Monday, December 4, 2023


National Parks aren’t as crowded as they appear online. This will give you hope

A couple of weeks ago I told you I was worried about visiting two of the most popular National Parks, Zion and the Grand Canyon, and plenty of other popular sights and destinations along the way. I was worried. And, in all honesty, I was being a grump about it. Sure, I knew I could wake up early enough to beat the crowds on the most popular trail on my list, but what about all the other trails and sights? By the time I finished the first one, the rest would be swarmed.

Going into this trip, I expected the worst. I really did. I braced myself for crowds, trash, children breaking rules, adults breaking rules… But you know what? I was pleasantly surprised.

Sure, the drive up 179 into Sedona looked like this:

But Sedona also looked like this:

Look, that’s me!

The Grand Canyon at lunchtime looked like this:

A crowd of people wait in line for lunch at the Grand Canyon
Sorry for the creepy faces, I wanted to blur them out.

But the Grand Canyon also looked like this:

The ever-popular Horseshoe Bend might have looked like this:

But it also looked like this:

Zion might have looked like this:

Crowds on a trail at Zion National ParkBut Zion also looked like this:

You’re seeing the pictures, but do you get the picture?

We talk a lot here on about crowding. Crowded campgrounds, sights, destinations… Nanci Dixon’s column on Campground Crowding is one of our most popular week after week. Thousands and thousands of you read it, and hundreds and hundreds of you write in to Nanci telling her about your experiences. Many of you are hanging up your beloved RV’s keys because it’s just too hard to get a reservation anywhere. It’s becoming exhausting.

Before I continue, let’s acknowledge a few things first. I’m much younger than the majority of you. I also don’t spend a lot of time in an RV. I live in a cute little house with a dog, a cat and chickens in the back yard, and I travel when I’m able. You all are out there living my dream! Someday… Anyway, that’s all to say that I live much differently than you do. Perhaps if I had to deal with those crowds 24/7 or spend the majority of my time fighting for a campsite, my rose-colored glasses would sit, maybe like yours, in a glasses case tucked away.

But, that being said, I did grow up spending a lot of time in a motorhome. I did grow up spending a lot of time in our National Parks. I know what they used to be like, and I know what they’re like now. Even here at my home in Washington, where I spend my weekends and evenings hiking, I battle crowds. I hate what social media has done. Stupid geotagging!

The point of my photos above is this: Yes, there are crowds, but it doesn’t have to take away from the sights.

As I said above, I tend to be on the grumpier end of the spectrum when it comes to things like crowding. If it were up to me, I’d be the only one outside… ever! Ha! I like my peace, quiet, and solitude. You probably do too. But I didn’t let my grumpy side come out on this trip. Instead of looking at those crowds, I simply put one foot in front of the other, swiveled around, walked out to the edge, and enjoyed the view. Not a person in sight.

One last little glimmer of hope to note: In Zion this time of year, the only way to access Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is by shuttle. I spent one whole day hopping on and off the shuttle: trails here, there, and lunch at the lodge. It was busy, but not overwhelmingly so. However, both evenings I was at Zion, I hopped in my rental car and drove east (then back west) across 9, the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway for sunset. The road looked like this:

Not a vehicle in sight. Of course I passed a few, but the road was mostly quiet. Ah, peace, quiet, and solitude…

It seems as though the tourists stick to the shuttle route. After all, it’s easy to assume that the shuttle would visit the best parts of the park, right? If only they knew…

I do believe, one day, this will all pass. No need to go into detail about 20-year loans, RVs falling apart … you know, all that stuff. But I do believe someday the National Parks will get to rest.

In the meantime, if I can keep my grumpiness zipped up in my backpack, you can too. There are ways around the crowds. Wake up early and stay out late. Find a place to sit and enjoy your afternoon in the shade while the rest of the tourists sweat half to death on a trail with thousands of others. You can laugh at them knowing you’ll have that trail to yourself that evening or the next morning.

I’d tell you to take the road less traveled, but you already know that.

Next time you’re in a crowd at a National Park do this: Simply put one foot in front of the other, swivel around, walk over to the edge, and admire that beautiful, gorgeous, absolutely jaw-dropping view.

Don’t you dare let the articles online, on this website and others, the photos on this website or others, deter you from traveling to these places. Despite the crowds, they are still so unbelievably special. And Zion and the Grand Canyon at sunset? It doesn’t get much more magical than that.

Plus, if you don’t visit these places, you won’t get to see baby bighorn sheep. How can you resist this little face?!

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Nanci Dixon (@guest_175030)
1 year ago

Loved your article and the positive spin on visiting the National Parks! A few years ago I picked up a book on the “Secrets of the National Parks “ compiled from National Park rangers information. It showed many of the lesser visited areas and when to visit. My guess is that it is not a “Secret” any more!

Gail Behrle (@guest_174937)
1 year ago

Exactly Emily! Well said. Love your pictures. And if you have been to the park before take the little traveled trail on the next trip. Most people don’t go more than a half mile on the trail. Last fall we were worried about Glacier. One of the most beautiful places on earth. We were worried about parking but went off times and it was fine and well worth it.

Andy Mirdik (@guest_174825)
1 year ago

Thanks Emily! That was a well done, well written article.
Your style reminds me of my late wife; we had visited that entire area and she wrote in a photo-journalistic style as well. She was always conplimented for her many articles-made me very proud🤗. Thx for the memories.

Camping with the Coles (@guest_174665)
1 year ago

It is so refreshing to hear a positive point of view. We always try to make the best of any situation. Crowded campgrounds and trails can really put some people’s attitude in the toilet but if you have a positive outlet it can still be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Great job Emily!

Donald N Wright (@guest_174491)
1 year ago

Hi Emily, over the years I have met folks in different groups who think the park is just for them and no one else. Back packers, RV’ers, hunters, ATV riders, Bicyclists, nature watchers, Handicapped folks need better trails too. However, in the dead of winter, the animals get their home back.

LeliaD (@guest_174506)
1 year ago

I once took a 90-mile snowmobile trip through Yellowstone and it was spectacular. We entered through the south entrance near Jackson Hole, were each assigned a solo machine, and followed an excellent guide on this long and interesting trip. For those who haven’t been there in winter, it is a wonder side trip when going to the area to ski.

Rich (@guest_174692)
1 year ago

‘in the dead of winter, the animals get their home back.’ It sounds nice, and I wish it were true. We hiked angels landing in Zion NP (this hike is one of the crowded pictures in the article) on Dec 22 2021. It looked very similar to the picture shown above, other than we had a light rain/snow falling when we were there. The crowds looked sadly similar.

Judy (@guest_174489)
1 year ago

Thank you. It is soooo nice to read someone who is optimistic and looks at the glass half full. We get way too much of the half-empty perspective in my opinion – and this is an opinion.

Rod A (@guest_174454)
1 year ago

A great read, Emily. You present a fresh viewpoint in words and pictures with a light touch. You must have a great editor! My wife and I visited the Grand Canyon a number of years ago. It was quite windy and I was worried that the canyon would fill up with ball caps.

Tim (@guest_174446)
1 year ago

I appreciate the positive attitude but if we’re concerned about the health of our parks then I believe it’s our responsibility to stay away from the large crowds regardless. Those of us reading this newsletter are likely the ones used to “living” in these parks. If we care about them we should be willing to stay away for a few years. If they’re overcrowded then it’s time for us to step away for awhile and let the “tourists” have their day. As you said, this will pass and we will hopefully see less people in the future. In the meantime I feel like we should not contribute to the crowds no matter how good the view is. The land deserves that from us.

Joe White (@guest_174471)
1 year ago
Reply to  Tim

People need only heed rules and guidelines to maintain the health of our parks. Crowds are a fact of life no matter where you roam. Who is the “we” you refer to?

Tim (@guest_174481)
1 year ago
Reply to  Joe White

The reality is that people DON’T heed the rules and guidelines. And the more people out there the harder it is to enforce them. We’ve all read the comments and/or personally experienced it.

Crowds don’t have to be a fact of life. I’m full time and rarely in crowds. Yet I experience things daily that are just as beautiful as the photos in this article.

I’m not sure what you want from me as far as defining “we”. I guess I mean outdoor enthusiasts who want the best for our parks and our planet. If 5 million people a day pass through Zion and every single one followed every single rule that’s still an unnecessary beating on the environment.

Deborah (@guest_174444)
1 year ago

Thanks Emily! We’re driving out of the Grand Canyon right now after six nights in Trailer Village. This was our first visit, and it was spectacular! Yes, some areas were crowded (around the village, Bright Angel Trail…), but once we were away from the crowds, it was pleasant. Hermits Rest trail was the quietest area of the whole trip. We travel with our 23 year old sons with multiple disabilities (none mobility related), one who is blind, so our perspective is always based on how they/we are treated, and the accessibility of places. Are there rude people? Of course. But all the “great job” and nice comments from other hikers on trails makes both of our sons smile. They are intrepid hikers and had a great time – even if they had to wait a bit in long lines for well earned ice cream treats:) Already planning next spring to Eastern Utah!

James (@guest_174442)
1 year ago

I went out west last June and Zion was much worse than even Yellowstone which was very popular. There was no car parking available at the Visitors Center for 2 days. I almost got into a brawl the second day because a foreigner decided to stand in a Handicapped space to hold it for somebody who wasn’t even there yet. Bryce, Capitol Reef, Natural Bridges, and Badlands we’re busy but not stifling like Zion.

Tim (@guest_174462)
1 year ago
Reply to  James

A “foreigner”? You sure? Did you engage them in conversation and discover their background? Sounds presumptuous. Remember that Americans are jerks also.

Sherry (@guest_174439)
1 year ago

Thanks Emily for a great article with tips that only a life long camper would know. I have 3 daughters your age who all grew up RVing and tent camping. They do still occasionally tent camp and/or travel with us. If you asked them today are they campers they would all say yes though it has been years for 2 of them. They follow news about camping and hiking. It’s in their blood and spirit. It’s making a living that keeps them closer to home and limits travel to day trips in the PNW.

John I (@guest_174428)
1 year ago

Emily, we’ve been enjoying Chuck and your writing all these years. After 40 years of rving, I still click on the “black tank” piece, gotta keep learning! Yosemite started ticketed entry 50 years ago. Let’s hope our national parks continue to be smart about positioning these national treasures so that everyone who wants to see them can. We’re currently at Zion, and Angel’s Landing was packed and a chain-gang two days ago because permits started yesterday! The view was still as spectacular as it was 40 years ago, and, to be sure, that’s an experience all those hikers will never forget!

Solitude? We boondock.

Jim Anderson (@guest_174415)
1 year ago

Great story!
I’m not quite as optimistic as you are but I love the way you reminded us all of the options.
We love the Grand Canyon and have hiked to the bottom before the crowds required reservations. Today it takes more planning but we find those less traveled seasons just as enjoyable, sometimes even more. Good story and very clever way with the pictures to make your point!

Andrea (@guest_174411)
1 year ago

We visit Grand Canyon every year, both Rims.We prefer to camp in the park, in our small (17′) travel trailer, because it gives us great access all times of day.
While we try to avoid spring and fall school break and free admission days, but it doesn’t always work, we go when it works for our schedule. This year, the dates of our fall visit were determined by when my husband could get a spot on a week-long raft trip through the Canyon. He usually backpacks it, so this will be a different perspective.
At South Rim, we’ve learned that the Village gets crowded once the train arrives, especially in the hour before it leaves again. We go elsewhere.We know sections that have far fewer people, no matter what time of year or day it is.
We have tactics for other parks; we’re avoiding Arches on our spring trip this year. We’ll base camp and drive to Canyonlands and other spots.

Karen Bates (@guest_174394)
1 year ago

Thank you for your perspective! We are currently planning a 2 month trip out west from Tennessee for next March and I will definitely take your advice! We can’t wait to see these beautiful places!

Ron H. (@guest_174389)
1 year ago

Enjoyed your perspective. We try to avoid the most popular destinations during peak season. Spring and fall are usually less crowded but still beautiful. We also look for campsites 20 to 50 mi. from crowded destinations and don’t mind an hour’s drive in the towed to see something special. Early morning is a great time to be out and about while most campers are still in bed or lounging with their morning coffee. Don’t be afraid to be flexible in how you travel and don’t miss the many secondary destinations that are more comfortable and often just as interesting.

Leonard Rempel (@guest_174378)
1 year ago

We just spent three weeks in the Big Bend National Park, Tx. area, which is simply breathtaking.
March break was one of those weeks and it was much busier than normal. We simply hit the road at about 7 am to snag an elusive parking spot for a beautiful hike or a hot springs soak in the early morning.

It accomplished a few things;
a) Beat the afternoon heat, which could be in the 90’s.
b) Beat the crowds for sure!
c) We got to see much more wildlife in the early hours.
d) The sunrise over the mountains is burned into our memories and photos.
e) We got to enjoy the campground area in the afternoon, smug in the knowledge that we out-smarted the masses!
The point is; It CAN be done if you want to. Complaining about it is just for complainers. These are just first world problems after all.

Mike Waller (@guest_174374)
1 year ago

I do get a bit grumpy in crowds, but I get a lot grumpier at the number of jerks showing up with no consideration for anyone but themselves. We’re just changing how we do things now and seeking the lesser used areas.

Patty (@guest_174373)
1 year ago

We were in Sedona two years ago and it was crowded. My husband played golf and the guys he played with were from California and Oregon. They told my husband that the majority of the newbies were moving to Arizona to retire.
We always stay at the Rancho Sedona in town in the first lot on top of the hill. We do not fit in the wooded lots. Did you know that octagon house near the park was Lucy Balls house? It has lots of flags and if you look close Lucy is on the balcony.

Dave (@guest_174370)
1 year ago

Awesome article, Emily! You definitely shared a great perspective and hopefully opened up people’s eyes further. Just do it. Perfect article for this site.

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