Why you should visit National Parks in the off-season

So, you missed out on those fee-free weekends at the National Parks last year? Don’t sweat it — you didn’t miss much. As with anything that’s both free and open to the public, those weekends drew huge crowds. And while gratis is always nice, fighting the crowds is decidedly not. The way we see it, America’s pristine National Park system is best enjoyed with as little ambient noise as possible. After all, entering these parks gives you a chance to really connect with nature and to simply soak in some of the most beautiful regions of the country. Good luck trying to soak anything in with hordes of tourists surrounding you, kids wailing about their PSP battery dying and crowded roadways leading to the entrance.

For better or worse, most National Parks turn into circuses (or zoos, if you prefer that visual) during the warmer months. Particularly in the flagship parks (Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, Great Smoky Mountains, etc.), the summer months lead to bumper-to-bumper traffic, waiting lines at scenic pulloffs, and a general sense of frustration. Call us crazy, but that doesn’t exactly sound like the ideal National Park experience.

Thankfully for you, there’s a solution. Go now.The winter months are undoubtedly the time to visit, and for a number of reasons. For starters, you’ll find fewer people around you. In essence, you get more of the park to “yourself,” with more room to explore areas that you find particularly interesting. There’s also less waiting at the entrance, no queues for snapping shots at gorgeous overlooks and no added stress. There’s also the distinct chance that you’ll see magnificent sites covered in snow, which certainly adds a touch of character to things and gives your shots a lot more color.

We recently visited the south rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, and we’d be shocked if 50 other vehicles were at the park. Generous portions were drizzled with a light dusting of snow, but all of the roads were perfectly clear and all of the trails were open for exploration. There’s also the huge benefit of being able to drive yourself up and down Hermit Road. For those unaware, Hermit Road is a seven mile stretch that bends around the south rim, and it provides stunning overlooks over a great variety of points around the canyon. You’ll feel as if you’re looking at completely different canyons when moving from pullout to pullout, and it’s a real joy to cruise at your leisure, pull off at each stop and gaze at the new angles presented to you. Here’s the kicker: it’s only open to public vehicles in December, January and February. The rest of the year, you’ll be forced to park your ride and hop on a shuttle with scads of others. Don’t get us wrong — we appreciate the green aspect of using public transportation, but having the autonomy to drive yourself really enriches the experience.

We also stopped by Arches National Park in Utah, and we were able to secure rare shots of Delicate Arch surrounded by snow. The 1.5 mile hike was also made more difficult (and in turn, entirely more fun) by forcing us to trudge through the white stuff while attempting to scout out the next trailhead. We only passed three couples on the march to the top. It felt less like following school kids in a single-file line and more like blazing our own trail up a mountain. Be honest with yourself — which option would you prefer? To contrast this, we visited Yosemite in the dead of summer last year, and even during the recession, the main highway (US 120) that crosses from east to west was jammed, and we had a much tougher time locating spots for pictures in which no people were around.

Finally, heading to National Parks in the off-season will save you big bucks on travel. Flights are typically cheaper, hotels are definitely cheaper (our 2-bedroom room at the Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel was literally 50 percent less expensive than the summer rate), and you won’t have to pay peak prices when it comes time to pick up a souvenir. If you’ve got some vacation time that you’ve been dying to burn, there’s no better time to make a National Park run than right now. These gems weren’t meant to have a theme park vibe to ’em, and all of that serenity you’ve been dreaming of will be a lot easier to find if you make the off-season your season.

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]