Beat the Crowds in July/August
There's no getting around the fact that summer is peak season at most parksbut "peak" is relative. At Lassen Volcanic, an overlooked park in the northeast corner of California, you can hike all day on one of the busier trails in July or August and maybe see a total of 10 people. Lassen marks the south end of the Cascades, a mountain range that extends through the Pacific Northwest into British Columbia. The 106,000-acre park is unique for its hydrothermal features: fumeroles (like geysers), mudpots, and boiling springs. There are also dozens of lakes, hundreds of plant species, wide-open meadows, and a more than 10,000-foot dormant volcano. Because the park isn't on the way to or from any major attraction, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends are typically the only times you have to worry about crowds.
People who make it there love driving the beautiful, 30-mile Lassen Park Road (Hwy. 89) past lakes, forests, and remnant lava flow. Another favorite is the 1.5-mile walk to an elevated boardwalk leading through a basin of mudpots and steaming pools at Bumpass Hell, the park's largest hydrothermal site. The Cinder Cone Trail, in the remote northeast corner, is especially nice if you're out early in the morning, before it gets too warm. You trudge through sand-like soil for a few miles to magnificent views of Butte Lake, Lassen Peak, and the Painted Dunes colored in trippy browns, reds, and whites.
Colorado also has a park that's under most tourists' radar, not only because it's miles from the nearest interstate but also because it became a national park relatively recently. After decades as a national monument, Great Sand Dunes earned the new designation in 2004. If you're not excited by a big pile of sand, you've never seen the dunesnearly 30 square miles of them, 750 feet high, braced up against the 13,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo. Locals know to come to the park in early summer to play in the water streaming over the base of the dunes. Creeks often don't dry up until mid-July, around the time that the bright gold threadleaf goldeneye and other flowers are sprouting. "Basically anywhere there's water, you'll find wildflowers," says Carol Sperling, the park's chief of interpretation and visitor services. "Just go for a short walk along the creek on the Mosca Pass Trail or hike to some of the subalpine lakes in the high country."
Temperatures in July and August hit the mid-80s in southern Colorado most days, dipping down to the 40s overnight, and there's little or no humidity. The sand can heat up to well over 100 degrees in the sun, however, so wear pants and boots if attempting to climb to the top of the dunes (at a good pace it takes about an hour). Miles and miles of more dunes come into view after cresting every ridge, and at the summit you can see across the valley to the San Juan Mountains 60 miles west. The sunsets are superb, casting yellows, oranges, and purples across the wide-open sky. Before nightfall there's generally a chance to witness why the peaks to the east were named the Sangre de Cristo. As the story goes, centuries ago a Spanish priest, dying from a wound in battle, cried out the phrase ("the blood of Christ") while looking up at the mountains as they turned a deep shade of red.
The Presidential Park
It's hard to get further off the beaten path than North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The only time there's a real crowd is in August, when the Champions Ride rodeo saddles up nearby. Follow in Teddy's footsteps by hiking the Petrified Forest trailwith siliconized cypress trees everywhere, it's like walking in a forest of stone. Plus, you can spot bison herds.
Beat the Crowds in June
There's no predicting the exact day that Glacier's famous Going-to-the-Sun Road will open. Much of the 50-mile road, which zigzags up and over the tree line through the heart of the park in northwestern Montana, remains inaccessible to cars at least until mid-May. It takes most of spring to clear the snow that blankets the high passes. Chances are that the road will be totally open for the summer by late June. Park crowds, however, don't arrive in full force until Fourth of July weekend. Peak lodging rates don't surface until mid- or late-June either—both inside and outside the park you typically pay 10 to 20 percent less compared to July. The weather at Glacier can turn nasty without much notice. Even after the Going-to-the-Sun Road opens in its entirety, rangers are sometimes forced to close it for a day or two because of avalanches, rock slides, or fresh snowfall (possible year-round). There's a bonus when it's off-limits to cars: Bikers and walkers are still welcome on the road, and they don't have to deal with cars zooming by or exhaust fumes. Early summer is when Glacier most vibrantly comes to life. After a dark, cold winter and a thaw that seems to never end, the park's forests and meadows are at their greenest, yet the peaks are still gloriously capped in white. Bear, bighorn sheep, and other critters are out in abundance after months of inactivity. "Your chances of seeing wildlife are better in June than July or August," says park ranger Pat Suddath. "Moose are pretty elusive, but in early summer there are plenty of sightings, even of adorable newborns, in the Upper McDonald Creek Valley or the Many Glacier area." Harlequin ducks, covered in blue-gray feathers with brilliant patches of white, nest at Glacier for a few weeks and are gone by the end of the month. With all the melting snow and ice, June is the best time of year for photographing waterfalls or charging down the rapids on a white-water rafting adventure. And the days are never longer: The sun rises around 5 a.m. and sets at 10 p.m. To escape any semblance of a crowd, drive up the North Fork Valley on the park's west side. After 25 or so miles on a washboard dirt road, you'll reach Polebridge, a small outpost that's about as far out into the middle of nowhere as you can get by car. There's not much here except the Polebridge Mercantile (406/888-5105), a bright-red general store straight out of a Wild West movie that sells groceries, coffee, fishing tackle, and great baked goods; and the Northern Lights Saloon, a funky cafe with picnic tables, huge burgers, and cold microbrews on tap. ___________________________________________ Hiking Without Borders Glacier is just part of the larger Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park, with protected land on both sides of the Canadian border. On Wednesdays and Saturdays from mid-June to early September, one American and one Canadian park expert jointly lead a free International Peace Park Hike. Walks start at 10 a.m. at the Waterton townsite, heading south along the west side of Upper Waterton Lake. Hikers head to the Goat Haunt Ranger Station in Glacier. From there, most folks hop the $15 ferry that arrives back where the hike started in Waterton around 6 p.m. (406/732-7750, reservations required). ___________________________________________ Leave the Car Behind Amtrak trains stop at three depots in northwest Montana—East Glacier Park, Essex, and West Glacier—where you can get off and literally hike right into the park. Add in a system of hiker shuttles (which sometimes don't start until July; call for details) that pick you up and drop you off right at the trailhead, and Glacier is one of the few parks where you don't need a car.
Beat the Crowds in May
The national parks of southern Utah maintain a friendly rivalry. Each has its bragging points: Bryce Canyon is loaded with photogenic spires known as hoodoos; Zion offers imposing cliffs and lush hanging gardens; Capitol Reef has brilliant, colorful canyons and odd rock formations; Canyonlands wins in terms of overall size; and it's pretty obvious what Arches is known for. Much of Bryce Canyon is more than 8,000 feet high, and in early spring you'll probably have to deal with snow and mud. Tourists flock to southern Utah in summer, so May is a good bet for smaller crowds, drier terrain, and more predictable weather. One of the prettiest and most popular trails at Bryce combines parts of the Navajo Loop and Queens Garden trails (2.9 miles total) for great photo ops of delicately eroded hoodoos. You're more likely to spot mule deer, elk, and dozens of bird species in the forest on the 8.5-mile Riggs Spring Loop. At one point the trail opens to spectacular views of the Pink Cliffs on the southern edge of the park. Hiking doesn't have to stop when darkness falls; the sky is clear enough for full-moon walks, sans flashlight. The terrain over at Zion is varied, with soaring cliffs, narrow canyons, and emerald pools. While it's warm in May (often in the high 80s), you won't encounter the three-digit temps of midsummer. To cool off, scamper up to Weeping Rock—the quarter-mile trail is shady, but steep in spots. In a grotto area, water continuously "weeps" down tall sandstone walls that are overgrown with hanging gardens. Real adventurers can take on the Zion Narrows, hiking in and along the Virgin River in a 1,000-foot crevasse. The water should be gushing and extra chilly in May; ask a ranger about flash flood dangers and water conditions beforehand. _______________________________________ Proof You Were There More than 400 parks, monuments, and historic sites fall under the domain of the National Park Service. The pocket-size Passport to Your National Parks ($8) serves as a checklist for all those great sights, from Appomattox Court House to Zion National Park. The 104-page book, available at most park gift shops and at eparks.com, comes with thumbnail descriptions of what to see divided by region, plus a U.S. map highlighting federally protected spots. Blank pages are set aside after each region for collecting national-park stamps (a new set is issued every year) and ink seals of sites you visit. Get your passport stamped at the visitors center before leaving.
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 Valley—among the lowest, hottest, and driest places on the planet—is 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 isolation—and 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 bed—the surface looks like cobblestones—where 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 Tavern—which serves breakfasts such as Willy Boy Hash, with shredded steak, peppers, and onions over cheesy scrambled eggs—seems 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 dance—though she does go en pointe—but 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.