While spending several days exploring Greater Zion, I wanted to share my 5 tips to visiting popular national parks and avoiding crowds. Zion Canyon is the most popular area in Zion National Park. The majority of visitors only go there. But there’s so much more to see and that’s the case with other popular national parks. Here’s what you need to know before you go if you’re planning a summer road trip to a popular national park.
TIP 1: Plan Ahead, Reservations Required in Advance
Start planning your trip by visiting the website of the national park you’re going to. It’s your go-to spot for information including any alerts that are in effect such as trail closures. For popular parks like Zion, Rocky Mountain and Yosemite, reservations are required in advance. Each timed entry reservation is a little different. In Zion, you need a reservation for the shuttle in Zion Canyon. You don’t need one for the rest of the park. In Rocky Mountain National Park, there’s a two-entry reservation system. If you want to visit the Bear Lake Corridor including Moraine Park, you need a specific reservation for that area. For the rest of the park a timed entry reservation is required 9a-3p daily starting Memorial Weekend. In Yosemite, your timed entry reservation is good for three days. Two parks are using a vehicle registration reservation system this summer. In Glacier National Park you need a timed entry reservation for Going-to-the-Sun Road. Acadia National Park has a timed entry reservation system sunrise on Cadillac Mountain. Each park offers advanced tickets differently. For example, at Zion National Park, tickets are release twice a month at 9 a.m. and if there are any unreserved slots, last minute tickets are released at 5 p.m. the day before. You have to make reservation in advance on recreation.gov. This is also where you go for campsite reservations and any ranger-led activities such as walks, talks and educational programs that may require reservations. If you miss out on reservations, private shuttles and guided adventures are ways you can get into parks without making your own timed entry reservation.
TIP 2: Book Unique Stays and Excursions in Advance
If you snooze, you lose on accommodations from luxury resorts to glamping accommodations to even campsites. Book lodging, excursions and even dinners ahead of time. Glamping and RVing are super-hot again this summer. Sites like ReserveAmerica.com can help you get a campsite or even an RV rental. Double check cancellation policies just in case your plans change. For last minute accommodations, I use Booking.com, Airbnb, and Hotel Tonight apps. Campnab.com and YesYouCamp.com are great sites to snag a site at sold-out campgrounds. Adventure guide companies are booking a month or more in advance. I went on a sunset ATVing tour with Mad Moose Rentals at Sand Hollow Resort and loved every second of my guided adventure. Book early for unique adventure experiences. If you’re staying at a resort, take advantage of the activities they offer. At Red Mountain Resort, I spend some time wandering along hiking trails, walking the labyrinth and taking a wellness MELT class.
TIP 3: Trade Popular Park Places for Lesser-Known Gems
If you go where the crowds don’t go that means less waiting in line and more time enjoying nature. In Zion National Park, the Narrows and Angels Landing in Zion Canyon are extremely popular. Trade Zion Canyon for Kolob Canyons or Kolob Terrace. Both areas offer scenic drives and miles of trails with far less people on them than the trails in Zion Canyon. Do your research with a guidebook, on the national park’s website or even call or email the national park you’re going to and ask questions. When I go to a national park for the first time, I always ask rangers for their favorite hikes, scenic spots and lesser-known gems. While visiting Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park in April, I used the new National Park Service app for the first time and loved it. I also used it in Bryce and Zion National Parks this month. You can save the guide for the national park you’re going to for offline use. It’s a wonderful tool filled with a wealth of information. It’s worth the download and saving parks for offline use before you enter a park.
TIP 4: Timing is Everything
July and August are the busiest months for popular national parks. Summer and early fall weekends are busiest. If you can visit mid-week, you’ll have less crowds in summer as Tuesday through Thursday is less busy than Friday through Monday. I also suggest either getting up early or enjoying the park in late afternoon or early evening. The early bird gets the worm for parking spots, plus beat the heat and crowds. You can also be a sunset chaser as park crowds dwindle in the evenings. Dawn and dusk are magical times in national parks.
TIP 5: Take Your Turn in the Park Then Explore the Region
State parks, national forests and other federal lands are next to or near popular parks. These are often mountain biking meccas, off-roading havens and lesser hiked trails. Adrenaline junkies can do activities like rock climbing, canyoneering and ATVing. Soft adventure enthusiasts can enjoy activities like kayaking, paddleboarding, or hiking. While in Greater Zion, I went kayaking at Quail Creek State Park, enjoyed a walk along part of the 32 acres of beach at Sand Hollow State Park and got a great geology lesson at Snow Canyon State Park as I wandered across lava flow fields and petrified dunes. I also visited Grafton Ghost Town for a history lesson and did a late day hike in Water Canyon, a remote and lesser visited canyon in the region.
A Couple of Extras:
Don’t Overpack Your Itinerary: Leave some open space in your schedule to explore something you find out about during your trip. Ask locals for their favorites.
Three things I have in my car: Extra water and snacks, flip flops or sandals, and a towel or wipes.
Be a good visitor: Visit with respect, especially any archeological sites like petroglyphs. Leave no trace. Pack in and pack out. Whatever goes into a national park with you, needs to go out too.
Author Jennifer Broome is on a quest to visit all 423 national park sites. She has visited 30 of the 63 national parks, including multiple visits to popular parks like Zion, Bryce, Rocky Mountain, Big Bend and Mesa Verde National Parks. She’s visited over 100 national park sites. Check out the Explore the Parks section for hiking and other experiences to do in national parks.