Visiting a national park this summer might mean getting up before sunrise
Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.
Travel continues to rebound from the depths of the pandemic. However, many people still seek wide-open spaces as a preferred vacation destination, making the great outdoors a hot summer travel trend this year.
A number of the most popular national parks have been inundated with visitors over the past several months — in many cases exceeding pre-pandemic levels. As a result, last September, the National Park Service put in place timed-entry reservations and ticket requirements for about a dozen popular areas. Such systems limit access to popular trails and roads or establish timed-entry programs. Some favorite parks, like Yosemite National Park and Glacier National Park, may cap the number of visitors per day or require reservations during peak times.
As more people head to U.S. national parks, though, it’s meant staggering wait times to enter, packed parking lots and a crowded experience once you’re in the park — not exactly the getaway to spend some one-on-one time with nature many hoped for when booking trips.
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The key to making sure you’re able to visit the parks without hourslong waits and sweaty crowds? Getting there early. And I don’t mean 9 a.m. early; I’m talking about before the sun is up.
Jake Garbelotti (@Jakesonaplane on Instagram) visited 21 parks during the height of the pandemic, and almost half of those parks had crowding issues. According to Garbelotti, popular parks, including Arches, Glacier and Yosemite, all started to run out of parking at the entrances he visited by 7 a.m.
What to expect at popular national parks this summer
If you do plan on hitting up one of the national parks this summer, keep in mind that you’ll want to plan ahead.
Arches National Park
Arches has been one of the most talked-about parks when it comes to overcrowding this summer. Parking lots fill before 8 a.m., leaving cars to wait in long lines to get in. From now to Oct. 3, the park will pilot a timed-entry reservation system to help manage traffic and curb crowds). The park also has an active Twitter account that will post when the entrance is open and closed each day.
“Delicate Arch is the most popular trail, and we got one of the last spots just before 7 a.m.,” Garbelotti told TPG. “Overflow parking adds an extra mile each way to the hike! A lot of the hikes in the park are short, though, and only take an hour or two, so another option is to arrive later in the day once the park allows cars back in to enjoy the trails after visitors begin to leave.”
Your best bet is to get to the park before 7 a.m. But even then, you might have to wait in line for pictures at popular arches. If you’re not a morning person but do want to check out Delicate Arch, you can attempt to make the hike at sunset for a stunning view. However, you may not be the only person with that idea, so prepare for there to still be crowds.
Glacier National Park
Glacier now requires a reservation to access the Going-to-the-Sun Road at West Glacier, St. Mary or via the Camas Road. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t experience crowds.
Garbelotti’s experience was best in the morning. “If you want to go on a day hike such as the Highline Trail, arrive before 6 a.m. to access the road and secure parking. When we visited, Logan Pass would be full by 7 a.m.”
If you plan to go after 5 p.m., it could be hit or miss depending on what part of the park you’re visiting. The evening is when non-reservation holders can get in, which can mean serious crowds. But some areas may start to empty out for sunset as travelers who have been at the park all day head back to their hotel or other accommodations.
Even if you have a reservation, though, you’ll still need to plan ahead weeks in advance if you want to book a boat tour, bike rental, raft trip and more. TPG editorial director Summer Hull recently visited Glacier with her family and suggests planning as much as you can as far in advance as possible.
“Also, even with reduced entrance capacity, parking near popular trailheads, such as Avalanche Lake, is still in very short supply, so pack some patience along with your water and bear spray,” she said.
Related: National park reservation requirements are changing frequently: Here’s what you need to know
Grand Canyon National Park
The South Rim entrance to the Grand Canyon is busy during most summers, and this year is set to be even more crowded than usual. If you get to the park between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., you can expect to wait up to two hours to enter. The entrance does have a webcam you can check out throughout the day to help plan your arrival, but your best bet will be to get there early in the day.
Another option is to enter through the East Entrance at Desert View, which typically has shorter wait times, but only if you’re coming from Highway 89. Even then, the earlier you get to the park, the better your chances at having the views and trails (if you’re a hiker) mostly to yourself.
Yellowstone National Park
In May 2021, more than 483,100 people visited Yellowstone, a new record for the month of May. Similar park traffic is expected this summer – it's Yellowstone National Park's busiest season. Those crowds could mean up to a four-hour wait to enter.
“Expect long lines at entrance stations, extremely busy facilities and destinations, as well as delayed travel times due to heavy traffic and wildlife jams,” the NPS said in a news release. “If you want a less crowded experience, arrive early or stay late and avoid main attractions such as Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Norris Geyser Basin during peak hours.”
Related: Enjoy free national park visits — here’s how to save
Yosemite National Park
Beginning May 20 (through Sept. 30), a reservation will be required to drive into or through Yosemite National Park, for those driving into the park between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m.
According to Garbelotti, “even with reservations required for park entrance, parking at the trailhead for the famous Mist Trail is very limited.”
Based on his experience visiting the park in May 2021, he suggests getting to the park well before 7 a.m.
“If you plan to do a long hike, get here early! Later in the day, we had no issue parking at famous sites such as Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Tunnel View and Glacier Point. Hike early, and then sightsee later. The Mist Trail is one-way only during midday, but you can return via the John Muir Trail, which offers amazing views of the waterfalls from further back.”
Zion National Park
It’s no surprise that Zion is in the same boat as the other popular national parks.
When Garbelotti visited Zion this time last year, he showed up at the visitor center at 5 a.m. Plenty of parking was available and he was able to board a shuttle once they started running at 6 a.m. Waiting even an hour to get there at 7 a.m. could mean being stuck without a parking spot and a wait of up to two hours.
Related: Exploring national parks in 2022: Where to stay using points
“I was one of the first into the park, and was able to hike up to Angels Landing without any crowds,” he said. “Coming down, however, is extremely crowded, so it took an hour to hike down the chains waiting for groups to pass the many one-way super narrow sections of trail along the chain.” This summer you will need to enter a lottery to secure a permit to hike Angels Landing.
Garbelotti has also hiked the Narrows, which gets very crowded as well. However, the farther you hike up the Virgin River, the less you’ll have to deal with crowds.
Getting to the park early also means being able to leave earlier, which means you’re more likely to find room on a shuttle back.
Making the most of your national park visit
There’s clearly a theme here — the early bird gets the worm. Or, in this case, the parking spot and best photo ops.
If you want to check out one of the more popular national parks (including ones not listed above, such as Grand Teton), plan to get there at the crack of dawn … literally. This way, you’ll ensure you can find a parking spot, your likelihood of getting caught in long wait lines and serious crowds isn’t as high and as a bonus, you’ll be able to explore the parks when the heat isn’t quite as bad.
Also consider checking out underrated national and state parks, and national monuments that aren’t as busy.
Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef both offer trails, and crowds are generally minimal toward sunset hours as people leave for the day. Garbelotti said Bryce Canyon is stunning during the hours right before sunset. Mesa Arch is popular at Canyonlands for sunrise, but the crowds clear out the hour after sunrise. The arch still gets the famous glow during that time, but without the same crowds. Garbelotti also recommends Dead Horse Point State Park next door since it offers unbelievable views of the same canyons and river below.
White Sands National Park is also a great option if you want to do some summer sand sledding.
This summer, a trip to a U.S. national park will require additional planning, patience and some luck to avoid crowds. Your best bet will be to go to sleep early and get your coffee ready so you can check out the parks as early in the morning as possible. The upside? It’s hard to find a better view than sunrise at some of these national parks.
Additional reporting by Kristy Tolley.