Summer seemed lightyears away during our dark winter and rainy spring … but now suddenly it’s summer, and your family’s clamoring for that classic trip to a national park. Is it too late? Will you end up stuck in a tourist traffic jam and sleeping in your car if you didn’t plan your vacation months ago? If you follow these tips, you can still pull it off.
When to go
The hardest part is finding lodging, so flex your dates around whatever openings you find. Scan the online calendar of a park’s lodging provider, or call and ask the reservation agent’s advice for best availability dates.
For better luck, go as late in the summer as possible, when many kids are already back in school. The weekends before and after July 4th can be less popular, too. Also, go on weekdays for better availability than weekends.
Lining up lodging
There are a couple of “windows” when cancelations occur and you may be able to grab a reservation. Check 30 days before your trip, when tour operators release unsold rooms. Another good time to try is two to five days before your visit, when reservation-holders can still cancel with no penalty. As a last resort, ask the front desk at any park hotel – they may be able to check the whole park’s bookings.
You may have better luck camping. At reservable campgrounds, show up between 10 a.m. and noon, when the previous campers are checking out, to claim a spot. If none of the reservable campgrounds have openings, every national park also has first-come, first-serve campgrounds, too. Arrive with your coffee in hand at 6 a.m. to snag a good spot in line. Either way, you’ll have a better chance – and more peaceful surroundings – at campgrounds that are in less-visited corners of a park, or on unpaved roads.
Note that at first-come, first-serve campgrounds, your family can stay as long as you’d like; but if you nab an opening at a reservable site, you will get kicked out when another visitor claims their reservation.
Another option: Spend your day in a national park, and the night just outside. Try the towns of West Yellowstone; Port Angeles, for Olympic National Park; Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls, or Browning for Glacier National Park; and Tusayan, for the Grand Canyon – they have scores of hotels and campgrounds clamoring for your business.
Where to go
Try the “back door” of a popular park for smaller crowds and more plentiful lodging: The North Rim of the Grand Canyon has one tenth the visitors of the South Rim. And the North Fork Area is a much-less visited corner of Glacier.
The natural wonders don’t necessarily stop at park borders. Scan your map for nearby lesser-known national parks, monuments, and state parks as alternatives that are just as beautiful, but cheaper and less crowded. Sequoia and Kings Canyon don’t have Yosemite’s Half Dome, but they do have equally gorgeous valleys, giant trees, and high-alpine lakes. Great Basin National Park has 50 percent as many visitors as Arches, but also has a six-story-tall stone arch, marble caves, and ultra-clear skies for stargazing. Idaho’s Harriman State Park lacks geysers, but it boasts wildlife, fishing, and Teton views similar to Yellowstone’s.
You’re going at the most popular time of year. How can you avoid the crowds?
For some parks, you can whiz through an express entrance if you’ve bought your entrance pass beforehand; businesses or visitors’ centers in nearby towns may sell them. You can pay ahead of time for entry to Olympic and Mount Rainier National Parks, and Washington state parks, at REI (online and at the Seattle flagship store). If your family will visit three or more national parks in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass covers admission to all.
If you must visit on a weekend, arrive as early and leave as late as possible to avoid traffic jams and try to visit the park’s hot spots before and after the worst crowds.
Explore the park in the early morning. Wildlife is more active, lighting’s better for photos, and most tourists won’t be out ’til after breakfast.
Finally, park your car and hit the trails! In Yosemite, for example, only 20 percent of tourists venture more than a quarter mile off the main roads. Ask a ranger for his or her favorite less-traveled routes.
Does all this planning sound too daunting? Take the easy way out and check for last-minute openings with a tour company or nonprofit field institute that include lodging, activities, and transportation. It may cost more than independent travel, but can be less stressful, and it’s fun to get to know other families in your group.
Haunting the lodging websites to find rooms … maneuvering around the tourist hordes … waiting in a traffic jam so your child can see a real, live buffalo … Your trip may not be a peaceful nature experience, but it will certainly be worthwhile and memorable. Every American child should have a chance to witness our country’s grandeur and variety, preserved in our national parks.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2014.