This is undoubtedly the summer of National Parks. Everyone I know seems to currently be on or just back from an epic road-trip to witness our natural wonders. I can’t blame them. I’ve visited 55 of the 63 major US parks and hundreds of other NPS sites over the past few years, so I know their beauty well. I’ve also seen firsthand that there are many more people in the parks this year. And I’ve seen how staffing issues in parks and the surrounding areas can — and has — created a headache for many first time visitors expecting unobstructed views and wide open spaces.
While many of us have already made our summer park visitation plans, it’s not too late for you. Campsites may be booked out but the park system is actually pretty well set up to accommodate spontaneous travelers. Just know that summer parks crowds are real — and they can get bothersome for anyone wanting a secluded slice of nature.
To help you plan, I’ve outlined where you can expect to find the most and fewest number of people at some of the most visited US National Parks. Use this as a resource if you’re keen to get yourself a little extra elbow room in the last month of the busy season.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park — 12.1 Million Visitors, Annually
People are often surprised when I tell them that not only is Great Smoky Mountains the most visited National Park, but that it wins by a landslide. With more than three times the visitation of the second most visited park, prepare yourself for other people on your hikes — often a lot of other people.
The most-visited parts of the Great Smoky Mountains tend to be the places that are easiest to get to. The pull offs, park roads, and short hikes with big payoffs. Clingmans’s Dome and Cades Cove will be especially crowded but are, in my opinion, worth it.
Drive the Foothills Parkway, a 16.5 mile section of a planned 71 mile road that provides a different vantage point of the park, or visit the Deep Creek area.
Yellowstone National Park 3.8 million visitors annually
Old Faithful, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Grand Prismatic Spring are all iconic spots at Yellowstone National Park that everyone wants to see for themselves at least once in their lifetimes. And the crowds mirror that. I still recommend going, just be prepared. (and pro tip — watch Old Faithful from the lodge’s second floor balcony with a drink, if it’s open)
Hike almost anywhere — most people stay close to the lookouts. Fairy Falls trail will give you the best view of Grand Prismatic from above, and North Rim Trail gives you less crowded views of the lookout to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
Zion National Park 3.6 million visitors annually
The Narrows and Angel’s Landing are all over your IG feed because those are the hikes everyone wants to do at Zion National Park. And for good reason, they are iconic and memorable and have some of the best views you will ever witness.
But they are also crawling with people.
Hike the East Side! While it’s also gaining in popularity it’s still less crowded than the main thoroughfare and just as gorgeous. Some hikes to try: Canyon Overlook, Petroglyph Canyon, and Observation Point (accessed from the East Mesa Trail).
Rocky Mountain National Park 3.3 million visitors annually
The Bear Lake Road corridor is the most popular part of Rocky Mountain National Park for sure — there is even a separate timed entry to this portion of the park this summer. It’s where you can access popular hikes like Emerald Lake and Sky Pond, so the crowds make sense.
Try the Wild Basin entrance! It’s a favorite of mine and generally less crowded. From here you can hike to the gorgeous Ouzel Falls. The Grand Lake entrance will also be less crowded in general than the two entrances from Estes Park.
Grand Teton National Park 3.3 million visitors annually
Grand Teton is the only national park with a commercial airport inside of it — so it makes sense that most of the park is crowded. It’s easy to access by air and then by car or bike once you arrive. Some popular spots are Jenny Lake, Mormon Row, and Schwabacher Landing.
Hike! A great thing about Grand Teton is that you can truly experience the beauty without ever hiking more than 100 feet from your car. With the abundance of pull outs and lakes making the park easily accessible, the actual trails aren’t too crowded in my experience. Taggart Lake, Phelps Lake and Leigh Lake are some of my favorites (are you sensing a pattern?).
You can also venture over to the Idaho side of the Tetons which, while not technically within the park, have great Teton views and nowhere near the traffic.
Grand Canyon National Park 2.9 million visitors annually
Grand Canyon Village, where you will visit first when entering the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is going to be super crowded. There is no way around this. It’s where the tour buses and families and day trippers enter and most stay.
The Rim trail. Yes, seriously. Hear me out here. Like many of the other parks of this list, aside from the bucket list type hikes, most people aren’t venturing too far from the parking lot. In the Grand Canyon that means a mile or so in either direction of Grand Canyon Village (or less) until you reach some solitude. Another great option is the North Rim — only open from May-October, it’s much less visited.
Acadia National Park 2.7 million visitors annually
Cadillac mountain (even with its reservation system) and Jordan Pond were the most crowded parts of the park during my visit last month. Acadia is consistently one of the most visited national parks while also being 5th smallest by land area — so many areas will probably have a few more people than you’d like. I wouldn’t avoid any of these areas though, just visit early in the day (or in the off-season).
The Schoodic Peninsula portion of Acadia is dramatically less visited. It is not directly connected to the main part of the park on Mount Desert Island, which seems to deter most people. But once you’re there you will be nearly alone to enjoy the beautiful coastlines and trails.
Olympic National Park 2.5 million visitors annually
In my experience (and I haven’t been in all seasons), I’ve never found Olympic particularly crowded. Maybe due to its size, but even the popular areas have never felt overwhelming to me. That being said, the most popular places are definitely the Hoh Rainforest and the beaches. Hurricane Ridge is also a popular spot. I still recommend going to all of them.
As far as hikes, Mount Storm King is very popular and will be crowded.
The South Fork of the Hoh trail is far less crowded than the main Hall of Mosses trail if you want to avoid more people. The Lake Quinault area is definitely at the top of my list and less crowded and more remote than some of the other areas on the peninsula. From there you can hike the short Rain Forest Nature Trail, Gatton Creek, or Irely Lake.