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 MontanaEast Glacier Park, Essex, and West Glacierwhere 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 (email@example.com) 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).