Visiting a national park this summer might mean getting up before sunrise

Jun 22, 2021

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After more than a year of being cooped up inside, it’s no wonder that the great outdoors is a summer travel trend this year. But as more people head to U.S. national parks, it’s meant staggering wait times to enter, packed parking lots and a crowded experience once you’re in the park — not exactly the socially distant getaway to spend some one-on-one time with nature many hoped for when booking trips.

Arches National Park experienced a 15% increase in visitors this April compared to 2019, according to the Wall Street Journal. And it’s not the only park experiencing an influx of visitors. Social media reports of multiple parks have shown popular photo spots filled to the brim with people.

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The key to making sure you’re able to visit the parks without hours-long 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) has been to 21 parks in the past year, and almost half of those parks had crowding issues. According to Garbelotti, popular parks, including Arches, Glacier National Park and Yosemite National Park, 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

(Photo by Mark Brodkin Photography/Getty Images)

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. The park doesn’t have a reservation system (though there has been a push to attempt to implement one to help curb crowds), and the congestion at the park can lead to entrances being temporarily closed to alleviate crowding.

The park does have an active Twitter account that will post when the entrance is open and closed each day. While 2021 has definitely brought an influx of visitors, the crowding issue the park is experiencing has been going on since 2020.

“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

Cracker Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana. (Photo by Feng Wei Photography/Getty Images)

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.

But even if you have a reservation, 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 up to two-hour waits 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. And those crowds could mean up to four hours waiting to enter.

The National Park Service (NPS) did send out a release in May to remind visitors that the summer is Yellowstone National Park’s busiest season.

“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 release said. “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

You do need a reservation to get into Yosemite. But according to Garbelotti, “even with reservations required for park entrance, parking at the trailhead for the famous Mist Trail is very limited.”

(Photo courtesy of Jake Garbelotti)

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 mid-day, 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 falls in the same boat as the other popular national parks.

Garbelotti recently visited Zion and 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 2021: 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.”

He’s also hiked the Narrows, which get very crowded as well. But the further 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 Tetons), 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.

But also consider checking out underrated national parks 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 the canyon at 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 Deadhorse Point State Park next door since it offers unbelievable views of the same canyons and river below.

The White Sands National Park is also a great option if you want to do some summer sand sledding.

Crowds were nonexistent at White Sands (Photo courtesy of Jake Garbelotti)

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 early 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.

Featured image courtesy of Jake Garbelotti. 

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