Clearly, the best strategy to avoid dealing with the overcrowding at the most popular national parks is to stay away during the summer months. This story is for all those people who, for one reason or another, have no choice but to travel during the summer, and are determined to visit the most popular national parks. The five most visited of the national parks are: Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Olympic, and Yellowstone. In 2006, the total visitation at these these five parks was nearly 22.4 million people. I contacted park rangers, interpreters, and guides at each of the five parks and asked them to offer some tips for the summer visitor on how to avoid the crowds as much as possible. Here's what they had to say.
When to VisitTo begin with, there was general agreement on the point that people would fare better visiting these five parks in June -- especially during the first two weeks of June -- than they would in July or August, which is the busiest part of the summer season. Two of the rangers offered a footnote about the June visit. "If you visit Olympic National Park in June, you'll find the weather to be "less dependable." (Editor's note: I think "less dependable" really means "more rainy," since August and September are considered drier months.) At Grand Canyon NP, I was told that an August visit (during monsoon season) affords the visitor with dramatic vistas of storms and occasional flash floods, and the extra clouds create an array of shadows that make for better photographs.
There was also general consensus that all five parks tend to experience much heavier visitation over the three holiday weekends -- Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day -- than they do on regular weekends. Interestingly enough, last year's press coverage of the anticipated holiday crowds kept many people away from Yosemite NP during a holiday weekend, and so it didn't turn out to be that crowded after all, but this is hardly a situation that you should count on repeating itself.
When I posed the question of weekday versus weekend visitation, there were some differences noted among the five parks. A park like Yellowstone, which is located away from major population centers, doesn't experience that much of a difference between weekday and weekend visitation, whereas a park like Great Smoky Mountains experiences heavier weekend use, since it is located only 550 miles from one-third of the American population. Olympic National Park also tends to experience heavier weekend traffic, since much of its visitor base comes from Seattle, Tacoma, and the Puget Sound area. An interesting fact brought to my attention was that the visitation at Olympic is very weather driven. If the weekend forecast for Seattle is bad, the park is considerably less busy, despite the fact that it might rain in Seattle, but turn out to be sunny at the park.