Are you looking to head out to explore a national park this summer? As summer approaches, many RVers hit the road seeking adventures and to experience the peaceful beauty of nature. After all, the national parks hold some of our country's most spectacular scenery and wildlife. The problem? The popularity of national parks has soared in recent years, and crowds can make the experience anything but serene. Keep reading to find the best national parks to visit this summer to ditch the crowds.
National Park Popularity Has Exploded in Recent Years
As RVers, I bet you don't need me to tell you in this article how much visiting a national park in the last few years has changed. From new national park reservation systems, hiking permits, and sunrise permits to sold-out campgrounds, it's a different experience than it was just a few short years ago.
When visiting most national parks, especially in the peak summer travel season, it helps to put on your patience hat. There may be a long wait at the gate to pay and enter. Traffic is also to be expected once in a park, so it helps to leave plenty of time to get from one location to the next. Finding parking spaces is another common challenge.
If the park offers a shuttle system, this can be a less stressful way to get around inside the park. Our family drives a large dually truck to haul our fifth-wheel home around the country. As great as our truck is for RV towing, navigating parking areas in some national parks is a challenge. We have found it is much more enjoyable to just hop aboard the free national park shuttles and relax until the next stop. This not only lets us gawk at the scenery and wildlife as we go, but it removes the parking concern or worry of narrow winding roads with our oversized vehicle.
Outdoor travel took center stage when the pandemic hit, and it hasn't slowed since. While seeing so many more people getting out there and spending quality time together enjoying nature is absolutely wonderful, you may be looking for a more serene experience when visiting the national parks. Keep reading for tips to have a more enjoyable national park visit.
How To Plan Ahead for Your National Park Trip - Park Entrance and Camping Reservations
Today it generally takes a lot more advanced planning to visit a national park. As soon as you know your travel plans, find out if the park you are interested in visiting has a reservation system to enter or if advance permits are required for certain park activities. This summer, some national parks have actually dropped their timed-entrance reservation requirement. An example is Yosemite National Park, which no longer has a park entrance requirement for the summer of 2023.
It helps to do some research to find out if the national park you are interested in visiting has any reservation requirements in place and, if so, when the window opens to be able to book the entrance reservation. Set a calendar reminder with the date and time so you don't miss out. Every park has different entrance reservation windows, so be sure to check the details of each park you are interested in.
In addition to park entrance reservations (https://theadventuredetour.com/visit-national-parks-without-a-reservation/) some national parks also require permits for popular hikes or park experiences such as sunrises. An example of a hike permit requirement is for Yosemite's Half Dome hike. A sunrise permit is required to enter Acadia early and access the road to Cadillac Mountain. Permit tickets have a separate reservation window that is different for each park. Check to see which park experiences require permits and when they become available so you can snag a spot.
Camping Reservations in The National Parks
Planning ahead is also key if you would like to camp in a national park. National park campsite reservations are extremely competitive. Not only are national park campgrounds usually full of scenery and nature, but they also put you right there in the park where the action is. It's very convenient to stay inside the park, hop on a park shuttle from the campground, and enjoy campground ranger programs. National Park camping is simply the best, but this is also the reason why it is in such high demand.
It's important to find out the campground reservation window for the national park you wish to stay in. All national park campgrounds used to be on a six-month rolling reservation window. This is no longer the case. As national parks have struggled to manage issues in campground availability, many parks have adopted different reservation windows.
Note the date and time, including the time zone, the reservation window opens for your trip dates, and set a calendar reminder. Be sure to set up an online account in advance and log in beforehand. Then hit the reservation button at the exact time the window opens. Most reservations are booked solid in the first few minutes after the reservation window is open, so you must be quick. Consider having a friend or travel partner help you score a reservation.
If you didn't get the camping reservation you were looking for or need to plan a last-minute national park camping trip, you could always try for campsite cancellations (https://theadventuredetour.com/arvie-campsite-availability-checker-and-campsite-cancellations/). This is possible to do manually by periodically checking, or you can use a campsite cancellation service that searches for openings during your travel dates. We haven't had much luck manually checking for cancellations but utilizing a service to find national park campground openings has been extremely helpful for our family.
Tips To Enjoy the Parks with Fewer Crowds
If you want to enjoy a more peaceful natural experience during your national park visit, check out these tips to visit with less crowds.
Consider Visiting During the Shoulder Season
I don't know about you, but there is something magical about opening up or closing down the RV camping season each year. We love it! It's the same with the national parks. Visiting in the spring or fall is the perfect time to hit the parks before the huge crowds arrive or as the season winds down. The weather is often perfect, and you can spend time in the parks without the peak-season traffic jam. If you want a national park visit with fewer people, consider visiting in the off-season.
Of course, it's the same with visiting on a weekday versus a weekend. We always say it's better to go with crowds than not go at all. While that is true with national parks or any travel experiences, you will always have a more peaceful experience if you can skip the weekend crowds. As full-time RVers (https://theadventuredetour.com/selling-it-all-for-camper-life/), we often catch up on work and school during the weekends and sightseeing during the quieter weekdays. While that isn't an option for everyone's schedule, if you can squeeze in a weekday visit, that may be the best time to hit the most popular tourist spots within a national park.
Enter The Park in The Late Afternoon
I know what you are thinking. The early bird gets the worm, and you want to enter first thing in the morning. While you may have to enter early if you go on a long day hike or participate in some other time-sensitive park activity, mornings are often more crowded. You can experience a long line trying to enter the park and more traffic on the park drives.
Our family has never been early bird travelers. But in this case, not being on the ball early has been our advantage. During RV trips when we are staying longer near a national park, we like to come into the park around dinner time and stay until after sunset. Not only is it phenomenal to enjoy the sunset in a national park, but many parks clear out when exhausted hikers and sightseers exit to have dinner. We sometimes bring dinner picnics to enjoy the scenery and soak in the peace and quiet.
Visit One of The Less Popular National Parks
Yes, there really are some parks that are still not widely known and visited. These parks are perfect to visit during the summer season while still enjoying more peace in nature compared to the more popular national parks. Let's jump into some of our favorite less-crowded parks.
Check Out These National Parks for More Nature and Less People
Some parks are visited less due to a remote location or simply because they aren't as well known as the other parks. Here are a few of our family's favorite national parks that also happen to have some of the smallest annual park attendance. One of these choices may be exactly what you are looking for.
Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is located in a rural area of Central California, about 78 miles south of San Jose. This newer national park is spectacular, and many people simply don't know about it yet. Or maybe the rural location has kept visitation down. Either way, it's your gain if you want to explore a hidden gem park without the crazy crowds.
Pinnacles is the 8th least visited park in the lower 48, with an annual attendance of around 275,000, according to the national park visitor data from 2022. Pinnacles didn't become a national park until 2013, and its attendance has steadily grown since then. I would be shocked if this park stayed on the least visited list in the coming years. Why? Because it's stunning!
Pinnacles is a paradise for hikers and rock climbers. Named after its beautiful rock formations, as soon as you step foot in the park, you will see exactly why we love it. Some of the rock formations have tumbled down over time into rock talus caves that visitors can now explore. Bring along a headlamp or flashlight to walk through the caves. There are many talus formations to explore, and our family found this to be exciting to explore. Also, note that your shoes may get wet walking through some of the caves, and it helps to wear sturdy footwear for slick surfaces.
This park also has a unique program for the California Condor, which nests high in the park's rock formations. We didn't get the chance to view one during our visit, but other travelers we spoke to out on the trails did get a chance to see the rare, protected birds. Keep your eyes peeled along the rock ridges during your visit to try to spot the Condors.
Also, make sure to check out Bear Gulch Reservoir. This lake, surrounded by pinnacle rock formations, almost appears to have black water. It's a very unique place and a spectacular photo opportunity. During our visit, we hiked the Bear Gulch Cave Trail to the Bear Gulch Reservoir and returned on the Rim Trail. Daredevil hikers that don't mind heights will enjoy taking the 6-mile High Peaks Trail Condor Gulch Loop, which gives you a great chance to view Condors while heading up a steep and sometimes narrow path to 1325 feet in elevation.
Channel Islands National Park
Speaking of ditching the crowds, have you ever wanted to feel like you left the US completely? You can do exactly that with a national park trip to the Channel Islands. This stunning island off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, feels worlds away from the mainland. Island visitation is limited since it can only be reached by the national park concessionaire or private boat.
Not only is this scenic chain of islands worth the boat ride to reach them, but the boat ride itself is incredible. This channel is a popular area for spotting dolphins as whales in season. We visited the park in March and got the thrill of seeing both from the boat. Dolphins were jumping and splashing in the water at the rear of the boat for a good portion of the ride out to the islands. It was also a huge thrill to see the whales and our family's first time ever spotting one in the wild.
The islands are known for spectacular hiking opportunities alongside the coastal cliffsides, kayaking through island sea caves, and trying to spot the island fox that only lives here. We chose to visit the largest island in the chain, Santa Cruz Island. This island also has a campground for tent campers that would like to stay longer. The hiking on this island was simply breathtaking, and we did get a chance to see one of the rare foxes. Another popular island to visit is Anacapa Island which features a lighthouse.
Although this is the 10th least visited national park in the lower 48, you will need to book your boat trip to reach the park well in advance to guarantee a spot. This park isn't crowded because the boat limits the number of visitors, but you still don't want to miss the boat! Also, bring along motion sickness medication for any travelers in your party that may experience sea sickness. The water can be choppy in this area.
Lassen National Park
Lassen is a hidden gem park that will knock your socks off both with beauty and interesting geological surprises. The scenic alpine lakes surrounded by the Cascade Mountains are postcard perfect. This park only sees around 359,000 visitors annually, partly due to its remote Northern California location and very short season. The year we visited; the park roads didn't open completely until July.
Even if you can only enter the park at one of the two entrances to reach one of the visitor centers, you will still be glad you came. Both park entrances offer spectacular features to the point of any snow-covered road closures. What makes this park so unexpected is the stunning volcanic features. It contains volcanic features such as bubbling mud pots and steam vents. You have to see this park to believe it!
Other Great Parks to Skip the Crowds
You may be wondering why we only listed California National Parks. While many national park options have lower annual attendance, the three parks listed above were our family's favorites. Out of 37 national parks visited so far, you won't be disappointed with these three less crowded parks. Some other great choices in the lower 48 are North Cascades National Park, Redwood National Park, and Black Canyon of The Gunnison National Park.
National Park travel may be more popular than it used to be, but that doesn't mean you must sacrifice having an incredible time out in nature. With some advanced planning, you can find a park that meets all of your travel desires without dealing with the crowds. So, what are you waiting for? Pack up the RV and head out to enjoy a national park this summer!