How to Visit a National Park

National parks can be crowded in summer. Try these suggestions to avoid the crush and enjoy the parks.

Line of cars at a national park entrance, image

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Summer is a great time to visit a national park. The weather is good, the kids are out of school, and it's been too long since you ate a s'more. You're ready for an escape from noise, traffic, and crowds. But at some of our country's most famous parks in the summer, peace and quiet are as elusive as the perfectly toasted marshmallow.

July and August are rush hour at national parks: Last year almost 30 percent of the more than 260 million recreational park visits took place during those two months. The line to ascend the cables to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite is at times Disneyland-esque. Parking lots at Olympic in western Washington state often fill up. And if you want to book a room at Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn or the Grand Canyon's El Tovar, start calling now. You might be able to get a reservation for next summer.

The parks know overcrowding is a problem and they're taking steps to improve the situation. Nearly 100 parks offer some form of alternative transportation to help reduce car traffic, for example, and many more have plans awaiting funding. Zion's April-through-October shuttle bus system has completely removed cars from the central scenic canyon. "Now people are actually enjoying the park," says Laura Loomis of the National Parks Conservation Association, "instead of trying to find parking."

Some parks require permits for backcountry camping to prevent the overuse of lands intended to remain wild and untrodden. Thanks in part to such regulations, heading into the backcountry is one of the best ways to find peace and solitude. And actually you don't have to go far. "Even in Yosemite Valley," ranger Deb Schweizer says, "if you're willing to go away from the services"—such as the visitor center—"you can have a quiet experience."

If you're not up for trekking into the wilderness, finding your escape may simply be a matter of expanding your horizons. The most renowned parks attract the largest crowds, but the National Park Service system is full of jewels you may never have heard of (see below). And while you need to plan months in advance to get a room at Yosemite's Ahwahnee hotel, these other parks almost always have lodging and camping spots available.

The big names, however, are popular for a reason: They're awe-inspiring and often convenient. And, crowds aside, summer is a perfect time to go. So if your heart is set on visiting one of the more famous parks, consider these tips as you plan your vacation.

SLEEP OUTSIDE THE PARK Campgrounds and hotels outside parks don't fill as fast as those inside. You're more likely to find a place to stay elsewhere, especially if you're making last-minute plans.

PITCH A TENT AT A NO-RESERVATIONS-REQUIRED CAMPGROUND Most parks have at least one campground where spaces are claimed on a first-come, first-served basis. Just keep in mind that you need to arrive early Friday morning, or even Thursday, to stake out a space for the weekend.

KEEP TRYING Desperate to stay at the Zion Lodge but didn't make your reservation a year in advance? Call the reservation line repeatedly; you may get lucky and pick up a cancellation.

Photography by Paul Bousquet

This article was first published in July 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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Not as famous, just as much fun

As alternatives to the big-name national parks, these spectacular locales draw smaller crowds.

GO TO KINGS CANYON INSTEAD OF YOSEMITE, CALIF. Drive through the deep Kings River Canyon to reach Cedar Grove, where trails lead to views of huge granite formations.

GO TO LASSEN VOLCANIC, CALIF., INSTEAD OF YELLOWSTONE, IDAHO-WYO.-MONT. The park's colorfully named "Bumpass Hell" area is a mini-Yellowstone, complete with mud pots and sulfuric steam vents. The manageable hike to the top of Lassen Peak offers breathtaking views.

GO TO CANYONLANDS, UTAH, INSTEAD OF GRAND CANYON, ARIZ. The Canyonlands topography, like that of the Grand Canyon, was carved in part by the Colorado River. The Colorado meets the Green River, which has some of the best canoeing in the West, then flows through Cataract Canyon, 20 miles of white water ideal for rafting.

GO TO WRANGELL-ST. ELIAS INSTEAD OF DENALI, ALASKA From Chitina, take bumpy McCarthy Road to the heart of the largest national park in the United States. At road's end, explore the historic buildings of the Kennecott mill site or walk to Root Glacier. You can even take a scenic flight to view the park's glaciers.

GO TO NORTH CASCADES INSTEAD OF OLYMPIC, WASH. Drive the North Cascades Scenic Highway with its access to campgrounds, trails, and spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. Hike the Happy Creek Forest Walk, which takes you through old-growth forest, or the Rock Shelter Trail, leading to an archaeological site.

GO TO CRATER LAKE, ORE., INSTEAD OF MOUNT RAINIER, WASH. Rooms at the Crater Lake Lodge book up quickly, but there are almost always cabins and campsites available at the Mazama Campground. A short, steep hike brings you down to the water, where you can join a boat tour of the lake.

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