Sunday, November 30, 2014

What are best times to visit national parks?

To avoid crowds at national parks, visit just before or after the high season.
Though national parks are open all year, some months, days and hours are better than others for visiting. By avoiding times when parks are crowded, you’ll enjoy unobstructed views of sites and have an easier time driving around and parking.

The first consideration is the time of the year for visiting. Generally, you want to avoid the high season, or the weeks when a park draws more people in a single day than most major league sporting events.

The high season typically is summer, running from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekends; those three-day weekends as well as when the Fourth of July falls on a Friday or Monday, usually draw the largest crowds in a year. In hot desert areas, the high season shifts slightly, as Death Valley and Arches national parks pull more people in late spring and early autumn when temperatures are pleasant.

The ideal time to visit is the off-season just before high season begins or just after it ends. This can be difficult as usually high season coincides with when children are on school vacation.

Also think about the day of the week you will visit. You usually can avoid crowds by visiting weekdays, especially Monday through Thursday, when attendance dips. On three-day holiday weekends, sometimes the adjoining Thursday or Tuesday can see an uptick as well.

The time of day also plays a role. The earlier in the morning you can get to a national park, at least the less congested it will be on roadways and at popular sites.

Of course, visiting during the off-season and on weekdays comes with trade-offs. The weather may be cold or extremely hot; sometimes ranger-led park programs are nil on weekdays, especially in the off-season. In addition, access to some parks can be limited depending on the season. Yellowstone, for example, closes some of its entrances during winter as snowfall at the high elevations makes roads impassable. Other parks, such as Crater Lake, can’t be reached at all during the off-season because of heavy snow.

Another possibility for avoiding crowds is to visit national parks that see low attendance overall. Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Cuyahoga national parks typically boast the highest attendance so definitely will be crowded during the high seasons. Great Basin (in Nevada) and Theodore Roosevelt (in North Dakota) national parks, however, are easy to reach but see few visitors compared to those in California, Arizona and Utah.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.