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Avoiding the Popular Spots During Peak Hours

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Avoiding the Popular Spots During Peak Hours

The area around Old Faithful in the Upper Geyser Basin is one of the most crowded areas of Yellowstone National Park. Courtesy of the National Park Service

Each of the five parks has a core area that attracts large groups of people. At Yellowstone NP, it's the Grand Loop Road; at Olympic NP, it's Hoh Rain Forest and Hurricane Ridge; at Great Smoky Mountains NP, Cades Cove is the most popular destination; at Grand Canyon NP, it's the South Rim; and at Yosemite NP, almost the entire concentration of people can be found in Yosemite Valley. All the guides I spoke to noted that that in order to visit these popular areas in the parks, time of day was a crucial element in avoiding the crowds and enjoying some side benefits as well.

At Olympic's Hurricane Ridge, the best time of day to visit is before 10am or after 5pm, when you'll find less glare, more interesting shadows and mountain colors, and more visible wildlife. And keep in mind that during the longest days of the summer, evening sunsets at Olympic NP are not until around 9:00-9:30pm. An early morning trip to Yosemite Valley will afford a spectacular view of light on the waterfalls and on mountain cliffs. At Grand Canyon, hiking early in the morning or late in the afternoon will not only help you to miss the worst of the crowds, but will give you a better opportunity for viewing and photographing the canyon, since the mid-day sun tends to flatten the view and soften the colors.

Don't be a Windshield Visitor

One of the messages to visitors that I heard over and over again was simply this: "get out of your car." Most of the more than 9 million people who visit Great Smoky Mountains NP don't follow this advice. At the Grand Canyon, with no road signs to suggest the best place for a canyon view, the biggest trap for the day visitor is the need to see all the views, and as a result people spend all day getting in and out of their cars.

Suggested areas to visit:

Yellowstone - If you want to avoid crowds, visit some of the backcountry areas. There are more than 300 backcountry campsites, including some along shoreline of Yellowstone Lake, and there are almost two million acres of backcountry wilderness upon which less than 5% of Yellowstone's visitors ever set foot. Getting away from the crowds is as simple as taking a hike.

Olympic - Instead of visiting the popular Hoh Rain Forest, visit the valleys of Quinault or Queets, where you'll also find old growth rain forest. At Queets, the three-mile Sams River Loop Trail passes both the Queets and Sams Rivers as well as through meadows, where elk are often seen early in the morning or late in the evening.

Great Smoky Mountains - Visit some of the outlying areas including Cosby in the northeast corner of the park, where you'll find a campground, trails, and interpretive programs. In the North Carolina section of the park, Cataloochee is similar in many respects to the much more popular Cades Cove. An isolated valley, Cataloochee offers great views of the surrounding mountains, and also includes a number of historic structures and a primitive campground.

Yosemite - Spend time in the Wawona District, a 45-minute drive from Yosemite Valley. Tuolumne Meadows on the east side of the park is also recommended. Surrounded by majestic peaks and domes, this sub-alpine meadow includes picnic areas and miles of hiking trails. Another good place to escape the crowds is at Hetch Hetchy Valley, located 40 miles from the Yosemite Valley. The area surrounding the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is home to spectacular scenery and is the starting point for many of the less-used backcountry trails in the park.

Grand Canyon - Visit the North Rim area of the park, which only gets about 10% of the number of visitors as the South Rim. If you're at the South Rim, take the South Kaibab Trailhead to Cedar Ridge and back. At the North Rim, get a permit at the backcountry office and take a drive along the dirt road to Saddle Mountain in the Kaibab National Forest or to the tiny outpost of Tuweep.

To sum it all up, the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Olympic, Yellowstone, and Yosemite are all large parks which offer plenty of opportunities to get away from the crowds, even during the summer months. The key is to get to the park early in the day, visit the popular spots during off-peak hours, and then spend the rest of your time enjoying hiking, picnicking, recreating, and camping in backcountry areas and other out of the way places. Order trip planners and other information from the parks and plan your visitation strategy in advance of your trip as much as possible. When you get to the park, ask an interpretive ranger for suggestions on how to get away from crowds, and he/she will have other suggestions to make. If you try to follow at least some of this advice, you'll definitely improve your chances of having an enjoyable and memorable experience at these magnificent parks.

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