The national parks are a gem for both American visitors and international tourists. From sea to shining sea, the parks offer beautiful vistas, wonderful wildlife, and amazing adventures.
But they might also offer lots of crowds, depending on the time of year and the popularity of the park. It could be tough to enjoy nature when you’re elbow to elbow with plenty of other visitors trying to do the same thing.
Before you pack your bags, check out which parks may be overcrowded, and find out ways to take in these national treasures without the extra people and extra hassle.
Crowds at national parks
The National Park Service hosted almost 300 million visits in 2021, including monuments, historical areas, and the traditional parks. But some of the most popular parks saw an increase of more than 30% compared with 2019, when parks were either closed or had limited capacity because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
And 11 parks had more than 5 million visitors in 2021, up from only five parks reaching that milestone in 2020, according to the National Park Service.
Here’s a look at nine of the most crowded parks.
Yellowstone is known for its hot springs, geysers, unusual landscapes, and a variety of wildlife. But in the summer, it also has become known for crowds. The peak season for Yellowstone is the summer, with July and August likely to see the highest number of visitors. Crowds at the park’s major sites are as predictable as Old Faithful, so be prepared for extra people and pack some patience.
Pro tip: If you want to see Yellowstone without the crowds, pull out one of your best airline credit cards to fly to Jackson Hole in the winter. You may be able to earn additional perks for your travel to see the park’s hot springs on cold days.
Another beautiful but overcrowded park is the Grand Canyon, which had 4.5 million visitors in 2021. Peak summer season is also when the canyon can get hot, with average temperatures reaching more than 100 degrees in some parts of the canyon.
Instead, pack up your travel credit cards and head to Arizona in the spring to enjoy Grand Canyon National Park with fewer crowds and more manageable weather.
Zion National Park in Utah is one of 11 parks that saw more than 5 million visitors in 2021, which has contributed to overcrowding at some of its more popular sites.
One of the most challenging hiking trails in the United States is Angels Landing in Zion National Park. The 5.4-mile trail offers stunning views of the park, which is why it has become so popular and crowded.
Beginning in 2022, Zion National Park will require all hikers to have a permit in order to limit the number of people on the trail. So before you go, visit the park's website to find out how you enter a lottery for trail permits.
Glacier National Park in Montana has seen an increase in crowds, which has led them to implement a reservation system for vehicles in some of the more popular areas in the park.
During the busy summer months, visitors will be required to secure a spot for the Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor and the North Fork.
Maui’s highest peak is in Haleakala National Park, which also makes it one of the most popular destinations in Hawaii. Visitors specifically come to the park in the early morning to watch the sunrise while sitting on its summit — and they cause overcrowding issues.
Shenandoah National Park in Virginia has several hiking trails and points of interest that have become popular in recent years, causing issues with hikers getting stuck on trails or dealing with overcrowded areas.
Tickets are now required for Old Rag Mountain, which is a popular destination for visitors, during busier months of the year.
While Redwood National Park in California hasn’t started to charge fees when you enter the park, they are requiring reservations for some of the most popular hiking and parking areas.
Guests should book a spot online for the Tall Trees Trail up to 180 days in advance of a visit. Permits are issued for four hours (8 a.m. to 1 p.m.) and eight hours (beginning at 8 a.m.) and you must have a permit during all seasons.
Great Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers land in both Tennessee and North Carolina, offering guests spectacular views of wild animals and beautiful mountains.
But the park can also get crowded and congested during peak summer months or when visitors flock to see the trees change colors in the fall.
Acadia National Park is a great spot for adventurous visitors who want to enjoy seeing the sun rise over the Maine wilderness. But that has led to crowded conditions at the park’s famed Cadillac Summit Road.
For those who want to take on an early-morning adventure, reservations are now required during peak times in order to limit congestion.
How to beat the crowds: Book ahead
The National Park Service has reservation policies in place for some of the more popular parks, so look into what kind of reservations, if any, are required for your visit.
You also may want to take note of when reservation dates open, as more popular parks might quickly fill up before you can save your spot.
How to beat the crowds: Try off-peak seasons
Popular parks may have limited hours or accommodations during off-peak seasons, but they can also be more rewarding without the crowds. Do some research on which facilities or park entrances may be open during less popular times of the year.
You also may want to double-check the weather and be willing to handle harsher conditions, such as bundling up for cold weather at Yellowstone.
How to beat the crowds: Skip the popular parks
There are more than 400 national parks, monuments, battlefields, historical areas, and other sites managed by the National Park Service, meaning there are plenty of national parks without crowds.
You may discover a new park or enjoy a natural site by taking the path less traveled. And don’t dismiss national parks that may be close to your home. You could visit those parks throughout the year.
How to beat the crowds: Try the less-traveled path
The National Park Service consists of more than 85 million acres of land and water, so do a little research before you get your heart set on an overcrowded park. You may find there are plenty of ways to get in touch with nature while avoiding the crowds at more popular sites.
The National Park Service is a wonderful example of all the natural wonders in the United States, which is why so many visitors flock to the parks on a regular basis. But that wonder has caused many parks to become overcrowded.
So pack some patience if you decide to visit one of these parks during peak season or consider trying to find other ways to beat the crowds and spend more time on your own.
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