Sure, you could show up at your nearest national park and wing it—with everyone else. But breaking out of the pack requires a little extra planning.
READERS' TOP QUESTIONS
What can I do to avoid monster crowds?
First off, choose your park wisely. Consider going to a lesser-known place that's just as scenic. Think Canyonlands in Utah, California's Sequoia and Kings Canyon, and Theodore Roosevelt in North Dakota. The latter, with 70,000 acres of badlands, wild horses, and bison, drew just 120,000 visitors last July—five times fewer than Mount Rushmore National Memorial, one state south. Timing is also key: At most parks, July and August are by far the busiest months. Bryce Canyon sees roughly half as many visitors in October as it does in July. "No matter when you go," notes Bryce Canyon ranger Kevin Poe, "start your day early in the morning when only the animals are out." And ditch your car. Even a short hike into the backcountry buys you some solitude and increases your chances of spotting a mule deer or a hawk. At Yosemite, for instance, only 20 percent of visitors stray more than a quarter mile beyond the main roads, and 90 percent hit Yosemite Valley, which—pretty as it is—covers only 5 percent of the park. To ensure a quieter scene, make your home base in a less congested area, such as the Grand Canyon's North Rim or in Polebridge, Mont., at Glacier. And befriend a park ranger; most know every inch of their territory and are happy to point you to their favorite hidden spots.
Any tips for making reservations at park hotels and campgrounds?
Be persistent. Hotels in popular parks typically start accepting reservations about a year in advance; for peak periods, most get fully booked several months out. But rules aside, rooms do open up, even in July. "People cancel all the time," says Dave Hartvigsen, vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which operates lodging and concessions at eight national parks and monuments (xanterra.com). To score a last-minute room, make some calls—it's easier to check late-breaking openings over the phone than online—and focus your efforts on two time periods: 30 days before check-in (when tour operators release blocks of rooms they've failed to book) and two to five days before arrival (guests can generally cancel reservations without penalty 48 hours before check-in). As for camping, many parks have first-come, first-served sites for as little as $5 a tent. Yosemite has six such campgrounds (plus four others with some walk-in spots), and although you can call to check availability (209/372-0266), the only way to snag a tent site is to show up early. Camp 4, the lone walk-up campground in Yosemite Valley, is usually full by 9 a.m., and the line often starts forming at 6 a.m. The National Parks' website (nps.gov) has details on all camping options. The sites that require reservations are available through recreation.gov, where, for only $10 to $20 a night, you can secure a spot five months ahead.
Are there deals to be had?
Sure. The fastest way to cut costs is to be smart about your hotel choice. For starters, consider staying in a motel just outside the park for at least part of your visit. And if you can, go in the off-season: At the Grand Canyon's Yavapai Lodge, rooms that cost $153 in summer are $105 from November through March. Also stay alert for park freebies. Admission fees, which at the most popular spots run up to $25 per vehicle, are waived a few times a year, including National Park Week (every April), the anniversary of the National Park Service (August 14 and 15), National Public Lands Day (September 25), and Veterans Day (November 11). If you're bagging several parks over a 12-month period, consider the America the Beautiful pass, which grants a carload of people entrance to all federal recreation areas for a year (store.usgs.gov/pass, $80); U.S. citizens 62 and older can purchase a lifetime version for only $10. And the best deals of all are the abundant free, or nearly free, activities led by rangers: guided hikes, stargazing primers, wildlife-tracking sessions, and s'mores, anyone?
Am I allowed to bring my dog?
Most parks have stiff rules on where pets are permitted (nps.gov spells out each policy). Great Smoky Mountains, for example, allows dogs on just 3.4 miles of its sprawling 800-plus-mile trail system. At Glacier, they're forbidden on trails altogether. Generally speaking, canines are barred from national park backcountries and must always be on a leash. This is all for good reason: They're potential predators—or prey—in the woods. Stephen Zawistowski, Ph.D., animal behaviorist and executive vice president and science adviser at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says bringing his own beagle to a national park would be "torture" for them both. "He'd want to pursue every scent but couldn't," Zawistowski says. "Where's the fun in that?" Bottom line: Your pup may have a better time in your backyard.
PARKS HIT LIST
Biggest: Wrangell-St. Elias, Alaska, 13 million acres
Newest: Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, 2004
Most visited: Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee and North Carolina, 9 million annual guests! (on average)
Least visited: Kobuk Valley, Alaska, 2,860 visitors (on average)
GREAT FAMILY ADVENTURES
Age-appropriate outings for you and your crew.
0–6 years: Grand Canyon Kids love trains; adults love scenery (and sitting). So everyone wins on a day trip from Williams, Ariz., to the South Rim on the Grand Canyon Railway. thetrain.com, adults $70, kids $40, includes 3.75 hours at the canyon.
3–8 years: Shenandoah On Mondays and Wednesdays, Shenandoah Scavenger Hikes organizes two-hour hunts, with easy trails leading to "treasures" like bear dens and a tree dotted with grapefruit-size woodpecker holes. visitshenandoah.com, $5.
5–10 years: Dinosaur National Monument At key points on the half-mile Fossil Discovery Trail, rangers get kids to identify—and touch!—real dino bones anchored in the rock walls. nps.gov/dino, free.
10–16 years: Yosemite Rafting the Merced River is the ticket on a hot summer day: Your teens can stage water fights in their own boat, while you lay back and take in the pristine, three-mile stretch. yosemitepark.com, adults $26, kids 12 and under $16.