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Experts Reveal How To Avoid the Growing Crowds at National Parks

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Posted at 12:49 PM, Jul 06, 2024

Americans love their National Parks, but do the parks love them back? In 2023, the National Parks had more than 92 million recreational visitors but racked up more than 22 billion dollars of deferred maintenance and encountered massive overcrowding issues.

Some mitigation plans call for visitation of lesser-known parks, which works well for robust, experienced hikers who are largely self-sufficient. Older visitors and families with children rely more heavily on the rangers, roads, facilities, and other park infrastructure during their visit.

Moreover, the busiest 12 parks receive 59% of the total recreational visitors of the 63 park system. The combination of natural beauty and accessibility makes these Diamond Dozen parks so popular, but what if there was a way to have your proverbial cake and eat it, too?

A Deeper Look at Glacier National Park

As Glacier National Park snags a spot on the most visited National Parks Diamond Dozen list, Dan Hansen, manager of Pursuit’s Glacier Park Collection, has some innovative recommendations.

“Naturally, we see plenty of visitors who want to come experience Glacier National Park in the peak of summer because the weather is spectacular and the days are long. What most people don’t realize is that they can have an even more amazing time with fewer people around in May, June and September. Fewer people means less crowded trails, less waiting at restaurants, and a much easier time scoring reservations at your lodging property of choice.”

Visiting Glacier during the spring shoulder season is an uncompromising solution to overcrowding. Guests can raft the Flathead River’s optimal water flow, enjoy wildlife viewing opportunities, observe the intact snow fields, and bike the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road car-free.

Winter’s excessive snowfall closes the hard-to-reach Going-to-the-Sun Road to vehicle traffic. Plows don’t clear the road until April; they reach the Avalanche Campground and Parking Area around Mother’s Day and start plowing the 16 miles up to Logan Pass.

It takes time to clear 3,200 vertical feet of roadway and ensure it’s suitable for vehicle travel, so the road is only open to hikers and bikers from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day. However, many tour companies offer eager visitors shuttles and eBikes.

Shoulder Season Visits at the Most Popular National Parks

Every park in the Diamond Dozen offers unique shoulder-season experiences that often surpass their peak-season offerings. To see the off-peak perks, you need not look further than the four most visited National Parks in America: Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Zion, and Yellowstone.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline separating eastern Tennessee from western North Carolina. It receives the most visitors for summer hiking and fall colors, but spring visitors can see the park’s abundant waterfalls at their highest flow and observe baby animals emerging around Cades Cove Loop.

The Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon over thousands of years. The top canyon rim is relatively cool, with an elevation of 7,000 to 8,000 feet, but the canyon’s temperatures are 15°F to 30°F higher. Spring is the best time to venture below the rim, as visitors skip the summer heat and water returns to the Bright Angel Trail rest stop.

Like the Grand Canyon, the Virgin River carved Zion Canyon through layers of limestone. The exposed towering red cliffs reveal 150 million years of geologic history. Ardent adventurers can explore hundreds of slot canyons, like the Narrows and Subway. These become extremely dangerous during flash floods; only a few inches of water falling miles away rapidly raises water levels by 12 feet or more. The most stable time to plan a canyoneering trip to Zion is after the summer monsoons end in September and before the autumn chill arrives.

Yellowstone is known for volcanic activity and watchable wildlife along the 142-mile-long Grand Loop drive. The Yellowstone Caldera creates more than 10,000 mud pots, hot springs, fumaroles, and the world’s largest concentration of active geysers. Old Faithful erupts every 35–120 minutes, regardless of the weather. However, the Grand Loop comes alive every spring with baby animals, especially during the buffalo calving season in late April and May.

What Makes Shoulder Season Visits Special

Shoulder season visits to National Parks ease crowding while providing similar, often superior, experiences. They utilize existing infrastructure within the park without further straining budgets or impacting pristine areas. Shoulder season visits also provide extended operating seasons for private companies supporting park visitation, including guides and servers who are notoriously vulnerable as they shift between summer and winter operations.

Those frustrated with National Parks’ summer crowds should consider returning during the shoulder season. Ask your guide or ranger about their shoulder season experiences and apply their insider information to future visits.

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