Washington hikers and backpackers are a unique crowd. We have high expectations when it comes to views, trail etiquette, and solitude. We know the good spots and we know the secret spots that we really only mention around close friends. But when we travel out of state, without our local insider information, we can find ourselves out of our element. I recently made the rounds to some of the West’s most famous National Parks, including Yellowstone, Arches, and Zion. While I reveled in the experience of exploring some of the nation’s most scenic National Parks, I constantly battled the feeling I was slowly slipping into a tourist trap and it was difficult to escape National Park hiking crowds.
Safe to say, I learned a few things along the way that will help plan my next adventure. Here are seven tips I can offer to help you stay away from the main pack and have a unique National Park adventure.
1.Location. Hate crowds? Avoiding them can be as simple as choosing one of the less iconic National Parks or state parks in the area. You don’t have to hit Utah’s “Big Five” if you won’t enjoy the experience in the end. Even if you want to explore the major parks, it can be calming to plan one or two hikes in the less popular regions of the park. The scenery will be spectacular nonetheless.
2. Timing. Avoid visiting on or near major holidays. Everyone (including me) wants to schedule their trips around major holidays to optimize their PTO. This is great maximizing your vacation time, but can dramatically increase the number of park visitors. Choose weekdays over weekends, and skip summer vacation. Typically National Parks will list the five most popular days on their website. Take this into consideration!
3. Backpacking. While most of the crowds flock to the short hikes and easy-to-reach photogenic points of interest, backpacking can be a fantastic way to break away from the herd. Backpacking also allows you to enjoy the park on your own timeline and actually experience the park’s natural beauty after the day crowds have dissipated. Because backcountry permits are required in National Parks, you can actually count on some solitude on the trail.
4. Research. Even though you’re leaving your usual stomping grounds, nothing is stopping you from getting local advice. Call the backcountry offices and ranger stations and ask around for tips. Don’t hesitate to request less popular hiking or backpacking trails; typically the rangers will sympathize and offer advice catered to the experience you’re looking for.
5. Strenuous trails. Typically trails marked “strenuous” are anything but, in Washington standards at least. I highly recommend selecting strenuous trails for a more serene experience. Before setting out on a strenuous trail, make sure to read any recommendations or precautions.
6. Secret trails. The best National Park trails aren’t marked. Ask the information center if they have any recommendations for less-traveled trails, and they might direct you to some unmarked trails. Because the trails are unmarked and often hidden at the start, you can relish in having a unique experience even in a well-traveled National Park.
7. Odd hours. Early or late; there’s no real guarantee as to when the crowds will gather. If you’re in the desert, sunrise and sunset can be popular times to visit the main attractions, but I recommend taking the chance. If conditions are fair and you have the right gear and experience, there’s nothing wrong with hitting the trail at sunset and enjoying the starry skies over some of the nation’s most striking vistas.
Of course, with National Parks there can really be no guarantee when the crowds will ebb and flow. The most important part of exploring a new National Park is to enjoy your experience, even if you’re sharing it with several hundred of your new closest friends.
If you have a National Park hiking tip, please share in the comments below!