Overcrowded U.S. National Parks for Summer Travel

Adam and Madalyn

Grand Teton National ParkAdam and Madalyn

U.S. National Parks were overcrowded in 2021. For good reason, too, as international travel was restricted, and many cities had COVID regulations in place, it was natural for Americans to look to head outdoors.

There is no question large crowds can limit the appeal of escaping to nature. The good news is, with a bit of planning and a little insider knowledge, you can enjoy an amazing time outdoors this year and not have to fight as large of crowds.

Here are five highly visited U.S. National Parks and what to do instead.

Acadia National ParkAdam and Madalyn

Acadia National Park – Maine

Acadia National Park in Maine is one of the most popular National Parks in the country. The park’s coastal setting on the Atlantic Ocean is idyllic, and just outside the park boundaries are wonderful coastal Maine towns. Plus, it’s the only U.S. National Park in the northeast.

Cadillac Mountain is one of the highest peaks on the east coast and is a popular spot for sunrise and sunset. You have to reserve your spot to visit at these times. That is a good thing, as it limits the crowds, but it can be a bit of a pain when planning a trip.

The most popular part of Acadia National Park is on Mt. Desert Island, and so is the park’s main city, Bar Harbor. With just one bridge on and off the island, as you can guess, it can be pretty packed during the summer months.

What to do instead?

If you want to visit Acadia, consider a trip in early October at the end of their season. We were incredibly fortunate to visit Acadia at the end of the season, as the weather was sunny and temperatures peaked in the 70s each day we were there. When the season ends, however, the season in Maine ends. Many seasonal eateries are closed, and your ability to visit attractions is severely limited.

If you want to visit Maine in the summer and avoid crowds at Acadia, you could also visit the less crowded part of Acadia, the Schoodic Peninsula, before heading up to Baxter State Park. The Schoodic Peninsula provides you with amazing coastal views and smaller crowds.

It is genuinely the backwoods up in Baxter State Park. This vast stretch of wilderness is increasing in popularity, as Mt Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine, is a destination for many hikers. A trip to this part of Maine takes a bit more planning as lodging is limited, but Baxter State Park is still a great option if it is solitude you seek.

Grand Canyon National ParkAdam and Madalyn

Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona

It’s the Grand Canyon. We mean…everyone has got to see the Grand Canyon once in their life. Upon your first glimpse, it is impossible not to be awe-inspired by its grandeur. Five minutes later, you might just be annoyed by the grand size of the crowd also taking it in.

What to do instead?

Instead of visiting the Grand Canyon, you should visit the Grand Canyon. By that, we mean go to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. A vast majority of visitors to the Grand Canyon at the south rim at the Grand Canyon Village. And with good reason, the view there is probably the best view in the entire park.

The north rim, however, doesn’t lack an awe-inspiring view and has a few fun bonuses compared to its southern counterpart. As you drive to the north rim, you drive through forests and meadows filled with bison herds. You don’t get that on the south rim. Once again, a great time to go is in the fall, let’s say September or October, as you can even view some great fall colors.

Zion National ParkAdam and Madalyn

Zion National Park - Utah

Zion National Park is a very special place to us as it is where we got engaged.

It is also a special place to many other people, and that makes sense because the Zion Canyon is one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on Earth.

Canyon access during the high season is limited. The only way in is to take the park shuttle, which requires planning.

Even more restricting, several popular hikes require a permit, which now includes the Angels Landing hike.

The shuttle leaves from the nearby town of Springdale, and navigating Springdale can be tricky. Hotels in Springdale during the summer easily top $300 a night and can get into the $1000s.

What to do instead?

Utah has 5 National Parks, but Zion draws the most attention (along with Arches National Park outside of Moab, Utah). There are plentiful opportunities for recreation in southern Utah, as the whole area is beautiful. As we suggested with other parks, avoid the summer months if possible. This is especially true for Zion, as the temperature in Utah over the summer can easily hit triple digits every day. Spring and fall are the best times to go, where you can get 70 degree days and smaller crowds.

We’d also suggest checking out two other National Parks in Utah. The first would be closest to Zion, Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce Canyon is famous for its natural Amphitheatre full of hoodoos. It offers plentiful hiking and also has a lovely scenic drive.

On the way to Bryce Canyon National Park is the Red Canyon in the Dixie National Forest. It is stunning and offers hiking and sightseeing with even fewer crowds than the National Parks. Bryce Canyon National Park is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes from Zion’s main entrance.

The other National Park we’d suggest checking out would be Capitol Reef National Park. Capitol Reef is full of history, scenic views, and pies. Yes, there is a pie shop in a National Park, and it serves delicious pies. Its scenic drive is one of the best we’ve ever done in the U.S. National Parks. It is a bit of drive, though, as Capitol Reef National Park is about 3 hours and 30 minutes from Zion National Park.

Yellowstone National ParkAdam and Madalyn

Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park - Wyoming

Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park sit in the northwest corner of Wyoming. When one thinks of the spectacular beauty of the United States, the Grand Teton Mountain Range might be that picture. Just north of those majestic rocks sits America’s best wilderness, Yellowstone National Park. Grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, moose, elk, and many other species roam wild between these two expansive national parks.

Despite the large amount of land, these two parks cover, options for summertime lodging are limited and expensive. To top that off, at some park entrances, there can be long daily lines to get inside of the park boundaries. Further complicating the situation with these two parks is the seasonality. Much of Yellowstone is shut down during the winter. The Grand Tetons are also pretty much closed during the winter months. You can, of course, fly into Jackson Hole and go skiing, but you won’t be able to get in much hiking.

What to do instead?

The problem with the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone is that they are so spectacular that it is hard to pivot to another activity. They are unlike most other parks, and even their closest National Park cousins (Glacier National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park) are crowded in the summer.

These are genuinely parks that you want to do your best to avoid the summer crowds. Of course, even in the best shoulder season months to visit (April, September, and October), there may be drawbacks, such as limited excursions like float trips or fly fishing.

If you have to visit during the summer months, do your best to plan your days ahead of time. You’ll want to get to popular trails early to get a parking spot and make sure you book any excursions you want to do well in advance.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Tennessee

The Smoky Mountains are the most visited National Park in the United States. That makes sense considering their spectacular nature, four-season capabilities, and proximity to many major cities. The Smokies offer terrific scenery, wildlife viewing opportunities, and great hiking, all at the low, low price of no entry fee!

The Smokies can be incredibly crowded in the summer months as families seek fun, and they can be even more crowded in the fall when striking fall colors dot the mountainside. The good news is the Appalachian Mountain range stretches across many states, and it is easy to pivot here.

What to do instead?

The most popular area among visitors will be the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee areas. Instead of heading into the park from those areas, you could consider spending a day in the Cherokee National Forest. Also, the parts of Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Townsend, Tennessee, and Maryville, Tennessee, are slightly less crowded than the Gatlinburg area.

Bryson City, North Carolina, is a fun town and gives you access to both Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. If the Tarheel State is more your speed, you could even skip Great Smoky Mountains National Park entirely and head to Asheville. It’s a great city, with the Pisgah National Forest not far from the city center.

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