In the summer of 2021, travelers who chose to visit a national park probably wondered if the rest of the country decided to arrive around the same time, with many parks jammed to the brim. The result at a number of parks has been overcrowded parking lots, long lines for food service and, in some, a “full” sign at the entrance.
Yellowstone for the first time surpassed 4 million visitors in 2021, a milestone reached in mid-September. Other well-known parks set visitor records as a coronavirus-weary population sought relief in US national parks. Overcrowding has been compounded in many parks by staff shortages.
Depending on the severity of the virus over the coming spring and summer, park attendance in 2022 may match or exceed that of 2021. Planning a trip to a national park has always been important, but this year introduces more uncertainty. Here are some ideas that can help you with your planning.
1. If possible, visit the park out of season. The majority of national parks have a high percentage of visitors during three or four summer months. Although Yosemite National Park in California is open year-round, just under half of visitors arrive during the four months of June through September. Acadia, a popular national park in Maine, sees 62% of annual visits from July to September. Because summer is peak season for many national parks, spring and fall can be ideal times to visit and avoid the biggest crowds. Another advantage is that accommodation in the park is easier to book with sometimes reduced rates.
2. Choose one or more of the less popular parks. Many travelers place a high priority on visiting the more well-known parks, including Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Great Smoky Mountains, and Zion. The National Park Service administers 423 sites, 63 of which are classified as national parks. Each is a special place and worth a visit. Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada is a large scenic park that saw 132,000 visits in 2019, compared to 2.5 million visits to Zion National Park. We are using 2019 here because attendance at most parks was negatively impacted in 2020 by COVID. Big Bend National Park in southern Texas saw 460,000 visits in 2019, about a tenth of Yosemite’s visitors in the same year. Busier doesn’t necessarily mean better.
3. Try to book accommodation inside rather than outside a park. The best time to explore most parks is early morning before day visitors arrive and late afternoon when most visitors have hit the road. The experience of watching a sunrise at Grand Canyon National Park is stunning, in part because so much of the rim is deserted. Similarly, the best time to walk around Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin is after an evening meal.
If you want to stay at a lodge inside the park, try to get a reservation as soon as possible. Like now. But first do a little research on the different types of accommodation available to you. Some parks have several pavilions. Yosemite offers accommodations in Yosemite Valley near the South Entrance and in the high country along Tioga Road. Yellowstone has nine lodges scattered throughout the park. Grand Canyon National Park has several accommodations on the South Rim and a lodge on the North Rim. Glacier National Park offers several lodges on both sides of the park. Park accommodation sometimes includes cheaper rooms that require occupants to use a shared bathroom. Book directly with each park’s concessionaire, not a travel agency that may charge fees for its services and employ agents with little knowledge of national park lodges.
4. Look for a park’s website when planning your trip and keep checking for updates before departure. Park websites typically include important alerts such as road and facility closures. They also offer updates on restrictions due to coronavirus. In the 2021 season, Glacier National Park began requiring reservations to drive the Going to the Sun route, one of the park’s most popular activities. Several national parks, including Arches, have begun restricting the number of vehicles allowed in the park at any one time. Websites for each national park unit can be accessed at www.nps.gov.
5. Make the park visitor center your first stop. Check out scheduled activities, including ranger-guided walks and interpretive programs, most of which are free and almost always enjoyable and educational. Visitor centers usually offer a video that introduces visitors to the history, geology, or other important aspect of the park. Ask a ranger how to get the most out of your time in the park.
6. Don’t overdo it and try to include too many parks in one trip. We spoke with people planning to visit Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton in just over a week. This is madness. Yellowstone and Grand Teton, maybe, but adding Glacier to the trip is a mistake. Glacier itself is worth at least a week. Don’t ruin your national park vacation by spending most of the time driving from park to park.
7. If you are driving a significant distance to a destination park such as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, check to see if other National Park Service units are located along the way. Devils Tower National Monument and Badlands National Park are not far away for many Easterners traveling to Yellowstone. The colorful Cedar Breaks National Monument is convenient for visitors to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and the Grand Canyon North Rim.
Whichever national park you choose to visit, planning ahead is key to having the best experience possible. And don’t forget to thank the people who had the foresight to save these wonderful places for you and for the rest of us.
David and Kay Scott are the authors of the “Complete Guide to National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). The Scotts live in Valdosta, Georgia.