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National Parks: Escaping the Crowds

A seasoned traveler tells how to avoid the crush of visitors in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone.

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View, image
Photo caption
Tunnel View offers the classic Yosemite Valley scene.


In 1868 conservationist John Muir came to Yosemite on foot, trudging into the Sierra, to a wilderness he compared to Eden. One hundred thirty–seven years later, I arrived by bus, riding a stream of traffic that spilled into a parking lot flanked by lodges and concession stands. Muir described an area of "profound solitude." That night, I ate pizza in a crowded pub and watched a baseball game on TV. My morning haul up Half Dome, the flat–faced granite monument that Muir regarded as the park's most striking rock, was interrupted midway by the sight of a squirrel burying an M&M. The story of Yosemite, like that of all our national parks, has long been a tale of the struggle between public use and preservation. To visit the most popular parks in summer is to risk concluding that preservation has lost. This is the season when sunset watchers cram the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, when caravans of motorists touring Yellowstone back up behind bison jams. John Muir could avoid what he called the "trampling work of civilization" during his frequent trips to the backcountry. But finding summer solitude doesn't require such extremes. When you travel matters. But so does how you travel. And park visitors tend to travel the same way: Feeling pressed for time and more comfortable in their cars than out camping, most people stick to main roads and limit themselves to sightseeing highlights—a snapshot at Old Faithful, a stroll to the base of Yosemite Falls. As a result, while bumping into crowds isn't hard, neither is steering clear of them. Often it's just a matter of turning left instead of right, of straying a short distance from a beaten path. Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone alone cover more than 4 million acres, much of them a vast wilderness free of people, not to mention squirrels with a taste for sweets.

YOSEMITE, PART I "A lot of people avoid coming here because they think it has been ruined," said Dan Braun, a seasoned backcountry guide and co–owner of the Evergreen Lodge, just outside Yosemite.

On a bright blue day in June, we were gazing out at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir from the top of the O'Shaughnessy Dam, the concrete cork in the Tuolumne River. Until the 1920s, when the dam was built to quench San Francisco's thirst for water, this was Yosemite's other valley, smaller in scale but comparable in majesty to its more famous sibling to the south. Hetch Hetchy Valley now lies submerged under several hundred feet of water, and the dam is seen by many not only as a scar but as a symbol of misplaced priorities.

What seemed clear to me, as Braun and I walked the trail to Wapama Falls, a path etched along the water's edge, was that in covering one beauty, the dam had managed to create another. The sheer valley walls rise abruptly from the water like the sides of a great granite tub, their outlines casting a quivering reflection in the mirror of the reservoir's surface. Just ahead, the impressive cascade of Wapama Falls was weeping freely, draining the park's northwestern snowpack.

Halfway down the trail, we passed a young couple holding hands. But otherwise, no one. Hetch Hetchy was ours. Braun wasn't at all surprised. Of the 4 million people who came to Yosemite in 2010, more than 90 percent visited Yosemite Valley. Some 58,000—less than 5 percent of visitors—set foot in Hetch Hetchy. It's easy to get to, just over an hour's drive from Yosemite Valley and a half hour from the park's Big Oak Flat entrance. Distance isn't the explanation. It's almost as if flooding Hetch Hetchy had washed it from people's minds.

We hiked to the end of the trail, where the park's backcountry began to beckon, rugged territory with endless opportunities for escape. Braun had hiked here countless times, but he estimated that even some 25 years of exploration had made him intimate with no more than half the park. I thought of a Yosemite ranger who'd told me that he often fields this question: "How long does it take to see this place?" The answer is a lifetime. According to the latest survey conducted by the park service, the average visit to Yosemite lasts four hours.

The next night, on Braun's recommendation, I slept in Yosemite Valley and rose before sunrise to visit Yosemite Falls, one of the park's icons. By waking early, Braun advised, I'd eliminate most of the competition, a truth that holds at every national park. The stars were out and the paved path leading to the falls was empty. A gibbous moon hung over the valley, shining blue light on the torrent of water. Soon I was joined by another early bird. We exchanged self–satisfied hellos, VIPs at a predawn show. Later as I walked back to my hotel, the sun's early rays cast a glow on Half Dome and the valley was stirring. Car engines coughed. Families ate cornflakes in the cafeteria. The sun appeared and the moon vanished, along with my sense that Yosemite was mine alone.

YELLOWSTONE The world's oldest national park, Yellowstone—nearly three times the size of Yosemite—sprawls across 3,400 square miles of mountains and meadows, geysers and gorges, forests and waterfalls, a glorious compilation of Mother Nature's greatest hits. It includes an isolated patch of wilderness called the Thorofare, which is often described as the remotest place in the lower 48 states.

Despite all this unmarked territory, most visitors follow a similar path: the 142–mile figure eight of roadway known as the Grand Loop. Many people tour the park without getting far from their cars. On my first trip to Yellowstone, my morning played out like a cautionary tale from a pocket guidebook. I inched through traffic on my way to see Old Faithful, the geyser whose reliability is world renowned.

Rote travel patterns and clogged routes hint at broader social trends. Over the past 25 years, the number of people camping in national parks has plummeted by more than a third, from a peak of 8.9 million a generation ago to just 5.5 million in 2004. Park officials attribute this in part to an aging population of visitors who may have grown up camping but are now less inclined to sleep under the stars. Increasingly, we're a culture whose contact with nature comes through TV shows and picturesque screen savers, not actual journeys into the wild.

Even as our interest in roughing it has dwindled, so has our time for traveling. The great American vacation, an extended getaway in a wood–paneled station wagon, has given way to the weekend jaunt. With less free time, today's travelers try to maximize their trips by gravitating toward the most famous places, which makes sense. Park highlights are highlights for good reason. Going to Yellowstone without seeing Old Faithful is like going to Paris without stealing a peek at the Eiffel Tower.

"People are accustomed to Disney World," said Ashea Mills, a guide with the Yellowstone Association Institute, a nonprofit educational group. "They're used to seeing wildlife behind fences and to things happening on a rigid schedule." She'd once heard a man complain that Old Faithful was late.

We were standing in a turnout in the northeastern corner of the park, waiting for day to break over the Lamar Valley. For those without backcountry ambitions, the Lamar Valley is a prime place to see the park in all its wildness. Flanking the Lamar River and framed in the distance by the Absaroka Range, it's a stage for the star predators of the park.

Mills had cheerfully insisted that we arrive at sunrise, when the animals of Yellowstone (people excepted) are at their most active. "You beat the summer crowds two ways," she said. "By getting up early, or by following the road less taken."

For every crowded landmark, Mills told me, the park has a quieter counterpart. Visitors should see Old Faithful, but they should also climb Observation Hill for a bird's–eye view of the geyser. And they might enjoy the five–mile round–trip hike to Lone Star, a lesser known geyser that erupts roughly every three hours and peaks at 45 feet. Then there's the lookout at Artist Point, with its painterly view of Lower Yellowstone Falls. But people should also hike farther to Point Sublime, where the views aren't better or worse—just different. Unforgettable and often clear of crowds.

As sunlight crept into the valley, Mills set up a tripod and told me to peer through her field glasses. Before long, a once forgotten face of Yellowstone loped into view: Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, decades after the last one in the park was killed.

Farther up in the foothills, Mills pointed out three brown forms moving through the grass: a grizzly bear and her two cubs. It was almost 8 a.m. and we'd been joined at our lookout by a half–dozen other people, a tiny crowd by Yellowstone standards. I watched the bears as they romped toward a line of pale green aspens. Then I turned back to the wolves, which were beating a retreat into the Absarokas. The sightings had caused a stir and people were chattering excitedly around me, but the only intimacy I felt was with the park itself. Clouds blanketed the sun and the wind coursed through the valley. Through the scope, I followed the last gangly–legged wolf until it disappeared into the mountains' folds.

GRAND CANYON In a well–known film lampoon of the family vacation, Chevy Chase stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon, nods his head in approval, and leaves. Visitors in real life tend to linger a bit longer. But not much. At a chasm a mile deep and 277 miles long, the average stay is less than a day.

Late one August afternoon I stood on the North Rim of the canyon, appreciating the panorama. There are, of course, no bad views of the Grand Canyon. But its pinnacles, buttes, and other impressive formations can be taken in at closer range from the North Rim than from the South Rim. And because the North Rim has only one lodge, lies farther from most airports, and has facilities that are closed to the public in the winter, it attracts just 10 percent of park visitors.

By coming to the North Rim, I knew I'd be leaving most people behind. And by hiking below the canyon rim, I figured I'd be steering clear of almost all the rest. In the heat of summer, park officials recommend that people make such excursions at the bookends of the day and bring plenty of water. It's always a good idea to alert others of your plans, especially when you hike alone. Well stocked with provisions, I set off at daybreak down the North Kaibab Trail, which curls all the way to the Colorado River. The only company I had was the echo of my footsteps ringing off the canyon walls.

Three hours and nearly five miles later, I sat in the shade of cottonwoods at Roaring Springs, an aptly named oasis where water gushed from the canyon's side. Two backpackers ambled past, a father and son on their way to Phantom Ranch, a rustic lodge deep in the canyon that guests typically reserve more than a year in advance. Otherwise, I had no company.

Changes in the canyon are most often measured in geologic time. But as the sun washed across the sky, an hour–by–hour transformation took place before my eyes. Shadows danced across the pinnacles and peaks. Daylight dappled the red walls of the canyon, illuminating specks of green and yellow shale.

When the day cooled off, I started my ascent. As I looked behind me at the unpeopled expanse of the landscape, the solitude was almost spooky. Thunder grumbled in the belly of the canyon, and soon I was caught in a squall. I waited out the storm beneath an overhang while the canyon walls above me, soaked with rain, turned from rust orange to muddy brown. Beautiful and brief, the violent weather underscored the scale and the drama of the canyon and how easy it was, in a place so indifferent to my presence, to feel alone.

YOSEMITE, PART II "How to get away from the crowds?" said Pete Devine, resident naturalist of the Yosemite Conservancy. "Where do I begin?" It was late summer and I was back in Yosemite, this time in Tuolumne Meadows, the park's high country. We were standing atop Lembert Dome, a huge hump of granite that looks from a distance like a huddled sheep. Earlier that morning, while walking a quiet path along the Tuolumne River, Devine had stopped to point out shards of obsidian. They'd been left behind by indigenous people who'd hauled the rock over the mountains to use as knives and arrowheads.

"People talk about crowds in Yosemite today," Devine said. "But we forget that humans have been leaving their mark here for thousands of years."

Now, standing on Lembert Dome, Devine and I gazed out at snow–dusted mountaintops. It struck me that if people had left deep impressions on the parks, they were nothing compared to the impressions the parks had left on people. Even the mountain peaks, far–off as they looked, were inseparable from us. Snowmelt running off them would spill into Hetch Hetchy and eventually pour out of my tap at home.

"That water up there," Devine said, "was probably used to irrigate the raisins in your gorp." Later, as we picked our way down Lembert Dome, I reached into my bag of trail mix. I came up with a handful of dried fruit, seeds, and a bright green M&M.

Photography by Kenny Karst, DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.


This article was first published in July 2006 and updated in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.