En español | Given the astonishing beauty and richness of the 63 U.S. national parks, it's no wonder they're so popular: They received 237 million visitors in 2020 — only a 28 percent drop from the year before, despite widespread closures and travel slowing nearly to a halt due to the pandemic. This year will likely attract many more visitors, drawn to outdoor vacations relatively close to home.
These are some of our tips for finding beautiful, less crowded spots and precious moments of solitude, even in the most popular of these wonderful destinations, based on our many years of visiting, working and living in the national parks.
1. Visit lesser-known national parks
Every national park-lover needs to visit Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon at some point, but consider visiting some of the lesser-known parks as well. One of our favorite “sleeper” parks is Petrified Forest in Arizona; here you'll find remains of a colorful prehistoric forest, some of the logs more than 100 feet long and up to 10 feet in diameter. But there's so much more: artifacts of the ancient indigenous people who lived here, including the remains of large pueblos and massive rock art panels; fossils of plants and animals from the late Triassic period (the dawn of the dinosaurs); a striking and vast painted desert (a badland cloaked in a palette of pastel colors); a wilderness of more than 50,000 acres where you can find wildness, beauty and quiet; and a remnant of historic Route 66 complete with a 1932 Studebaker! Other favorites include Guadalupe Mountains in Texas (hike to the top of the tallest mountain in the state), Channel Islands (see what California looked like before European explorers arrived) and Michigan's remote Isle Royale, where you'll find the solitude normally associated only with the national parks in Alaska.
2. Find little-known havens within a park
Most national parks are pretty big places, but visitors tend to congregate at some of the most well-known and iconic sites, leaving other areas blissfully quiet. For example, Yosemite Valley includes some of the park's most famous attractions, but the valley is a tiny fraction of the park. Visit the Hetch Hetchy area, often described as the twin of Yosemite Valley, and hike to Wapama Falls or Rancheria Falls. Or drive to the lesser-visited northwest corner of Yellowstone and walk the Bighorn Pass Trail that follows the striking Upper Gallatin River; this is a spectacular landscape and we saw only two other groups of hikers the last time we were there (in the middle of the summer!). At Rocky Mountain, avoid the popular Bear Lake Corridor area, and take the dramatic Ute Trail through the park's alpine tundra or the lovely Colorado River Trail in the park's Never Summer Range.
3. Visit in the off-seasons
Many parks accommodate the majority of their visitors in the three summer months, leaving the rest of the year relatively fallow (although these shoulder seasons are growing shorter as more people are adopting this strategy). The waterfalls of Yosemite are typically at their peak in May, when it gets 10 percent of the park's annual visits compared to 16 percent in August; fall foliage at Acadia is at its most colorful in October, when it sees 13 percent of its annual visitors, compared to 22 percent in August; and wildflowers in the Grand Canyon are usually most prolific in April (9 percent of visitors versus 13 percent in July). For even more solitude, go for the real off-season — usually winter — when many parks such as Yellowstone are quiet and beautiful, though sometimes less accessible due to snowfall.
4. Get out of your car and walk
It's the natural law of parks that the number of people you see decreases exponentially with each mile you go from the trailhead, and walking is the most intimate way to experience the parks. It allows you to appreciate the parks through so many of the senses: See the tracks of elusive mountain lions at Glacier National Park, hear the iconic call of the canyon wren as you hike through the Grand Canyon, smell the sweetness of Ponderosa pine bark warming in the sun in Yosemite, taste the salt air as you walk the Ocean Path at Acadia and feel the solid granite beneath your feet as you explore the trails of Isle Royale.
5. Use public transit when available
Traffic congestion and lack of parking plague many parks and the National Park Service is responding with public transit systems, usually shuttle buses, at popular destinations such as Zion, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Acadia and Denali. Use these (often free) transit systems to avoid the traffic and parking headaches that too many of us face in our everyday lives.
6. Rise early and/or stay late
Get to attraction sites and trailheads early in the day and consider hikes late in the day — parking spaces are more readily available at these times and you'll experience the parks at the “golden hours” when the light is at its finest — soft and rich — for viewing and photographing, and when wildlife is more likely to be seen. Experience the dawn chorus of birds, one of world's great natural phenomena, and enjoy it in relative solitude.
7. Purchase park passes and supplies before arriving
Nearly all the national parks require an entrance pass/fee. Of course, you can obtain passes at the parks you visit, but this will probably require waiting in line at the park entrance station or visitor center. You can obtain passes in advance on the National Park Service website and some parks have an express lane for visitors who already have a pass. You can also save time, and usually money, purchasing the goods and services you'll need (food, fuel, camping supplies) for your visit before you enter the park. These items are often available in the parks, but only at a few locations, and you'll probably have to wait behind other visitors to make your purchases.
Bob and Martha Manning are authors of 2020's Walks of a Lifetime in America's National Parks, which recommends and describes the very best hikes in the National Park System.