Yes, You Can Avoid Crowds in the National Parks & Here is How

Tips on finding quieter havens and hidden gems

Given the astonishing beauty and richness of the 63 U.S. national parks, it’s no wonder they’re so popular: They received 237 million visitors in 2020—only a 28 percent drop from the year before despite widespread closures and travel slowing nearly to a halt due to the pandemic. This year will likely attract many more visitors drawn to outdoor spaces relatively close to home.

These are some of my tips for finding beautiful, less crowded spots, and moments of solitude even in the most popular of these wonderful destinations.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Lesser-known National Parks

Every national park-lover needs to visit Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and the Grand Canyon at some point but consider visiting some of the lesser-known parks as well. One of my favorite “sleeper” parks is Petrified Forest in Arizona; here you’ll find remains of a colorful prehistoric forest, some of the logs more than 100 feet long and up to 10 feet in diameter. But there’s so much more: artifacts of the ancient indigenous people who lived here including the remains of large pueblos and massive rock art panels, fossils of plants and animals from the late Triassic period (the dawn of the dinosaurs), a striking and vast Painted Desert (a badland cloaked in a palette of pastel colors), a wilderness of more than 50,000 acres where you can find wildness and beauty, and a remnant of historic Route 66 complete with a 1932 Studebaker!

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other favorites include Congaree in South Carolina (the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeast) and California’s remote Lassen Volcanic, one of the only places in the world that has all four types of volcanoes—cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Find Little-known Havens within a Park

Most national parks are pretty big places but visitors tend to congregate at some of the most well-known and iconic sites leaving other areas blissfully quiet. For example, Yosemite Valley includes some of the park’s most famous attractions but the valley is a tiny fraction of the park. Visit the Hetch Hetchy area, often described as the twin of Yosemite Valley, and hike to Wapama Falls or Rancheria Falls. Or drive to the lesser-visited northwest corner of Yellowstone and walk the Bighorn Pass Trail that follows the striking Upper Gallatin River.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Rocky Mountain avoid the popular Bear Lake Corridor area and take the dramatic Ute Trail through the park’s alpine tundra or the lovely Colorado River Trail in the park’s Never Summer Range.

In Joshua Tree, take a walk to Cottonwood Springs Oasis, filled with thick California fan palms and large cottonwoods. Grinding holes in nearby rocks tell the story of the ancient use of the oasis by Native Americans centuries ago. Cottonwood Spring is noted for its birdlife. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit during the Off-season

Many parks accommodate the majority of their visitors in the three summer months leaving the rest of the year relatively fallow (although these shoulder seasons are growing shorter as more people are adopting this strategy). The waterfalls of Yosemite are typically at their peak in May when it gets 10 percent of the park’s annual visits compared to 16 percent in August; fall foliage at Acadia is at its most colorful in October when it sees 13 percent of its annual visitors, compared to 22 percent in August; and wildflowers in the Grand Canyon are usually most prolific in April (9 percent of visitors versus 13 percent in July). For even more solitude, go for the real off-season—usually winter—when many parks such as Arches and Zion are quiet and beautiful.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get Out of your Car and Walk

It’s the natural law of parks that the number of people you see decreases exponentially with each mile you go from the trailhead and walking is the most intimate way to experience the parks. It allows you to appreciate the parks through so many of the senses: See the tracks of elusive mountain lions at Glacier National Park, hear the iconic call of the canyon wren as you hike through the Grand Canyon, smell the sweetness of Ponderosa pine bark warming in the sun in Yosemite, taste the salt air as you walk the Ocean Path at Acadia, and feel the solid granite beneath your feet as you explore the trails of Isle Royale.

Shuttle stop at Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use Shuttle Trams when Available

Traffic congestion and lack of parking plague many parks and the National Park Service is responding with shuttle buses at popular destinations such as Zion, Bryce Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Acadia, Grand Canyon, and Denali. Use these transit systems to avoid the traffic and parking headaches that too many of us face in our everyday lives.

Steller’s jay at Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rise Early and/or Stay Late

Get to attraction sites and trailheads early in the day and consider hikes late in the day—parking spaces are more readily available at these times and you’ll experience the parks at the “golden hours” when the light is at its finest—soft and rich—for viewing and photographing and when wildlife is more likely to be seen. Experience the dawn chorus of birds, one of the world’s great natural phenomena, and enjoy it in relative solitude.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Purchase Park Passes and Supplies before Arriving

Nearly all national parks require an entrance pass/fee. Of course, you can obtain passes at the parks you visit but this will probably require waiting in line at the park entrance station or visitor center. You can obtain passes in advance on the National Park Service website and some parks have an express lane for visitors who already have a pass. You can also save time and money purchasing the goods and services you’ll need (food, fuel, camping supplies) for your visit before you enter the park. These items are often available in the parks but only at a few locations and you’ll probably have to wait behind other visitors to make your purchases.

Cowpens National Battlefield, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit National Monuments and Other National Park Service Sites

There are 423 national park service (NPS) sites in total and only 63 of them have the congressional designation of “National Park” including the most recent New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. In addition to monuments and national parks, there are national lakeshores and seashores, memorials, parkways, preserves, reserves, recreation areas, rivers and riverways, and scenic trails. Into military history? There are national battlefields, battlefield parks, battlefield sites, and national military. History buff? You’ll find national historical parks, national historic sites, and international historic sites.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There will always be a thirst for touring the nation’s iconic parks—for hiking in the canyons of Zion or scampering among the natural arches and pinnacles of Arches National Park. But travelers who’ve hiked New Mexico’s otherworldly Malpais National Monument or driven National Scenic Byway 12 through southeastern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without having to navigate throngs of people may never again think the same way about visiting America’s iconic national parks.

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

— John Muir

Oasis in the Desert: Experiencing Nature in Sabino Canyon

Feel the magic of nature as you ride a comfortable shuttle through the wonders of Sabino Canyon

Ringed by four mountain ranges with magical names—the Santa Catalina to the north, the Santa Rita to the south, the Rincon to the east, and the Tucson to the west—the city of Tucson is surrounded by trails. Each one winds through the rugged and sometimes otherworldly landscape of the Sonoran Desert, where saguaro cacti stand like sentinels in the sand and ancient canyons await exploration.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many trails from which to choose, but the ones most beloved by Tucsonians are those that run through Sabino Canyon. Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalinas, Sabino has long been an oasis in the desert. In the era before air-conditioned houses and cars, people went to the canyon to cool off in the waters of Sabino Creek, or to rest in the shade of a sycamore tree.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each year more than a million visitors hike, bike, and experience nature in the canyon. And they do it all year round, because Sabino has something to offer in every season.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With the exception of U.S. Forest Service vehicles, cars are not allowed in Sabino; overnight camping is prohibited, too. A tram takes visitors along a road paved by the federal Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. There are several stops along the way, and riders can get off where they choose. At the top of the road, you can reach such popular hikes as the Blackett’s Ridge and Telephone Line trails, as well as a swimming hole called Hutch’s Pool. A number of pleasant picnic areas are scattered throughout the canyon.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the creek is shallow and allows only for wading, there’s deeper water at Sabino Dam. Located in the lower canyon, the dam is an easy hike from the parking lot, and the swimming hole it creates is a local favorite. The creek flows almost year-round, but in May and June one runs the risk of not seeing water at all.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because of the desert’s large creek and unique microclimate—two rainy seasons make it moister than most others—Sabino is full of diverse plants and wildlife. For as long as humans have lived in this area, the canyon has been beloved for its rugged beauty and life-giving waters.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In fact, Sabino Creek is the largest on the south slope of the Santa Catalinas. The nearby trees provide cover for many birds. In addition to birds, one could easily see deer, javelina or even cougars. This place abounds with rodents and has more types of reptiles than you can count. Gila monsters, the largest lizards in the U.S., live in the canyon, and I suggest not touching them. They are venomous and move much faster than you’d expect.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert flora thrives here, especially the saguaros. The white flowers of these giant plants bloom in May and June. If you get the chance to smell them, the fragrance will remind you of watermelons.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And be on the lookout for the smaller, more obscure fishhook cacti, which bloom in July and August. In general, the best time to see wildflowers is March and April, though some varieties extend their bloom to October.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you plan to visit, pay close attention to the weather. Expect hot, humid conditions from July to the end of September, which is also the summer rainy season; around here they call it the monsoon. Beware of flash flooding, especially in the afternoon, when the heat is at its peak.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are so many miles of hiking trails in this canyon, we haven’t found most of them yet.

So come see Sabino Canyon—it never disappoints.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Favorite Stops Near Sabino Canyon

After exploring the natural beauty of Sabino Canyon, check out some of our favorite places around Tucson.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Xavier del Bac: Known as the White Dove of the Desert, this beautiful baroque church was completed in 1797 by Franciscan missionaries.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: Learn about all the mammals, birds, and native plants of the Sonoran Desert. It’s a zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum, and aquarium all rolled into one.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park: Divided into eastern (Rincon Mountain) and western (Tucson Mountain) districts, this park is full of beautiful flora, especially in the late spring when the saguaro cacti are in bloom.

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

Myakka River State Park: Place of Abundance Offering Varied Experiences

Myakka River State Park is a place of abundance. And from what I experienced during my visit, may have the most alligators

A place of abundance, Myakka River State Park offers a variety of experiences: Day-trippers come for the airboat ride, tram ride, canopy walkway, and stop at the water-front café. Adventurers head for the 39 miles of hiking trails, excellent paved and unpaved biking trails, or the wild and scenic river and lakes for kayaking.

Myakka River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Given you need ample time to see and do it all, you can camp in one of 80 camping sites or book one of five rustic log cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s.

At 37,000 acres, Myakka is one of Florida’s most complete outdoor experiences, centrally located so that it draws visitors from Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and snowbirds from throughout the U. S. and Canada.

The road through the park is seven miles long and offers several great places to get out, enjoy the wildlife and scenery, and take a short walk. The park road also makes an excellent bike trail. By bike, you enjoy the 360-degree view of the spectacular tree canopy over the road and the constant sounds of birds.

Myakka River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the main entrance the first key stops along the main road from south to north is the Log Pavilion. Built by the CCC in 1933, it is a beautiful building whose logs are palm-tree trunks. Park across the street behind the monument rock and explore the riverside and picnic area behind the pavilion too. There are benches overlooking the Myakka River, with oak trees arching their branches over the water. This a sure-fire place to spot alligators lounging across the river.

Cross the bridge over the Myakka River and park on the north side. People gather on the bridge, watching birds or gators or appreciating the view. A beautiful short trail extends along the northern bank of the river through the woods.

The Canopy Walk, a narrow one-way “swinging” bridge, is quite short—a narrow passageway 100 feet long and 25 feet off the ground, connecting two wooden towers that overlook the forest top. It’s just as cool to look at it from below—the view of the tree branches and air plants isn’t all that different at ground level.

Canopy Walk, Myakka River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Traveling northward, the Big Flats Marsh stretches to your left, with excellent birding opportunities. This is part of the Florida dry prairie habitat the park preserves and is restoring. Much of Central and Northern Florida were prairies like this—a vast plain covered with grasses, saw palmetto, and cabbage palms.

Myakka River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the right, watch for the gate with rustic sign “Meadow Sweet Pastures.” This is the beautiful Ranch House Road, easily biked. It leads to the site of buildings that were part of the ranch operated here by Chicago hotelier Bertha Palmer. Palmer donated much of the land that became Myakka River State Park. The ranch buildings are gone, but visitors have created a small pile of artifacts here.

Myakka River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you stay on the main road here, you’ll soon come to the Birdwalk, a boardwalk extending into Upper Myakka Lake. During the winter, friendly expert birders man this spot in the morning, locating birds in their scopes and helping visitors identify them. Near the end of the park, well off the main road on the right, is a particularly attractive picnic area along Clay Gully Creek.

On your way back, take the road spur that goes to the bustling concession area. This is where you book a one-hour airboat ride ($20 + tax) or a one-hour tram tour (same price, but there’s a discount if you do both.)

Myakka River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Pink Gator café in the concession area offers counter service for a variety of sandwiches and has a variety of draft beers, including some locally brewed ones. The view off the café’s covered deck is excellent and it’s a great place to relax.

The concession area also rents bikes, kayaks, and canoes.

This park is a hiker’s wonderland, with close to 39 miles of marked trails and six back-country camping sites.

Myakka River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With all its assets, it’s no surprise Myakka River State Park is a popular camping destination, particularly with snowbirds who reserve their two-week stint exactly 11 months in advance. There are three campground loops, lots of sites, and they all fill up on winter weekends.

Worth Pondering…

“I think I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”

This sentiment expressed by poet Joyce Kilmer shows the impact on a human being of one of nature’s delightful creations.