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6 tips to beat the crowds at national parks, from a couple who visited all 63 of them

Matt and Karen Smith quit their jobs and set out to visit every US national park in 2010.
Matt and Karen Smith quit their jobs and set out to visit every US national park in 2010.
  • Matt and Karen Smith, college sweethearts, quit their jobs in 2010 to visit every US national park.
  • They love hiking and wildlife but aren't exactly fans of crowds. 
  • The Smiths shared their best tips for avoiding crowded national parks. 

Summer is approaching, and for many Americans, that means one thing: It's the season to get out and explore a US national park.

Last year, the National Parks Service reported that over 325 million people visited at least one of the national parks in the US, a 4% jump from the previous year.

With such numbers, crowds are almost inevitable. But, according to Matt and Karen Smith, a couple who has been to every major US national park, there are several ways to avoid falling into a throng of tourists.

The Smiths are both 63 and met at college in Kansas. "For the first 25 years of marriage, we were focused on going to work and getting a paycheck and raising kids," Matt told Business Insider.

In 2010, they became empty nesters, with the youngest of their three children going off to college. After moving to Seattle and being introduced to the national parks by close friends, they decided to set out on an adventure using their savings to visit all 63 national parks in the US.

Their adventure took them to far-flung corners of the US, like American Samoa and north of the Arctic circle. Along the way, they wrote emails to their friends, Bob and Sue, who had inspired them to explore the national parks. Eventually, they compiled those emails — anecdotes and observations about their national parks experiences — into their first book "Dear Bob and Sue."

Today, Matt and Karen regularly share national parks content on Instagram and on their podcast. Here, the national parks veterans share with Business Insider their tips on how to beat the crowds.

If you can, try to visit a national park on a weekday.
National parks are extra crowded on weekends.
National parks are extra crowded on weekends.

The Smiths said that one of the easiest ways to avoid throngs of tourists at the height of summer is to visit a national park on a day other than Saturday or Sunday.

"If you're going at a crowded time," Karen said, "Try not to go on a weekend because when you have a weekend, it draws all the local people in to hike."

Arrive early — and don't rule out returning at dusk.
Off-peak hours are ideal for a quieter national park experience.
Off-peak hours are ideal for a quieter national park experience.

It might seem like it goes without saying, but the earlier you arrive at a national park, the better your chances are to enjoy uninterrupted hiking and wildlife spotting.

"If you're going on a hike, you can set off on the hike before the crowds get there," Karen said, adding that if visitors arrive by car, they'll also have a better parking experience.

It may also be worth staying late or returning in the evening to soak in some spectacular vistas in peace and quiet, the Smiths added.

When they visit Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, they like to stay local and return to the park in the evening. "Because the day trippers leave about five or six, we like to go and watch the sunset," Karen said. "There's hardly anybody there."

Booking tours with park rangers can be a tourist-avoiding game changer.
Book tours with rangers to avoid the crowds.
Book tours with rangers to avoid the crowds.

If a national park offers tours with rangers, the Smiths recommend booking one to escape the hustle and bustle of the more well known areas. The couple did a canoe tour in Congaree, a national park in South Carolina, for example.

Karen said tours are usually limited to 10 to 12 people. "So all of a sudden, you're not in the crowds. You're with just a handful of people and a ranger," she added.

Matt said that some tours also have entrance preferences, meaning guests can access the parks before other tourists.

Crowds tend to dissipate if you hike a quarter mile down any trail.
Hiking in Denali National Park in Alaska.
Hiking in Denali National Park in Alaska.

Karen and Matt are avid hikers — and they love it for multiple reasons.

"The hiking is just physically good for us," Matt said, adding that it also helps them "get away from the crowds."

"If you hike a quarter mile down any trail, the crowd drops by 90%, you hike another quarter mile, and it drops by another 90%," he said.

Just being "willing" to explore can change the experience of a national park. "You can be in a really, really crowded park and go a mile out on the trail, and you're by yourself," Matt said.

Broaden your horizon to lesser-known national or state parks.
Sequoia National Park is less crowded than Yosemite.
Sequoia National Park is less crowded than Yosemite.

Sometimes, the best way to beat the crowd is to avoid it entirely. A simple way to do that is to go to a national park that is slightly less popular but just as beautiful.

For example, Matt and Karen recommend visiting Sequoia and Kings Canyon, two parks relatively close to Yosemite, one of the most popular national parks in the US.

"Yosemite can be very, very crowded, but you just go a couple of hours south to these two parks, and it's like you're in Yosemite, and there's literally 1/20 of the crowd," Matt said.

Another recommendation the couple has is not to overlook monuments and state parks close to popular national parks. Utah is home to a handful of well-known parks like Zion, Arches, and Bryce Canyon, but it also has the Bureau of Land Management, home to 22.8 million acres of rivers, canyons, and mountains.

"There are some places that rival the national parks that are literally right there," Karen said.

Your best bet for a peaceful national park visit is to go offseason.
The Smiths say everyone can have an adventure in a national park, no matter who they are.
The Smiths say everyone can have an adventure in a national park, no matter who they are.

As empty nesters, Karen and Matt are in the position to visit national parks outside peak seasons.

"We're fortunate because we work for ourselves and don't have small children," Karen said. "We can go whenever."

For people like them, Karen and Matt said their top recommendation is to go in the offseason.

Still, they understand not everyone, especially parents with kids, shares that privilege. For them, they'd recommend trying their other crowd-avoiding tips or biting the bullet because, whether there are crowds or not, visiting a national park is still an "incredible" experience.

"We're just trying to encourage people to get out there and have their own adventure," Matt added.

Read the original article on Business Insider
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