Beat the Crowds in April
High season is February through early April in California's Death Valley, when wildflowers are in bloom and temperatures are relatively cool. But the entire point of Death Valleyamong the lowest, hottest, and driest places on the planetis to be a bit uncomfortable. In April, highs average 90 degrees, lows 62: Not relentless, but you'll definitely feel the heat, and nights offer relief. You could go in summer, when the mercury often hits 120, but the other point is isolationand summer has become popular with tourists, particularly Europeans.
As desolate as it sounds, Death Valley is a fairly varied experience. There's geology: Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level, marks the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere; Devil's Golf Course is a field of jagged salt crystals, said to audibly crack when the temperature changes; the dunes at Stovepipe Wells look like the shifting sands of the Sahara. There's history: Scotty's Castle is a house that wouldn't look out of place in Beverly Hills, with a strange backstory about an insurance magnate and a huckster; the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns are brick beehive ovens built in 1877 for making charcoal. There's mysticism: Playa Racetrack, an hour's drive down a rocky road, is a dry lake bedthe surface looks like cobblestoneswhere large rocks mysteriously move hither and yon, leaving long, deep tracks. The town of Shoshone has some offbeat charm: Whether you'll prefer the scruffy Crowbar Cafe & Saloon (Hwy. 127, 760/852-4123), or the new-age Cafe C'est Si Bon (Hwy. 127, 760/852-4307) depends on what kind of person you are.
March is peak season at Joshua Tree as well. For slightly smaller crowds, and the chance to catch the tail end of wildflowers in bloom, go a month later. The California park straddles the Mojave and Colorado deserts, and you're treated to three distinct landscapes: The northern high desert, with lunar-like rock formations and craggy Joshua tree forests; the southern low desert, with wide-open vistas and jagged peaks; and the transition zone, with features from both, as well as cholla cactus gardens and spidery ocotillo patches. There's nowhere to buy provisions inside the park, so the Crossroads Cafe and Tavernwhich serves breakfasts such as Willy Boy Hash, with shredded steak, peppers, and onions over cheesy scrambled eggsseems like an oasis (61715 29 Palms Hwy., 760/366-5414).
For an even less crowded desert, try Arizona's Saguaro National Park. In March and April the vegetation is lush (for the desert), and mule deer, coyotes, foxes, kangaroo rats, and javelinas (odd-looking pig-like creatures) are out foraging. There are more than 150 miles of hiking and horse trails. If you're scared of running into animals in the wild, or just want to learn more about the desert before hitting the trail, stop outside the park gate at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (520/883-2702, desertmuseum.org, $13). "It's home to a great zoo," says park ranger Chip Littlefield. "You'll find every plant and animal native to the Sonoran Desert."
Bottoms Up! Because the air in the desert is so dry, you won't really notice that you're sweating. Even if you're not thirsty, force yourself to drink a lot of water, all day long--more if you're hiking.
Not Entirely Deserted of Culture
Death Valley has two unique attractions. Marta Becket moved to Death Valley Junction in 1967, and opened the Amargosa Opera House, where she has performed for more than 40 years. It's not opera, and it's not quite dancethough she does go en pointebut it's certainly unforgettable (760/852-4441, amargosaoperahouse.com, $15). And near the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nev., is the free Goldwell Open Air Museum, showcasing sculptures in a variety of styles. The massive kneeling naked lady composed of pink cinder blocks--well, you just have to see it (702/870-9946, goldwellmuseum.org).
Beat the Crowds in March
The summer is brief and brilliant at Mount Rainier in Washington, when wildflowers cover the meadows, temperatures reach into the 70s and 80s—and the vast majority of the park's 2 million annual visitors crowd trails and campgrounds. "The weekends are a zoo," says Mike Bradford of guest services, which operates the National Park Inn at Longmire (360/569-2275, rainier.guestservices.com). "It's like you have to stand in line and get tickets to see nature." For quietly communing with the outdoors, however, there's no beating Rainier in deep winter. Because such a staggering amount of snow falls here—nearly 100 feet in one record-setting season in the early '70s—much of the park is closed off during winter months. But visitor stations in the southwest corner of the park, at Longmire and Paradise, remain open. Trucks have to plow so many times that snowbanks are 15 feet high. Driving in is a bit like navigating an oversize bobsled run. (Bring chains, even if it's sunny.) By March, daytime temperatures reach into the low 40s, and lightweight winter gear is usually sufficient. Twice a day on the weekends, rangers at Paradise lead free two-hour snowshoe walks, with rentals only a $1 donation. The National Park Inn also rents sets of snowshoes for $15 a day, a limited amount of gaiters (to keep your feet and lower legs dry) for $6 a day, and cross-country skis, boots, and poles for $19 a day. Beginners should feel comfortable on either the 3/4-mile Barn Flats route or the slightly longer Nisqually Vista Trail, which offers a peek at one of the park's 76 glaciers. After playing in the snow, go for a hot chocolate on the front porch of the National Park Inn, which looks out at the peak of 14,410-foot-high Mount Rainier. This is where you'll usually find manager Bradford, with his hiking boots propped up on the rail and a mug of tea in his hand. "I take a deep breath and just look out at the mountains and all the snow," says Bradford. "I don't think I'll ever get sick of this." Likewise, serenity comes easy during chilly days at Voyageurs in Minnesota. Oddly enough, winter is the only time the park is accessible to cars. There are basically no roads inside the park, so people get around in summer by boat and/or walking shoes. In January a boat launch turns into the start of Rainy Lake Ice Road. Cars under 7,000 pounds are allowed to drive on the seven-mile road over the ice. The visitors center rents cross-country skis ($5 per day, kid-size equipment is free), loans out snowshoes for free, and most Sundays hosts programs—ice-fishing clinics, cross-country skiing lessons, talks on animals native to the park. This is Minnesota, so expect January to be frigid, with temperatures that dip below zero most nights. "In late February and March the days are longer and warmer," says Kathleen Przybylski, the park's management assistant. "You can snowshoe or ski more comfortably by then, without the cold wind whipping under your helmet." ______________________________________________ Warm up Deep in the Mountains Yosemite has the Glacier Point Ski Hut, but the Mount Rainier area has a system of three backcountry lodges. The Mount Tahoma Trails Association (skimtta.com) maintains the huts, each with floor space for 6 to 14 sleeping bags. After buying a snow-park permit ($10/day; parks.wa.gov/winter/permits.asp), park at the trailhead 8 miles up the road from Ashford. Anyone is welcome to ski or snowshoe on the trails and stop in at one of the huts to get warm or heat up a meal in the kitchen. To stay overnight, inquire about availability (firstname.lastname@example.org) and mail in a reservation form with a check or money order. There's no lodging charge, but there is a nonrefundable booking fee of $10 per person, plus a weekend deposit of $15 per person. Guests are encouraged to donate part or all of their deposit.
Beat the Crowds in January and February
As wonderful as Yosemite and Yellowstone are in summer, the peaceful outdoorsy vibe can be spoiled by having to elbow for space to snap a photo of El Capitan or line up 10 deep at Old Faithful. The premier parks are far less crowded—and arguably more beautiful—in the heart of winter. Snow drapes the mountains, meadows, and every last tree branch, and things are never quieter or more pristine. But for an off-peak time, there is surprisingly a lot going on. During four weeks in January and February, Yosemite hosts the annual Chefs' Holidays, when the men and women in charge of some of the best restaurants in the country give cooking demonstrations and host five-course dinners during three-day sessions. All events take place in the Ahwahnee, a granite lodge built in 1927, now a National Historical Landmark. Chef presentations are held in the hotel's appropriately named Great Lounge, among its 24-foot-high ceilings, wrought-iron chandeliers, and enormous windows topped in stained glass. Jesse Cool, chef and proprietor of the Bay Area's Flea Street Cafe, has participated in the event for two decades. "Winter is my favorite season at Yosemite," says Cool. "The setting is just gorgeous, especially when it snows." Paired with top wines from California and elsewhere, the dinner costs $250 per person (plus tax). Tours and demos are only available in a lodging package, which will include dinner—often a better deal. Throughout the year, kids can join a program called Wee Wild Ones, with stories, singing, crafts, and games, all free. Yosemite Lodge at the Falls hosts s'mores nights at its fireplace, and nearby there's an outdoor ice-skating rink with an unobstructed view of Half Dome, the famous rock formation that shoots up nearly 5,000 feet from the valley. Most nights the park offers free events of some sort—artist slideshows, talks by mountain climbers, documentaries on photographer Ansel Adams. Yosemite is also home to the oldest ski resort in the Sierra Nevada. Badger Pass offers five chairlifts, 10 runs, and $42 lift tickets, and while the terrain might not get an expert skier's adrenaline rushing, the scenery is fantastic, the sunshine is plentiful, and the ski school specializes in teaching beginners. "Badger Pass is one of the last of the great little ski areas in the West," says Colin Baldock, Yosemite's manager of guest recreation. "Parents feel comfortable here letting their 9-year-olds ski off on their own. That wouldn't happen at the big resorts." A system of free shuttles connects Yosemite Valley to Badger Pass and other key spots in the park, so there's no worrying about driving in the snow—or having a few too many glasses of wine over dinner at the Ahwahnee. There are five entrances leading into Yellowstone, but in the winter the only way for visitors to drive in is through the North Entrance, nearest to Gardiner, Mont. A few miles inside the park, at the Mammoth Hot Springs area, you'll find an ice-skating rink, a restaurant, and several natural pools that gurgle and spout off steam in the cold air. It's easy to spot wolves, bison, and elk just off the lone plowed road. To venture further into the park, hop aboard a special snowcoach. They're customized vans or buses outfitted with snowmobile-type wheels and steering, arranged by private companies in towns bordering the park. All Yellowstone Sports offers a full-day snowcoach tour to Old Faithful for $105 (800/548-9551, allyellowstone.com). ________________________________ Chill With the Animals The Yellowstone Association offers four-night Winter Wildlife Expedition packages with food, transportation, lodging, and the chance to see bighorn sheep, elk, wolves, and other animals on a hike or snowshoe trek. $579 per person based on double occupancy; $747 for single occupancy (307/344-2293, travelyellowstone.com). ________________________________ A High Point at Yosemite Like hiking, cross-country skiing is especially nice if there's something special at the end of the trail. After 10 easygoing miles—four to five hours on average—from Yosemite's Badger Pass, you reach Glacier Point Ski Hut. About 3,000 feet directly below is the ice-skating rink in Yosemite Valley, and spread in front are Half Dome and snowcapped mountains that seem to go on forever. The views would be reward enough for some, but what makes the journey especially enticing is that there's no need to turn around and hoof it back by nightfall. The Glacier Point Ski Hut sleeps up to 20 people in bunks (BYO sleeping bag; rentals are available for $13). There's a staffed kitchen, indoor bathroom, and heat via a wood-burning stove. One-night packages with a ski guide, lodging, and hot meals are $192 per person; self-guided trips are $110 per person (209/372-8444, yosemitepark.com).
Beat the Crowds in November and December
Masses of people head to Hawaii, Florida, and the Caribbean over Christmas and New Year's simply because that's when it's convenient for work and school schedules—not because the weather is better then. Travelers who are flexible with their vacation time don't have to cope with either the end-of-year crowds or the peak-season airfares and hotel rates. Summer and early fall in Florida's Everglades can be brutal, with overwhelming humidity, giant mosquitoes, and fierce storms. November marks the end of hurricane season and the beginning of dry, pleasant days--but tourism doesn't hit its stride until Christmas. (More than 80 percent of visitors come between December and March.) As the swamps slowly dry up, the bugs are less of an annoyance. Alligators, herons, egrets, warblers, and pelicans gather around remaining lakes and become easier to spot. Traveling by canoe or hiking is the best way to poke around the Everglades' 1.5 million acres, with miles of canals and hiking trails that lead to hidden nooks and backcountry campgrounds. Information Officer Linda Friar recommends a series of connected waterways known as the Nine Mile Pond Loop. "You have three ponds right at the beginning, and you'll see cormorants, terns, white-crowned pigeons, maybe alligators," she says. "The trail has mangrove tunnels and also some open areas. You get some variety." Look for piles of snail shells under trees--a sure sign that the rare snail kite is roosting above. It's a forked-tail bird that feeds on freshwater snails, extracting them from their shells with a hook-shaped bill. More than 100,000 people visited Hawai'i Volcanoes in December 2008. The park service doesn't break down visitor statistics by the week, but it's safe to say that things are always busier at Volcanoes during the Christmas and New Year's rush. That means early December is quiet compared to, say, June—which saw 109,000 visitors in 2008. Weather at the Big Island's 333,000-acre park is always unpredictable. There's no especially good or bad time to come, and visitors should always be equipped with rain gear, sunscreen, and a sweater. The park's main attraction is Kilauea, the volcano that's been spewing out lava in a mellow fashion for more than 25 years. To find out about the latest volcanic activity, check out the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory's website (hvo.wr.usgs.gov), or call park information (808/985-6000). Both sources are updated regularly and tell exactly where lava is flowing. The weather at Haleakala, the 10,000-foot-high volcano on Maui, is just as variable as its Big Island counterpart. At any time of year it can be 80 degrees on the beach at Kaanapali but in the 40s at the Haleakala summit—and it often feels colder because of the strong winds. A paved road literally snakes through the clouds to the edge of a dark, otherworldly, 19-square-mile crater. (It's safe: Haleakala hasn't erupted in more than 400 years.) The sunrise views are phenomenal, but if you're not an early riser, watching the sunset or star-gazing are nice alternatives. Temperatures in December and March are virtually identical on the Caribbean island of St. John, more than half of which is preserved as U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. Highs are in the upper 80s, with lows in the 70s, though it does tend to rain slightly more in December. Yet last March the park's campgrounds and beaches saw nearly 61,000 visitors, compared to less than 37,000 in December. This leaves plenty of space for hiking through lush tropical forests and swimming, boating, and fishing in the park's turquoise waters. ________________________________________ That's a Whole Lot of Nature for $10 For seniors, the newly named America the Beautiful-National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass-Senior Pass goes way beyond the usual senior discount: If you're 62 or older, $10 buys lifetime entrance to national parks, wildlife refuges, and historic sites across the country. If there's a per-vehicle charge, everyone with the passholder is covered. Buy it at any park that charges an entrance fee. Folks under 62 who are visiting several parks should consider getting an annual pass, good for 12 months from first use ($80).
Beat the Crowds in October
Big Bend in Texas is one of the least-visited national parks, and its 800,000 acres of rugged mountains, canyons, and deserts are never emptier than in late summer and fall, despite pleasant weather. The busiest months are March and April, when the wildflowers of spring first make an appearance. Fewer visitors are aware that after a scorching May and June--"mind-numbingly miserable," according to park ranger Eric Leonard--late summer rains produce a second bloom of flowers, with purple ceniza and long-spur columbine sprouting up in August. Butterflies such as the two-tailed swallowtail, the Mexican yellow, the red spotted admiral, and the California sister flit through the flower fields. The "rainy season," when Big Bend averages between two and three inches of rain per month, lasts through October. The desert turns surprisingly green, and the Rio Grande sometimes overflows into the flood plains. By October the daytime highs are in the 70s, which is downright chilly compared to the three-digit temps of June. It's comfortable enough to hike through the desert or up into the Chisos Mountains. You're bound to spot a few of the 450 bird species in the park, and perhaps even a mountain lion or black bear. Another suggestion is Wind Cave in South Dakota. Like neighboring parks, summer is peak season. October is when the crowds have dwindled and when the elk put on a concert of sorts. Every evening, bull elk emit eerie, high-pitched wails that echo through the ponderosa forests. It's called bugling, and it's part of an annual mating ritual that males use to protect their harems from would-be suitors. The bugling is said to also relieve stress on the bulls' shoulders and necks, which swell due to increased testosterone levels. You should always stay a safe distance away from the elk, especially during mating season. A good place to listen in is right outside your car on Route 87, a few miles north of the visitors center. The 28,295-acre park is also home to bison, mule deer, prairie dogs, antelope, and of course its namesake attraction: a cave in which the temperature is 53 degrees year-round (and protected from cool autumn breezes). "It's really like two parks in one here," says Tom Farrell, chief of interpretation. "You can arrive in the morning and wander through the fourth-longest cave in the world, then hike in the afternoon, and listen to the elk bugle in the evening." __________________________________________ Wake Up! Hitting the trail early is always rewarding. The best times for spotting wildlife are just after the sun rises and just before it sets. Conveniently, the sunlight during early morning and dusk is also great for taking photos. __________________________________________ Take Advantage of Off-Season Autumn is a slow period at most parks, when you can even find solitude at hugely popular destinations such as the Grand Canyon. Last October, the chasm brought in around 365,000 visitors, compared to 651,000 in July. October is when the weather is nice throughout the park—highs of 86 at the bottom of the canyon and 65 on top of the South Rim, compared to 106 and 84 respectively in July. The first couple weeks of October are also your last chance to check out the less-visited North Rim before access is shut down for the snowy season. Deep winter is even quieter than the fall at the Grand Canyon, but by then the hiking trails are usually covered in snow—and this sure isn't the place you want to risk slipping and taking a tumble.