How to avoid national park crowds this summer

A record 330 million people visited a U.S. National Park in 2016, and while it’s great news that people want to explore the outdoors, it means that hiking trails and scenic drives are likely to reach capacity this year-- especially during the peak summer months.

If you're planning a trip to one of America's national parks, here are five tips to help you make the most of your visit and even enjoy some measure of solitude during your vacation.

1. Explore the Backcountry

One of the best ways to see a national park is via the backcountry, portions of parks outside the range of the main visitor center, but still offer hiking trails and unspoiled scenery.

“Investing a little bit of time and sweat equity researching and exploring the little-known ‘secret’ places of our National Parks pays huge dividends,” says Janice Holly Booth, author of “Only Pack What You Can Carry (National Geographic, 2011)”.

“Fewer people means less noise, and when it's quiet, you're more likely to see wildlife, notice the subtle nuances of the landscape and hear all the sounds of nature around you.”

Exploring the Cliff Springs Trail at Grand Canyon National Park.

Exploring the Cliff Springs Trail at Grand Canyon National Park. (NPS photo by Michael Quinn)

Camping can be a great option, since it allows visitors to be in the park during the least busy hours of evening and early morning. You can also enjoy amazing sunrises and sunsets. But, camping in the parks is also on the rise and usually requires a permit, so you’ll need to plan far ahead, booking as soon as permits become available.

You can also choose to go “glamping” with a company like Under Canvas, which has options at Yellowstone, Zion, Moab (Arches and Canyonlands parks in Utah), Glacier and Grand Canyon National Parks.

2. Go Early and During the Week

To truly beat the crowds, it’s best to arrive literally at the crack of dawn. In most parks, arriving with the sun assures you’ll have at least a few hours to yourself before hiking trails and parking lots fill up.

Kyle Patterson, public information officer for Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the fourth most popular U.S. national park, recommends arriving before 9 a.m. but explains that sometimes even that is not early enough. The parking lots for some of the most popular hikes, such as Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge, can fill by 8:30 a.m. or even as early as 6 a.m.

In Utah's Zion National Park, the main parking lot tends to reach capacity by 10 a.m. After that time, park visitors will need to leave their car in the nearby town of Springdale and ride a shuttle into the park.

Patterson also says that weekdays tend to be the least busy times in the park, so planning trips to avoid weekends can help with crowd control.

3. Avoid the Busiest Trails and Park Entrances

Sometimes you can skip the majority of the crowds by entering through a less-busy side of the park-- not the entrance that houses the main visitor center. At Rocky Mountain National Park, more than 80 percent of park visitors arrive through the east entrances, according to Patterson.

Visiting the park from the west side and using the town of Grand Lake as your home base, versus the busier and more well-known Estes Park (where about 80 percent of visitors enter) on the east side, may save you some precious park time.

Many of the parks also have iconic hikes that everyone wants to cross off their bucket list. Examples include Angel’s Landing and The Narrows in Zion, Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Highline Loop in Glacier. Steer clear of these, and opt for backcountry hikes -- or even lesser known hikes accessible from the main entrance -- that offer the same scenery without constantly stopping to let someone pass.

4. Travel With a Tour Company

Traveling with a tour company is another way to see portions of the parks unknown to most of the public, as well as stay in the historic park lodges that are often booked years in advance.

Dan Austin of Austin Adventures, an adventure tour company that specializes in National Park trips, says they can also help visitors avoid the masses, because they know where the crowds aren’t, as well as the best times to be there. Plus, they throw in some fun surprises like fresh made ice cream and fruit parfaits served along the hiking trail.

5. Visit State Parks

The true secret to enjoying national park scenery with almost no crowds is to head to a state park near the national park. The state parks offer much of the same scenery but usually have far fewer visitors.

In Utah, for example, you can explore the state’s beautiful red rocks found at Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park at nearby state parks like Kodachrome Basin, which also has fantastic views of Bryce Canyon. Another undiscovered gem in Utah is Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, an area the size of Delaware that was the last portion of the lower 48 states to be mapped. Plan to navigate dirt roads but be rewarded with truly remote hiking trails deep in the wilderness with gorges, slot canyons and rivers galore -- all without ever passing another person.

Visit Utah's public relations manager Emily Moench says,"The spectacular scenery of Utah's Mighty 5 doesn't end at the national park boundaries, it extends to the surrounding areas like the state parks, which are particularly great way to experience red rock country without the crowds."