National parks have always been gorgeous, but have recently been increasing in popularity (at least some, more on that later!) It can feel so hard to avoid the crowds as you tour many national parks now.
BUT, just because they’ve gotten popular, doesn’t mean they aren’t worth facing the crowds for (trust me, they are!!)
As a professional elopement photographer, I am lucky enough to explore all kinds of magical sights in amazing places, including national parks.
So, let me give you some inside info on how to avoid crowds at national parks! Keep reading to hear all of my tips and tricks to see the sights and avoid the masses.
Avoid Busy Seasons
If you want to avoid crowds at the National parks, go when people aren’t there!😉 Kidding!
Obviously, most people will be at national parks when it is convenient to be there: weekends, holidays, and peak summer seasons. If you can go during the week, or in the off seasons, you can still see the incredible national treasures that exist.
Each park has its own off-season, so look into where you’re wanting to go to plan the best timing.
Typically summer is the highest peak season because kids are off of school. But regardless of when the off-season is, every season has wonderful things to offer:
- Spring brings new life, baby animals, and fresh blossoms.
- Winter offers a perspective most people don’t see and sometimes, the magic of a pure white covering where you might not expect it.
- Fall delivers warm tones, gentle breezes, and incredible foliage to explore.
Embrace Shoulder Season
Shoulder season is the space of time between peak season and full off-season.
The advantage of this time is that you still have a high possibility of getting the good weather and great sights that peak season brings but you can hopefully avoid more crowds of people.
Each national park is going to have a slightly different peak season and therefore, different shoulder seasons. Make sure you do your research and figure out how to take advantage of this time of year!
Skip the Instagram Backdrops
Everyone posts everything online and national park visits aren’t immune.
There are classic sights, recurring photo backdrops, and overall over-seen spots. You might be thinking “But Kate, those are popular for a reason, right?!!!”
Yes, Instagram backdrops are common for a reason- maybe the most beautiful or maybe just the easiest to get to. So instead of falling trap to the highlight reels online, take the roads less traveled.
An example of this is Olympic National Park. It’s a popular park, but with about a million acres, there are a ton of entrances and park accesses. That means there are plenty of less popular entrances, which means avoiding the crowd (and the cliche pictures).
A good rule of thumb is that if it has a super busy hashtag or geotags, it is probably going to be pretty popular in person, too. Instead, look for a different entrance or trail to take.
OR, if you really want to go there, get up early before the crowds or late afternoon when the crowds have already moved on. Or, in a COMPLETELY different season of the year. (See the tip above!)
But, any time you plan to be away from all the people, you need to take extra care to be ready to be self-sufficient! Take extra water. Have a paper map (gasp, yes, paper! Lol) and food/snacks, too. Always being ready is part of Leave No Trace outdoor and travel principles!
Get out of your car
A lot of people stay in their car when visiting national parks or stick to extra easily accessible spots. But there is waaaayyy more to explore within a national park.
If you’re wondering how to avoid crowds at national parks, you can seriously benefit from being willing to venture away from your car.
Go for a walk, take a hike, hop on a ferry, a train, or whatever alternative experience/transportation the national park offers. The farther you can get from your car, or, off the path most traveled, the better.
Did you find a trail that you think will be amazing but looks BUSY?!? Look beyond that trailhead.
- Is there another access further down the road away from the main trail parking?
- Is there another entrance on another road from another spot in the park?
- Or, ask a ranger at the Visitor Center. They can likely suggest a different spot that can give a similar experience.
But if you’re concerned about your ability to “off-road,” don’t worry! A lot of parks have great recommendations on how to experience the park in ways that work for all people and varying accessibilities needs.
You can go to the park’s website and click the tab “plan your visit” to find some accessibility resources.
And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, call the visitor centers and ask directly!
Avoid Busy Times
If a busy park is on your bucket list and you have to go during prime season, you can still avoid the tourist crowds on your national park visit.
Ahead of time, you can do a little research to figure out which trails are the most popular and build a plan of attack! As you can, follow the tips above on skipping Insta Highlights and Getting Out of Your Car.
But if that trail can’t be experienced any other way, don’t give up hope! Why? Well…
Can you brave the crowd for the first 30 minutes?
If so, I recommend that you keep on keepin’ on to the gems after other visitors have long since turned around. In my experience, most people will do a walk that is 30-minutes out, 30-minutes back so you just need to outlast them 😉.
Or, alternatively, experience that space outside of primetime–maybe that’s sunrise, or, sunset. Maybe it is mid-day or a weekday.
But, as with all these tips, if you are planning to go out early or stay out late, dark comes fast and completely in many of these national parks! (Yay, Dark Skies parks!!!)
So, be prepared with clothing layers in case of cold, a real flashlight or headlamp (that is NOT your cell phone light ✔️), and appropriate food and water. Have a map and know where you are and, where you are going.
Being prepared is absolutely one of the core Leave No Trace Principles we should all follow❤️️
The least visited national parks
Some national parks are really popular, always on families’ summer bucket-list family vacations, but some national parks are breathtaking hidden gems.
If you want to miss the crowds, it’s a good idea to skip the most visited parks until offseason and instead, check out some of the least visited parks during their prime seasons.
One of my very favorite national parks, which seems to be skipped over by most, is Dry Tortugas in Florida.
Accessed only by seaplane or boat, Dry Tortugas is located 70 miles south of Key West. This national park is 100 square miles and is home to Fort Jefferson, bright blue water, and incredible coral reefs.
With some advanced planning, I think that this national park could be one of the best places to elope in Florida! (Check out that and some other awesome Florida locations here!)
Although technically not a national park, The Boundary Waters can be found within Superior National Forest in Minnesota. It can give you the national park experience without the popularity of a park. It’s over 1 million acres of beautiful, remote, canoeing/hiking/enjoying epic views. A beautiful cabin experience is calling your name❤️
BLM land, National Forests, National Rivers and Lakeshores, National Monuments, and so many amazing State Parks protect and preserve beautiful places to explore. And often, these public lands adjoin national parks to help preserve ecosystems more fully.
So, while National Parks get all the hype, by sometimes looking beyond those specific places you can find other nearby gems to explore, without the crowds!
Transform your trip into something more
I just gave you some of my tried and true tips on how to avoid crowds at a national park, but even if you do encounter some crowds, that’s okay! National parks are worth facing crowds for, promise.
The opportunities within the parks and around give you chance to make memories that are unforgettable.
As I mentioned above, I’m an elopement photographer. That means I take pictures of epic experiences for couples that are tired of tradition and instead want their wedding day to feel good. One of my favorite things to do is take a national park visit and turn it into an amazing wedding experience. ✨
If you, or someone you know, would like to turn your national park trip into an elopement experience, I can help! You can contact me here and we can create the best itinerary for you and your partner! ❤️