Pro-tips to avoid national park crowds
The ‘new normal’ is gradually emerging, but with many hotels and National Parks reopening just in time for last weekend’s Memorial Day holiday, daunting reports have been flooding in, complete with photos of jam-packed parking lots, hours-long lines and crowded trails.
As the phrase ‘far from madding crowds’ rings more true than ever, travellers from coast to coast are wondering will worries of overcrowding and social distancing mean not being able to enjoy some of the most spectacular places on earth? Will travel bucket lists have to wait?
With apologies to Thomas Hardy, informed travellers have found a way to visit the same spectacular places as the crowds, but stay far from them.
To find out how, we asked experts whose jobs are to know the most popular places better than anyone how to avoid the crowds when everyone starts to travel again.
Follow these pro tips to enjoy crowd-free travel as we go into the double whammy of reopening and summer season.
The good news is, absolutely not!
We asked local guides and hoteliers to share expert advice on how to avoid the crowds when everyone starts to travel again.
Follow these pro-tips to enjoy crowd-free travel as we go into the double whammy of reopening and summer season.
Eliminate the crawling daily commute to your destination and instead, wake up exactly where you want to be. Whether that means in the National Park wilderness or in the center of a historic downtown, you’ll be staying among the sights and sounds you came for and get to experience them unflooded by day visitors, from dramatic dawns to silent starry nights.
Kris from Bryce Canyon Lodge says, “Staying within Bryce Canyon National Park means no lining up at the entrance station or circling around the parking lot until you catch a free space. While everyone else is having to deal with that, you’re already here. Breakfast among the scenery or set out for a sunrise walk. At night, you’ll see constellations that hotels in city locations couldn’t even dream of.”
Go against the grain
Just because the majority of visitors explore somewhere a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s always the best way.
“This is the least crowded state in America, but if I took you to one of Alaska’s harbors on a cruise docking day, you wouldn’t believe me for a second.” Eric S., our Kenai Peninsula Trip leader tells us “that’s because the majority of visitors come here by cruise ship and those visitors go to the same sights that a day on land allows, before returning back to their cabins. So, I would say, think outside the box (or outside the boat!). We have some incredible hotels in locations that let you venture deeper into Alaska’s diverse and immense landscape (when you see them, you will agree with me that a cruise ship can’t compete!). Rather than run by a crew from who-knows-where, these lodgings are run by locals who often have generations of stories to share and will give you insight into what living year-round in Alaska really looks like. Don’t forget, they also have the inside scoop on where to find the freshest crab legs and the most delicious cup of smoked salmon chowder!”
Pick a private tour
Private tours allow for personal space, and let you explore at your own pace.
“Signing up for a public tour of a historic landmark is better than not taking a tour at all” admits Linda, who leads our Charleston & Savanah tour “but if you want an unhurried experience without having to contend with hordes of other visitors, my advice is to travel with a tour operator that offers private tours just for your small group. In Charleston, Drayton Hall is my favorite. I always choose a timing that fits well within the day’s schedule, and you can ask as many questions as you like.”
Christopher, who mans the front office at Vintage House Hotel agrees, “Napa has so many ways to experience wine, but a private wine tasting is by far the most intimate experience. There are no distractions. You can tailor it around what you like—a walk through the vineyard, a long lunch, you could even do a local cheese tasting and pairing. The best part is, with smaller groups that usually means more wine!”
Have a local take the lead
Save the strains of self-guiding and avoid tours that import in trip leaders.
Kathleen, who owns the Volcano Retreat, has learned the best way of exploring: “We moved here from San Francisco in 1991 and have taken all kinds of tours since then. No-one knows Hawaii’s Big Island like the back of their hand like the islanders born and raised here—the days and times to avoid, the trails less trodden, the best back-up plan for trail closures. While everyone else is following the same itinerary Google search results first throw up, with a local you can venture deeper and differently. They’ll know the exact times when places are most spectacular and least crowded. And they’ll have awesome stories to share along the way. And you’re supporting our local economy, for which I thank you!”
Peter, New Mexico’s Santa Fe to Taos Trip leader: “When you visit the high desert of New Mexico, where Native American tribes have left such well-preserved art, architecture and cuisine, being shown around by someone whose family line dates back centuries is incredible. Who better to show you around historic Taos Pueblo than a local member of the tribe, who happens to be a good friend of mine?”
Go beyond the 10-minute trails
Most people stop at the nearest, shortest trail. They don’t know what they’re missing.
“Venture further,” advises Bruce, our Vermont Stowe to Middlebury Trip leader, “ask any guide or ranger, I am sure that they will agree. I’d say 90% of visitors literally park their cars, take a 10-minute walk, snap some photos for Instagram and then leave. Often, they spend longer trying to find a parking space than they do exploring! It’s a shame. But it’s good for those of us who know better! And you don’t even have to be a super fit backpacker with the stamina for a 5-hour hike up a Vermont mountainside. I can think of so many stunning walks that virtually no one takes that are easy going, rarely crowded and show you our famous fall landscape like you’ve never seen before.”
Look for limits
Don’t be deterred by group restrictions, actively seek them.
Marcia Burns, who leads our Bryce, Grand Canyon and Zion trip tells us more. “The Bureau of Land Management enforces group size limits to certain areas of wilderness. For example, here in Zion, the Narrows upstream of Orderville Canyon allows no more than 12 people and you need a permit to access. I feel like the words ‘restriction’, ‘limit’ and ‘enforcement’ put people off, but now more than ever, they are a good thing! You get to experience the most stunning parts of a National Park in their true wilderness form. It doesn’t feel like Disneyland!”
Picnic instead of cafeteria
Don’t lose time in the lunch line. Make the dining as good as the destination. No rush. No reservation needed.
“Exhilarating walks and sights sure work up an appetite.” Eric K, who leads our Bryce, Grand Canyon & Zion trio tells us, “but bear in mind that will also be the case for every single other person visiting. Come lunchtime, people pour into the one or two nearest cafeterias here. Precious time that could be spent exploring is lost as you line up for a free table and wait for your food. My way around this lets you enjoy good food, at your leisure, while enjoying the destination at the same time. And it’s simple: a picnic! You’ll have views restauranteurs can only dream of. I know amazing spots where you can lunch with no one else as far as the eye can see. And I know incredible local restaurants and delis that will pack you a lunch of hand-crafted specialties, so you can skip that mass cafeteria food.”
Get a driver
Don’t drive and definitely skip the shuttle. Instead, let a local take the wheel, while you sit back and soak up the scenery.
The expert recommendation from Janice, Montana’s Glacier National Park Trip leader, is to “make sure you book a trip with a private driver. Driving on your own only takes you as far as the parking lot, which can be a nightmare to navigate. Then you have to choose between the packed-out trails leading from the parking lot, or a free shuttle, with its long wait lines and what makes me think of herded-cattle once everyone is piled on. In Montana, don’t settle for an over-a-stranger’s-shoulder glimpse of our legendary Going To The Sun Road. Doesn’t it sound nicer to sit back with a driver who knows exactly how you like the air conditioning?!”
Swap sunset for sunrise
Everyone loves a sunset, but the silent spectacle of sunrise is worth an early wake up call.
As Head Chef at Friday Harbor House, Jason’s work hours make him a seasoned sunrise-seer, “If you ask me, San Juan sunrises are by far the best. To escape the crowds, my favorite time of day is dawn. I have to get up early for my job and am so thankful I do. What a way to start each day and usually I am the only person up to enjoy it. When our guests ask for a recommendation, sunrise is always my suggestion and I promise them a mouth-watering breakfast to follow!”
Jamie, who’s a baker at the Grand Canyon Lodge, is also an early-riser, “It’s no secret how stunning the Grand Canyon is at sundown. But, for that reason, you will find a steady stream of cars as sundown approaches, with packs of people taking photos from the best-known overlooks. Skip the evening crowds and rise early to watch the colors of the rising sun dance on the canyon walls. Rather than hearing cars and tourists, listen to the surrounding silence that almost seems to echo. Everyone else who comes here completely misses it. Beyond being uncrowded, often there is not another soul in sight. So, even if you are not a morning person, set an alarm and you won’t regret it.”