9 Ways to Survive the Crowds in the Outdoors’ Most Popular Places

survive the crowds in the outdoors' most popular places
The crowded brink of Yellowstone Grand Canyon’s Lower Falls

There’s really just one drawback of visiting our most beautiful, popular natural resources: Everyone else is there, too!

How do we visit these places like Yellowstone, Glacier, Banff, the Grand Canyon (and popular parks and nature destinations in your own state) and survive the crowds?

We don’t want to not go, because these places are certainly worth it. So how can we enjoy them despite the crowds—or even somehow beat the crowds?

There are strategic ways to do this. We’ll break it down into 9 ways to survive the crowds in the outdoors’ most popular places:

badlands evening
Evenings in Badlands National Park aren’t just less crowded, but cooler and SO beautiful with the lighting

1. Go Off-Season

If you have the flexibility to visit outside of your destination’s busiest season, do it. For example, July and the first half of August almost anywhere are super busy because that’s when most families can take summer vacations. The kids are out of school, the weather’s good, etc.

Avoid holidays, long weekends and school break times if at all possible, because more people will be at these great destinations then.

That’s not always possible, especially if you work in the school system! If choose to or have to go during peak season, keep reading…

2. Include Out-of-the-Way Destinations Into Your Itinerary, Too

This is a strategy we’ve used as a family so we’re not in crowds 100% of the time. It gives us a welcome break, making the crowd times more mentally manageable!

hike in little-known Snowy Range Mountains
The Snowy Range Mountains are a good example of a great destination not many know about

Here are a couple examples:

  • On one trip to Yellowstone and the Tetons, we spent a day on the way home in the Snowy Range Mountains of southeast Wyoming (link). After being with thousands at the Big Parks for over a week, it was so refreshing to see only a handful on our hike in the Snowies. And here’s the catch—it was just as beautiful!
  • We’ve discovered the Bighorn Mountains in north central Wyoming now, and have enjoyed super camping and hiking there with a tiny fraction of the crowds that are in the national parks just a couple hours away.

There are many, many beautiful places that aren’t well-known at all. Do some research about the area you’re headed and you’ll come up with some great ideas.

3. Continue Past the “Main Event”

Another thing we’ve found is: while there may be a thousand cars in the parking lot and all the people jamming the main attraction and visitor center—very few of them make it beyond that initial attraction.

yellowstone's lower falls hike
Hundreds of people on the trail across from us—less than a half dozen on this one! (Yellowstone Grand Canyon)

I discovered this in several state parks up on Lake Superior’s North Shore here in Minnesota. I’ll take Gooseberry Falls State Park as an example:

On any given summer day, the parking lot at Gooseberry will be crowded to overflowing. The Visitor Center and Middle Falls area will be packed with people, especially on a nice hot day. And for good reason—the falls and park are gorgeous and the water feels great!

But walk downstream aways, cross the foot bridge and hike the trails on the other side of the river and you’ll meet very few people.

Most people don’t bother going much beyond the main event.

4. Start Early or Wait Until Later

This is something every ranger will tell you in every popular park. Just like there are rush hours for traffic in cities on weekdays, there are “rush hours” for parks and natural attractions—usually mid-morning to mid-afternoon.

wild horses at theodore roosevelt national park
Besides fewer people in the early mornings, you’re more likely to see wildlife, too! (Theodore Roosevelt National Park)

If you can get going early or wait until late afternoon or early evening when visiting the most popular attractions, you’ll likely encounter fewer people and better parking options.

5. See Bad Weather as Your Friend

It’s always wonderful when the weather cooperates on your outdoor adventures. But that’s what everyone thinks!

It may be to your advantage to put on your raincoats and venture out when others are hunkered down in their tents or campers waiting for the rain to stop.

6. Have a Plan

If there are several sights you and your family want to see, have a plan. Visit the busiest one first when it’ll be easier to find a parking spot and there are fewer people on the trails.

I know some of you like to be spontaneous. Be as spontaneous as you like, but I promise you—if you have a plan, you may be able to deal with the crowds better! It’s the truth.

old faithful yellowstone
We enjoyed Old Faithful away from the hundreds gathered next to the Lodge by being out on the boardwalks instead

7. Be Flexible

At the same time, flexibility should be your middle name when at these ultra-popular destinations.

One of the things our family does is have an idea of what we definitely want to see or do, with another list of things we’d love to see or do but won’t be heartbroken if we don’t get to them.

And once you get to your destination, you’ll likely be surprised by things you hadn’t known about before and decide to get some of them on the itinerary, too.

8. Put on Your Patience

There are places where you just can’t avoid the crowds, period. For example, Yellowstone. It’s so big you can’t avoid the crowds in many places—after all, you can’t plan to see everything before 9:00 a.m. when you’re talking 3,500 square miles!

So be patient. It may take awhile to find a parking spot, or the traffic might be busy in some areas. It’s part of the deal. While you’re being patient…

logan pass, glacier national park
The parking lot at Logan Pass in Glacier often fills up by mid-morning, so we planned to be there early

9. Enjoy Meeting People from All Over the World

Take advantage of the international visitor community at our most popular national parks. Meet people! When you hear another language or accent, ask people where they’re from and what they’ve liked best so far. I love doing this!

Not everyone is chatty, but most are. I’ve had wonderful conversations with a family from Beijing, a young man from the Czech Republic, service employees from Romania and Poland (lots of American tourist centers employ international workers in work exchange programs). It’s fun!

So, yeah, huge crowds at these places can be a bummer. But don’t let the crowds stop you from going—just employ a little strategy, and they don’t have to take the fun out of it.

survive the crowds at national parks

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