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10 Insider Secrets to Optimize Your National Park Visit

Visiting national parks comes with a price, namely sizeable crowds. To help you get the most out of your trip, we tapped experts at top national parks to share best times to visit, coolest things to see, and more insider scoop

Stephanie Granada
1 / 10

Denali National Park, AK

Most people who look for solitude in Denali travel deep into the backcountry; ranger John Brueck says you don’t have to venture quite so far. “In the summer, around the solstice, it stays light almost around the clock,” he notes. “The sun sets at midnight, but after that, you still have enough light to hike around without a headlamp.” Night owls find that even the most popular spots, like those closer to the entrance, clear out after 7 p.m. August and September can also prove worthwhile for night hikers: That’s when the aurora borealis starts breaking through. Try the trails around Wonder Lake (pictured) and Savage River campgrounds—both are near the beginning of the 92-mile road that transverses the park and offer wide open spaces for prime sky viewing.
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2 / 10

Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

In 2015, Cole and Elizabeth Donelson set out to visit all 59 national parks. After the year-long adventure, the duo launched Switchback Kids, a blog and podcast where they share insider tips and stories of the parks, including Bryce Canyon. “For all the 2.5 million annual visitors at Bryce Canyon, less than 2 percent hike the Under the Rim Trail,” Cole says. The entire 22.1 mile trek winds through pine trees, tumbling streams, gorgeous views of Bryce Amphitheater’s walls, and remote hoodoos. “If you're lucky you may even spot a black bear,” Cole says. “We backpacked the whole stretch from Rainbow Point to Bryce Point and only saw a half dozen people over three days.” For those who won’t be backpacking, you can take the shuttle to Rainbow Point, the highest spot in Bryce, for epic vistas.
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3 / 10

Yellowstone National Park, WY

Geysers may be the main attraction at Yellowstone, but Linda Veress, from the park’s Public Affairs Office, prefers to invest more time on the trails. “Hiking just gives you a whole different experience from driving around trying to find parking in the Geyser Basins,” she says. Veress gravitates toward Mount Washburn, which provides a solid vantage point with sweeping views of the surrounding mountains at 10,243 feet. In the summer months, you’ll see fields of wildflowers, peaks in every direction, and the occasional bighorn sheep (pictured).
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4 / 10

Glacier National Park, MT

Photographer Jason Savage often hosts workshops at Glacier and other national parks. His pick for getting stellar wildlife pics? Go a bit off the beaten path in the upper west side of the park. “Just along the north fork of the Flathead River, near Polebridge, lie Bowman and Kintla Lakes—a little more backcountry for some folks, but still accessible by car,” he says. Stop to meet locals and pick up huckleberry bear claws at Polebridge Mercantile & Bakery before venturing toward the park’s west entrance. Follow a roughly 30-mile dirt road to one of the lakes, where you can set up camp, hike, and take photos. “My absolute favorite time to venture up is early October, when the crowds have thinned out, the fall color arrives, and the wildlife is more active,” he says.
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5 / 10

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

You go to Grand Canyon for the views, and park spokeswoman Vanessa Ceja-Cervantes says it doesn’t get much better than Shoshone Point (pictured). “You get the similar vistas as you do around Mather Point without the crowds,” she says. To get there, cruise along Desert View Drive toward mile marker 246. You’ll see a small parking lot and gate on the northern side. Walk through the gate and about a mile through the Ponderosa forest leading to the overlook. “You don’t see much of the canyon as you’re going down the trail,” she notes. “But that’s part of what makes it special, because then you open into this great panoramic view.” Wildlife is abundant here, too. “It’s a great spot for bird watching,” Ceja-Cervantes says.
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6 / 10

Joshua Tree National Park, CA

“Most visitors seek out Joshua Tree’s eponymous trees, but the park's fan-palm oases are equally stunning,” says travel writer and photographer James Kaiser. Desert fan palms are the only palms native to southern California, and the park has three oases filled with them. “Some are tucked away in remote side canyons, accessible only by foot, while others are located a short stroll from popular visitor centers,” he adds. Kaiser, who recently published a guidebook to the park, notes that most people overlook the southern border of Joshua Tree, where one of his favorite spots, Lost Palm Oasis, is located. “The trail is 7.5 miles, round-trip, and the payoff is a beautiful canyon filled with over 100 stunning palms,” he says. “After a long, hot hike, it's delightful to bask in the shade of these majestic trees, which can grow up to 75 feet tall.” Visit in late fall or early spring when temps aren’t scorching, and early in the mornings to allow plenty of daylight to get there and back. “It's easy to see the desert as a vacant, parched landscape, but the palms offer proof that more is going on below the surface—literally,” he adds.
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7 / 10

Grand Teton National Park, WY

Up until 2008, the 1,106 acres that make up Grand Teton’s Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve were part of the Rockefellers’ private retreat. The illustrious family was integral in the beginnings of the park and Laurance donated this extra lot to provide visitors a place to commune with nature. The Preserve Center is the first LEED Platinum-certified building of any national park, and the parking lot only holds 50 cars, so the area is never too busy. “It also gives us the opportunity to talk to everyone who comes through the preserve,” says Clay Hanna, the Center’s supervisor. Follow the 3.4 mile Lake Creek-Woodland Trail loop, which leads to Phelps Lake (pictured) and a place the team internally calls The WOW Spot. “You come over a little crest right before you get to the lake, then you get that full view looking across Phelps at Death Canyon, and you’re right at the base of the Tetons,” he says. “People literally say, ‘WOW.’”
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8 / 10

Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Due to its varied ecosystems and range of elevation, Rocky Mountain National Park brims with wildlife. The park’s public affairs officer, Kyle Patterson, says riparian zones (the wetlands) provide the most diverse range of plants and animals: “They are ideal places to drink, feed, find shelter, and reproduce.” Patterson suggests a drive across Trail Ridge Road (pictured), which passes through all the park’s life zones in 48 miles. To beat the crowds, enjoy temperate weather, and spot abundant wildlife, go on weekdays in mid-August when kids are back in school and families are less apt to travel. Patterson says photographers should keep an eye out for the little things. “Wildflowers, insects, lichen on rocks, grasses, leaves—the list is endless,” he says. “You'll discover even more of the park if you look up close as well as far away to the beauty and diversity around you.”
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9 / 10

Yosemite National Park, CA

Yosemite is popular, but 98 percent of the park is wilderness, so you can easily find solitude on the trails,” says Yosemite Conservancy president and CEO, Frank Dean. His favorite? Lyell Canyon (pictured)—a glaciated area with bridges, rivers, and granite domes. “The domes are pretty easy to climb onto as well to get a better vantage point,” he says. On hot days, you’ll find that this trail, which starts at about 8,500 feet, is significantly cooler than other spots in the park. And even though it’s about eight miles round-trip, the path is relatively smooth and easy. Just be sure to time your trip right—the trail is only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
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10 / 10

Olympic National Park, WA

At 922,000 acres, Olympic National Park is humongous. “People tend to underestimate how long it takes to get from one place to the other,” says Olympic spokesperson Penny Wagner. There are three main ecosystems that attract visitors—the coast, the rainforest, and Hurricane Ridge. To make the most out of a day trip, Wagner suggests that you hone in on one area. For a spring trip, she recommends sticking to the coast, where you might see migrating whales. Summer tends to be the least rainy season in the rainforest, but winter can be spectacular on the rare occasions that snow falls on the mossy landscape. Hurricane Ridge is great for summer hiking and wildlife spotting. To see it all, plan on breaking up the drive with an overnight stay in the town of Fork, just west of the park.
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