Hiking tips

I’m a national parks pro – my 5 tips for summer hikes, from finding the best spots to avoiding the crowds

Social distancing has been difficult for many during the pandemic, but it was a dream come true for me as I had the opportunity to get out and explore.

In the past two years, I’ve traveled over 7,000 miles and visited at least 20 of the nation’s national parks.

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Spencer Clinton in the John Muir WildernessCredit: Spencer Clinton
A look at Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park with Half Dome (right) and El Capitan (left) in the distance

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A look at Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park with Half Dome (right) and El Capitan (left) in the distanceCredit: Spencer Clinton
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park

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Grand Canyon of Yellowstone in Yellowstone National ParkCredit: Spencer Clinton
The Milky Way over Bryce Canyon National Park

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The Milky Way over Bryce Canyon National ParkCredit: Spencer Clinton

Timing is key to getting the most out of a visit to the park. Getting closer to nature for a stress-free trip means doing everything you can to avoid traffic jams, long wait times and crowded viewpoints.

Here are my tips and tricks for avoiding the crowds and making the most of your National park visit.

TO WAKE UP EARLY

Getting up and out before dawn is no easy task, and many park visitors won’t feel like waking up to the birds.

Use this to your advantage. Find out what time the sun rises in the park you’re visiting, pick a vantage point, and avoid the midday crowds.

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The spectacular sunrise will make that groggy feeling worth it. If the early hours aren’t your thing, consider staying in the park well after dark for incredible stargazing.

I would recommend Great Basin National Park or Bryce Canyon National Park as they see some of the darkest skies in the country.

WEEKDAY VISIT

Most people will naturally visit a park on weekends. so why not go on a weekday instead.

If you work, take a day off or offer to work on a holiday in exchange for a compensatory day to avoid popular holidays.

Take advantage of a weekday visit to take in the most popular hikes and take in the must-see sights and viewpoints that are normally bustling.

STAY AWAY FROM THE BUCKET LIST HOT SPOTS

Make time to travel a little further and see some of the parks that aren’t number one on everyone’s list.

For example, Zion and Bryce Canyon are extremely popular destinations among Utah’s five parks.

However, a few hours away from them is Capitol Reef National Park.

If you’re looking for stunning red rock formations resembling Mars, Capitol Reef won’t disappoint, and you’ll avoid the crowds of people who are only interested in the other two.

GET OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

In each park, there is THE thing to do.

Whether it’s Tunnel View in Yosemite, Old Faithful in Yellowstone, or Delicate Arch in Arches, these places will always be teeming with visitors.

While these features are famous for a reason, there are a plethora of beautiful places to visit in each park that may not get the attention they deserve.

Take a look at the park map or search online, you’re bound to find a secluded trail or hidden waterfall that’s been overlooked simply because it’s not close to popular parts of the park.

My favorite best kept secret is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

DON’T GO ON FREE ENTRY DAYS

Each year, the National Park Service allows visitors free entry on certain days:

January 17: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 16: First day of National Parks Week
August 4: Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
September 24: National Public Lands Day
November 11th: veterans day

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While this might seem like the perfect opportunity to visit a park, keep in mind that many people will have the same idea.

No matter what day of the week they may fall, they are sure to draw large crowds.

Mather Point in Grand Canyon National Park

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Mather Point in Grand Canyon National ParkCredit: Spencer Clinton
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park

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Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National ParkCredit: Spencer Clinton
Canyon Overlook viewpoint in Zion National Park

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Canyon Overlook viewpoint in Zion National ParkCredit: Spencer Clinton
Photographers gather to watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park

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Photographers gather to watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National ParkCredit: Spencer Clinton