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How to beat the crowds at America’s top national parks

I should have known better than to go to Yellowstone in July, especially after so many childhood summers spent strapped to the backseat of a Volvo, searching for wildlife through the window of the car next to me, while listening to the sound of horns and other screaming children drown out the tranquility of the park. I had forgotten all this in the 10 years I had been away, but it all came back to me as I waited in a massive line for the restrooms at Old Faithful. I couldn’t help thinking, “there’s got to be a better way.” And it just so happens there is.

With more than 250 million visitors to the 388 national parks every year, it’s not surprising things may feel a little cramped. It’s possible, however, to commune with nature and still avoid traffic. It just takes a little research, some advanced planning, and flexibility. For starters, avoid popular areas during the summer high season or anytime kids are on break from school. If you must travel during school breaks, book at least six months in advance to ensure availability. Also, back roads hold a promise of solitude, and a place to rest for the evening. Plus, the shoulder seasons are not only nice times to see wildlife, they’re also perfect for last-minute trips.

To make your visit a little simpler and less stressful, here are a few tips on ways to avoid crowds, find solitude, and enjoy five of the nation’s most popular parks: Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone.

NEXT >> Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park

Located off the coast of Maine, Acadia is the fifth-smallest national park, but it is among the top 10 in popularity, receiving over two million visitors each year. The most congested months are July, August, and September. Deb Wade, Chief Interpreter of Acadia National Park, recommends visiting a little early to avoid the crowds, “By going in spring, you’ll feel like you’re the only person in the park.”

Visiting early may also make it easier to acquire campsites or book rooms in the nearby town of Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island. Visitors can find comfortable accommodations in Bar Harbor, but it’s necessary to book far in advance if planning a visit in the summer.

The park runs two easily accessible campgrounds, Blackwoods, and Seawall. Blackwoods is open year-round, and requires reservations at least five months in advance for stays May through October, for a fee of $20 per night. This is in addition to the $20 entrance fee to the park. Visiting a little earlier allows you the freedom of last-minute decisions.

Seawall is operated on a first-come, first-served basis from May through September. For those planning a stay in July and August, it’s highly recommended to get there in the morning as lines begin forming early, and sites are given away as soon as someone leaves.

There is also a rustic campground on Isle au Haut, which can be only be reached by mail boat.

To cut down on traffic, Acadia offers a free shuttle service from late June until Columbus Day. Buses will transport visitors all over Mount Desert Island, including the towns, hiking trails, carriage roads, and beaches.

Forty-five miles of old carriage roads traverse the park and offer the perfect escape for those seeking a little solitude. And since no cars are allowed, there is plenty of room for biking, jogging, and even horseback riding.

Acadia has many available activities, including fishing, swimming, biking, bird watching, and boating. Four cruises are available for passengers to see the neighboring islands. Two of the boating companies have limited spring and fall service, but visitors are much less likely to run into long lines during these seasons.

Acadia National Park is located 264 miles from Boston and 50 miles from Bangor, Maine. For further information, visit the Acadia National Park website.

NEXT >> Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

With more than nine million visitors each year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is America’s most visited park. It’s also free to enter. Five million people visit this park on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina in the summer and fall, with the busiest months, in order, being July, August, October, June, and September. The quietest time to visit is January 2 through March 15, but spring may be a little warmer and still sees fewer people than the summer.

Most summer visitors rush to Cades Cove, with its plentiful wildlife and historical buildings. Nearly two million people visit each year, and this can cause major congestion. An 11-mile trip down Loop Road one-way can take up to two to four hours.

Camping is available in Cades Cove from mid-May through October for $17 to $20 per night, but reservations must be made up to five months in advance. Out of the 10 campgrounds in the park, only three require advance reservations, including Cades Cove, Elkmont, and Smokemont. The other seven are on a first-come, first-served basis. Most visitors tend to camp on weekends while locals prefer Thursday nights. Monday through Wednesday nights are the least crowded. Holiday weekends can be extremely packed, and require a good deal of patience and prior planning.

Those who love the scenery of Cades Cove, but are frazzled by the traffic, can find solace in Cataloochee, located on the eastern side of the park off I-20, exit 40. Bob Miller, the park’s spokesman, refers to this area as “an undiscovered little gem.” With a historic district and an abundance of wildlife, the only thing the area is missing in comparison to Cades Cove is high visitation. Cataloochee also has a population of 52 elk that usually make an appearance around sunrise and sunset. Camping in Cataloochee is based on those who arrive first, and costs about $17.

The only hotel, Leconte Lodge is perched on Mount Leconte, the park’s third-highest peak, and is only accessible by foot. Weekend reservations sell out in the first week of October for the following year, but weekday reservations can still be obtained into the season. The lodge is closed from late-November through mid-March, depending on weather.

There are plenty of lodging options located outside the park in nearby Cherokee or Gatlinburg. Prices are lower midweek. Book in advance for high-season and weekend stays.

Tennessee’s nearest airport is in Alcoa, located 45 miles west of Gatlinburg. There’s also the Asheville airport 60 miles east in North Carolina. The park’s two main roads, Little River and Newfound Gap (U.S. 441) remain open year-round, except for temporary weather closures. For more information, visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website.

NEXT >> Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park

More than four million people flock to the Grand Canyon each year to stand on its rim and catch a glimpse of the Colorado River. The park is accessible by the South Rim entrance, located about 80 miles from Flagstaff, and the North Rim entrance, located along highway 67 in Northern Arizona. The North Rim is seasonal, and can sometimes close between mid-November and mid-May due to snow. Both entrances charge $20 for vehicles, and $10 for individuals on foot.

The South Rim is very popular, especially during spring, summer, and fall, with July seeing the highest visitation and temperatures. Fewer people visit in the cooler months of early spring and late fall, making it a pleasant time to go. The South Rim stays open throughout the year, but the winter sees the least amount of visitors. For those traveling during the peak summer months, Maureen Oltrogge, the Grand Canyon Public Affairs Officer, recommends that people “arrive before 9 a.m. or after 2 p.m. to avoid the lines at the gate.”

The North Rim receives only about 10 percent of the annual visitation. It sits about 1,000 feet above the South Rim, and its sweeping views mirror its leap in altitude. Fewer visitors here mean a more peaceful and relaxed visit.

Lodging is available at the North and South Rims, but advance booking is crucial when visiting during the high season. The North Rim has one campground, costing $15 to $20 per night, and is only open mid-May through mid-October. The South Rim has two campgrounds, Trailer View and Mathers, located in Grand Canyon Village. Trailer View provides RV hook-up sites, with spots costing $25 per night, while Mathers accommodates tents and RVs without hook-ups, for $18 per night. To stay somewhere a little more low-key, visit the Desert View Campground, located 26 miles from Grand Canyon Village. It’s also only open mid-May through mid-October, but operates on a first-come, first-served basis and charges $12 per site.

For the ultimate escape, an overnight backpacking adventure can provide complete solitude. A backcountry permit is necessary to trek below the rim, which must be reserved no later than four months in advance. The permit costs $10, plus $5 per person. For inspiration when planning a trip below the rim, read Josh Roberts’ article, [% 11115 | | Hiking to Havasu Falls, the Grand Canyon’s hidden jewel%].

The Grand Canyon airport receives limited service from Las Vegas. Several major airports are within driving distance of the park such as Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Flagstaff. For further information, visit the Grand Canyon National Park website.

NEXT >> Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

Located in California’s Sierra Nevadas, Yosemite National Park is known for its towering sequoias, mighty waterfalls, abundant wildlife, and noisy summer crowds. There are, however, more than 800 miles of hiking trails that offer visitors the chance to get away from the hustle and bustle in Yosemite Valley.

The winter, spring, and fall see fewer visitors and lower prices on lodging. Scott Gediman, Chief of Media Relations, says, “Fall is the best overall time. July and August are busy, but mid-September is less-crowded and you can see all of the same things.” Fall weather remains fairly warm, and the changing leaves paint the landscape in rich autumn colors.

Accommodations are also easier to obtain in the fall. For camping, it’s strongly recommended to reserve at least five months in advance for stays from April through September, and even the first-come, first-served sites tend to sell out by noon, so get there early. Sites cost $18, in addition to the seven-day entrance fee of $20 per vehicle and $10 for those on foot. Lodging prices are lower in the spring and fall, and bottom out in the winter.

With lower visitation and prices in the winter, Yosemite can be a wonderland of adventure and beauty. Plenty of activities such as cross-country and downhill skiing, as well as snowshoeing can make it the perfect time to go. Often, you’ll have the trails all to yourself.

Hiking in the summer can also provide an escape. For instance, Gediman states that “so many people come to Yosemite Valley. Any hiking trail outside the valley makes it really easy to get away from people.”

Visitors can also find peace by avoiding the more popular destinations like Yosemite Valley altogether. Hetch Hetchy Valley, a smaller version of Yosemite Valley, offers outstanding scenery, and is the starting point for many lesser-known trails.

Since it’s open 365 days a year, barring temporary road closures due to weather, visitors can explore all four seasons of the park. For advice on which season might fit your traveling mood, read Christine Sarkis’ article, [% 1149332 | | Yosemite’s best (and worst) in every season %].

Yosemite is about a five-hour drive from the Bay area. For further information, visit the Yosemite National Park website.

NEXT >> Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Sprawling over western Wyoming, and covering the southern tip of Montana and a sliver of eastern Idaho, Yellowstone has been wowing onlookers for centuries with its abundant wildlife and spectacular geothermal activity. But, with almost three million people visiting every year, traffic jams and camera-toting tourists may be the most common sight of all in the summer. However, there are alternatives. Susan Garland, a Parks Legislative Specialist, says that visiting in the “spring and fall in the north and south are the best times to go.”

June through August are the busiest months, as families are on summer vacation. Visiting in May, September, or October may help to avoid the congestion. Weekdays can also provide greater access to popular sites such as Old Faithful, the Fishing Bridge, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Norris Geyser Basin.

Not only is it a lot easier to find lodging on short notice in the spring and fall, but hotel prices drop significantly. Xanterra Resorts handles all the bookings for lodges within the park. Book several months in advance to ensure availability, especially during July and August. There are 12 campgrounds in Yellowstone, with sites ranging from $12 to $34 per night. They all operate roughly May through October, except for Mammoth Campground, which is open year-round. Seven of the 12 sites run on a first-come, first-served basis, so it is important to arrive early to grab a spot. Early-booking is also wise for reserved camping.

With more than 1,100 miles of trails, day hikes are a peaceful way to explore the park without waiting in line. A backcountry permit is required for those looking to hike or camp off the beaten path. Although you must obtain your $20 permit in person within 48 hours of departing on your hike, reservations for campsites may be made in advance. Before setting off on an adventure, however, it’s important to keep certain safety tips in mind, especially when encountering wildlife. Speak to a park ranger at one of the many visitor centers about where to go and what precautions are necessary.

Although many of the roads into the park may close for the winter, plenty of activities are still available such as snowmobiling, snow coach riding, cross-country skiing, and ranger-led tours.

The entrance fee to the park is $20 for vehicles, $15 for snowmobiles or motorcycles, and $10 for those on foot. Yellowstone can be entered from all four sides at any of the five entrances. Depending on what direction you’re coming from, the closest major airports are West Yellowstone, Montana; Bozeman, Montana; and Idaho Falls, Idaho. For further information, visit the Yellowstone National Park website.

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