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National Parks Are Crowded, but You Can Still Enjoy a Visit

Smart planning and flexibility are key during these busy months

Visitors crowd the boardwalk as Grand Geyser erupts in Yellowstone National Park

Paul Christian Gordon / Alamy Stock Photo

En español | With so many health-related concerns about travel during the coronavirus pandemic, one of the most popular choices has been the great outdoors, and that is expected to continue through fall and into 2022. That means big crowds. To avoid them, you may want to forgo that trip to the über popular Great Smoky Mountains or the Grand Canyon and instead explore some of the less crowded of the 63.

Zion National Park had nearly 600,000 visitors in July, its third busiest July on record. Even remote Big Bend National Park in Texas is reporting more visitors than is typical for summer. (Its busiest times are usually February through April). And that's despite the fact that both parks have had particularly scorching weather this season.

Smoky Mountains has set visitation records every month this year through June (numbers aren't yet available for July), with about 1.67 million visitors in June. For comparison, it had around 1.47 in June 2019, pre-pandemic.

To manage this crush, many parks across the country have instituted entry limits. Some are requiring reservations just to enter: Yosemite until Sept. 30, and Rocky Mountains until Oct. 11. Glacier National Park's passes for driving the famed Going to the Sun Road sold out in minutes for the entire month of June. (You'll need a pass to drive the road up until Sept. 6).

Despite this surge in demand, travelers can still find ways to enjoy the nature, the beauty and, yes, even the solitude of national parks. Read on for some keys to making your experience a good one.

Research your destination thoroughly

The first essential for planning a national park visit during the pandemic is to check early and often about park access, regulations and services. Due to COVID-19 health measures and the anticipated surge in visitors, certain park areas and services, like shuttles, may be limited, reservations only, or closed altogether.

"I've been visiting and covering parks for 25 years, and planning for this summer is definitely going to be a challenge,” says Candy Harrington, author of National Park Lodges for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. “The parks all have their own rules, and it's been a zoo trying to keep track of them all.”

Fortunately, the parks update their regulations online frequently, so information is available. But “just be sure to check again a few days before arrival to make sure there are no procedural changes,” cautions Candy Harrington, author of National Park Lodges for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. The parks-affiliated website Recreation.gov is another good resource to research the latest park requirements and to make reservations.

Using the reservation systems for access, lodging, camping and wilderness permits is a must. Scott Gediman, Yosemite's public affairs officer, warns that “even if you have a senior pass, you'll be denied entry here without a reservation.” Some parks are requiring advance reservations for certain areas or times, as noted above. The good news is that with the reservations systems, crowding is reduced.


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Be flexible

Flexibility is important for making the most out of a park visit. Heading a little off the beaten track or trying out a different style of lodging will not only make your trip more enjoyable, it also may be the only possible way to do it.

With park accommodations tight, it's worth looking into the many campgrounds, hotels and private lodging options located just outside many park boundaries. This may also be the year to explore one of America's less-visited national parks, such as Isle Royale in Michigan and Congaree in South Carolina. Matt Berna, Intrepid Travel's North America managing director, recommends Kenai Fjords National Park, one of eight in Alaska.

Flexibility in timing is also key: Midweek is far quieter than weekends, and going off-season will get you lots of elbow room and unique experiences in many parks (snowshoeing in Yellowstone, for instance).

For hiking to popular destinations, early risers will have an advantage. Jason Frye, author of the Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park guidebook, advises people to “plan to arrive at the popular trailheads by sunup or a little after” and to “be on the trail by 8 a.m. at the latest.” This summer, Utah's Arches National Park began closing its entry gates for up to five hours daily once the parking lots filled (often before 9 a.m.).

But even at peak times, at a busy park like Great Smoky Mountains, Frye says, “It's still easy to find places of solitude. I find myself hiking to the less-visited waterfalls or pushing an extra mile down the trail to find a quiet spot.”

Book as far in advance as possible

Depending on the popularity of the park you're visiting, now may not be the time for a spur-of-the-moment trip. Betsy O'Rourke, chief marketing officer for the Xanterra Travel Collection, which manages properties in five parks, says: “Pent-up demand is real…. Those who are in ‘wait and see’ mode will likely find themselves out of luck."

For people looking for help planning, organized tours can be a great option. Yosemite is allowing charter bus visits for the first time since 2019.

Tour company G Adventures introduced a new collection of national park trips in which “demand has definitely been high,” says Samantha Couture, its director of product for North America.

"We think the security of having a guide and preplanned itinerary, where travelers don't need to worry about obtaining permits or dealing with transport, make these trips super appealing at the moment,” she says.

And Road Scholar has 48 trips to national parks scheduled for fall. Chris Heppner, the nonprofit's director of communications, says many are already sold out — especially those featuring iconic parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone.

Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer with credits in dozens of publications including National Geographic, Lonely Planet, Outside Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on May 26. It's been updated to reflect new developments. 

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