days and Hours
The more popular national parks can get really full, especially during peak hours on summer days. The last thing you want is to go to one of the most beautiful places in the USA, only to sit in traffic on a two-lane road.
We get it, sometimes summer vacation limits your trip to a time when thousands of others are doing the same thing, but you can still try to be a little smarter than the crowds.
Research the peak times for each park. Perhaps the best way to do this is to call or email the park directly, as the local park rangers are happy to help balance the flow of visitors they see. You can also look at online reviews, and make note of when visitors indicated problems with crowds.
Generally speaking, early mornings are a good time to visit the popular parks. More popular sites within the park might be best visited first thing in the morning, or later in the early evening. And if your calendar allows you to visit after Labor Day, the crowds will really drop.
Visiting a national park is most fun if you packed correctly for the visit. This means having plenty of cold weather gear if you are going to a Northern park in fall, or having lots of water gear along if you are headed to a park that focuses on lakes or beaches. You just want to be able to experience all of what the particular park has to offer.
Assuming you are driving, getting a roof top cargo carrier can be a gamechanger in terms of freeing up space inside the car. We like the Yakima Skybox, but there are several others that will do the job. Your vehicle just needs to have roof racks, but they can be easily added.
Hitched-based racks with a cargo bin can also serve the purpose of freeing-up space inside the vehicle.
Finally, think long and hard about if you want to camp or stay in a hotel. Camping requires significantly more gear, which will take up lots of space. Sometimes, staying in a hotel is worth it just for all the gear that you won’t have to pack.
What About the Dog?
Dogs are indeed allowed in national parks, but there are limitations on where they can go. If you plan to bring your pup, as many want to, be sure that you can have the dog in the places where you intend to go. Some parks restrict the trails that dogs can be on, and many parks limit dogs from being in some common areas. It is best to research the park first and be sure that your itinerary is conducive to bringing your dog along.
Consider the Underrated Parks
If you want to avoid crowds and get a little away from it all, there is a tier of park that doesn’t get visited as often but can still be an incredible experience. For example, Canyonlands in Utah gets a fraction of the visitors of its more popular park neighbors Zion and Bryce, but it is still an incredible place to see. Likewise, many national parks in the Southeast don’t get as many visitors, but they are national parks for good reason.
Link Parks Together
Many national parks are situated within a 3-4 hour drive of each other. Zion and Bryce, Yellowstone and Teton, Mt. Rainier and Olympic. Linking a couple parks together is a great way to experience incredible sights in one trip, and to check multiple parks off your list if that is something you do.
PIck your Entry Point
Many parks have a number of different ways to enter, and each one has access to different sights and has very different crowd situations. Do a little research before you go to be sure you are using the smartest entry point.
Many people tend to flock to the main visitor center, which in some cases is just fine. However, at some parks, you can avoid the visitor center and go more directly to the trails or areas you want to visit, and there is a good chance that parking and crowds will be less.
It is also important to research entry points for access reasons, too. In some of the Northern parks like Denali, Yellowstone, or Glacier, certain access roads are closed during winter, meaning an entry point is off-limits for many months of the year.
Regardless of which you choose to visit, the USA’s National Parks are national treasures and you won’t regret the visit. Just be sure to do a little planning to make the most of the experience.