Why This Year Is Perfect for a National Parks Trip

With states relaxing stay at home orders and the United States beginning the slow process of reopening, many people are dreaming of a much-needed vacationing. This post will offer our “sales pitch” for the U.S. National Parks, which we view as one of the best road trip travel destinations for summer and beyond.

While it could still be a while before travel is safe, it’s never too early to start planning. That’s exactly what we’ve been doing for the last couple of weeks; partly as a mental escape from the real world and partly as actual plans we’d like to come to fruition. This year, we’re planning on focusing on crossing some National Parks off our bucket list goal of visiting all 62 of the flagship parks.

As they start to reopen, we’re planning on visiting several National Parks this summer and fall. Speaking of which, see our When Will the U.S. National Parks Reopen? list for current info on each. (Additionally, sign up for our free email newsletter for more updates and news as more evolves and changes in the ever-fluid world of travel.)

There are a few reasons why we’re focusing on National Parks this year. First, international travel simply may not be possible or practical. Mandatory quarantine rules remain in effect for some locations, as do restrictions, and advisories. It’s anticipated that these will start to be eased in the coming weeks and months, but a sudden spike could undo that progress.

Some European countries have already indicated that they would ease restrictions on flights and allow non-residents to enter beginning this summer, but that’s not true of all or even most countries. Given the United States is viewed as a high-risk country, many countries don’t plan to allow American tourists at the outset as they open up to tourism.

This still leaves the issue of flights. For one thing, a cramped long-haul flight increases both anxiety and chances of exposure. For another, many airlines have eliminated or dramatically reduced flights between destinations, and scaling back up will take time as well as bi- and multi-lateral agreements. This could mean that international travel is simply not feasible from a timing or cost perspective, depending upon your city of origin and where you’d like to go.

Even if travel is allowed to our favorite international destinations, it may not be advisable. Many of the places we’d like to go are dense. Things we love like public transportation, marketplaces, intimate eateries, and more are suddenly looking unattractive. There’s also the concern of getting sick abroad or having something happen to family back, and having a feeling of helplessness in scrambling to get back to the United States.

We’d love to return to Japan, but have refrained from booking trips abroad thus far. There are simply too many unknowns, and even though we’re eager to reestablish a sense of normalcy, we cannot simply will that into being. Quite simply, things are not normal right now; we’re still in the midst of a pandemic.

As much as we might hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that could be an oncoming train (in this case, a second wave). This doesn’t stop us from daydreaming and hoping for the best, but right now it just does not seem plausible or pragmatic.

Many popular domestic destinations will suffer from some of the same issues. We’re huge fans of Walt Disney World and Disneyland. It’s already pretty clear that amusement and theme parks are going to make massive operational adjustments and cutbacks to ensure guest and employee safety.

These venues have some of the same public transit and density concerns as major cities, and have reputations for lines and crowds–basically, the antithesis of social distancing. Simply put, they will offer a diminished experience with rules and protocol that may prove too onerous for the average visitor. (Not so much an issue for us, but we’re also not the “average visitor.”)

Variations of these same concerns exist for virtually every top vacation destination within the United States. Las Vegas and its crowded casino floors, New Orleans and its packed party scene, Miami and its bustling beaches–red flags all around. Same goes for major cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, etc.

If you’re planning summer travel, we’d recommend eschewing these popular options and instead taking a road trip to explore America’s Best Idea: National Parks.

This is a good idea, it’s hardly a novel one. Beaches, state parks, and golf courses have seen huge spikes in visitor numbers as they’ve begun to reopen around the United States. Summer road trips are being hyped up via travel publications as a way to regain some control and minimize exposure, and it’s a safe bet that there will be a significant spike in this form of travel.

With it, so too will the kind of places that are more commonly associated with car travel. Same goes for those destinations that are cheaper to visit, thanks to rising unemployment and plummeting consumer confidence. Ditto spots that offer fresh air and wide open spaces, which Americans will crave. National Parks check all of these boxes…which should itself raise red flags.

The problem with the idea of taking a road trip and visiting U.S. National Parks (or even state parks and beaches) is its obvious brilliance. You likely didn’t need this article to “sell” you on getting outdoors this summer, nor the pitfalls of visiting other destinations that would make National Parks more attractive.

As such, rather than fixating on the obvious upsides of National Parks generally, we’re to pivot here a bit, covering the ones to visit and ones to avoid.

This is probably much less obvious, especially for those with minimal National Parks experience. Intuitively, these are wide-open spaces that have near endless visitor capacity in their expanses of undeveloped wilderness.

While true, that’s not the reality of the average guest experience in most U.S. National Parks. In most parks, over 95% of visitors occupy 5% or less of the available space. This is due to infrastructure, namely roads and trails.

A prime example of this is evident in my favorite spot, Yosemite National Park. There, the majority of visitors never venture beyond Yosemite Valley, which is where the most of the lodging, dining, popular trails, and famous viewpoints are located.

Yosemite Valley has a few roads that (more or less) form a loop around the Merced River, with Valley and Tunnel Views on one end and Yosemite Valley Visitor Center on the other. The bulk of the vehicular traffic within Yosemite National Park can be found in this area, which makes up less than 1% of the total park area.

During peak summer tourist season, around national holidays, and other busy times of year (see our Yosemite Firefall Viewing Tips post), the roads and parking areas within Yosemite Valley reach their breaking point under the weight of vehicular traffic. Attempting to navigate the gridlock becomes downright unpleasant.

This wide open space in the great outdoors feels oddly reminiscent of rush hour in one of California’s metropolis. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Yosemite National Park remains peaceful and serene…it’s just not easily accessible to most visitors.

Similar scenarios play out in National Parks all over the United States during a normal summer, and that’s only going to be compounded this year. Americans with cabin fever are going to want to get outside, and will encounter into precisely this pitfall.

Our advice here is thus two-fold: avoid the most popular National Parks and any within a reasonable driving distance of major cities.

In terms of annual visitors, the ten most popular U.S. National Parks are Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Zion National Park, Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Acadia National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Olympic National Park, and Glacier National Park.

We’d recommend avoiding them all. (In our experience, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite National Park are the biggest offenders. The others all can have problem with traffic, crowds, or permits, but it’s especially bad at that trio.)

Additionally, here are some other popular National Parks within easy driving distance of major cities that should be avoided: Joshua Tree National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, Shenandoah National Park, and Indiana Dunes National Park.

This is just a partial list off the top of my head. Before you visit any National Park, you should seek out its annual visitor numbers, look at its proximity to major metro areas on a map, and check out any restrictions on personal vehicles. (This last thing will give you an idea of whether its infrastructure is insufficient to support normal demand.)

So…what does that leave?

Of the least-visited National Parks, good options (that are viable for road trips) include Big Bend National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Redwood National Park, Voyageurs National Park, Pinnacles National Park, Congaree National Park, Great Basin National Park, and North Cascades National Park.

I’m also a huge fan of Death Valley National Park, which isn’t one of the least visited parks, but definitely is during summer. (It also can absorb crowds incredibly well due to its colossal size.) If you’re visiting in the fall or don’t mind triple-digit temperatures (it’s a dry heat!), DVNP is also something to consider.

It’s also well worth considering your local state parks and other outdoor destinations with less name cachet. These offer the same opportunities to get outdoors, enjoy wide open spaces, and breath fresh air. While they may lack the iconic vistas and scenery, the relative lack of crowds probably will make up for that.

Assessing the best and worst state parks and other destinations is well beyond the scope of this post, but you can use the same strategies identified here. Look at driving distances from nearest major cities or airports, annual attendance numbers, visitor restrictions, and other potential indicators of attendance.

Ultimately, opting outdoors for a road trip to state and U.S. National Parks is going to be a popular vacation choice for a lot of Americans this summer, and for good reason. We ourselves are already mapping out the National Parks we’d like to visit this fall, and think there are plenty of great options. If your top picks are all likely to be overrun with crowds, consider holding off for now and visiting during shoulder or off-season. (In general, September through May is the best time to visit any U.S. National Park, but that’s another topic for a different day.)

If you’re planning a visit to a National Park, please check out my other posts about U.S. National Parks for ideas of where to go and things to do. For a list of my favorite spots (albeit some that draw big crowds), see My Top 10 U.S. National Parks (So Far).

Your Thoughts

Are you planning a state or National Park summer vacation? Which park(s)? Would you prefer to visit an outdoor, wide open destination in the near future, or do you have travel planned to major metro destinations or theme parks? Do you agree or disagree with my recommendations? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

16 replies
  1. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    After visiting Indiana Dunes NP, we continued to not follow your advice and made a trip to the Tetons and Yellowstone. 🙂

    Yellowstone was a bit crowded, and roadways are limited. Btu if you got out and hiked a bit (or got up early) it wasn’t too hard to avoid crowds. The Tetons weren’t bad at all. Popular parking lots filled up mid-day, but with people hiking at all different times trails never were crowded. And boy, was it worth it. RMNP has always beet at the top of my list for mountain scenery, but I think the Tetons displaced it for sheer mountain beauty.

    Reply
  2. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    I thought I’d mention that we visited Indiana Dunes NP a couple weeks ago. Although it is on the “not recommended” list above we did not find crowds to be bad at all – even on a holiday weekend it was easy to be distanced. Perhaps because parking is so limited in the park it self-regulates how many people can get in.

    Reply
  3. Brian
    Brian says:

    You neglected to discuss/consider the impact on rural/small communities of encouraging an increase in visitation during a pandemic. It puts an incredible burden on the healthcare resources of those communities, as well as other local resources like groceries. Please stop encouraging people to travel outside of their local community during this time.

    Reply
  4. Adriane
    Adriane says:

    One option akin to a National Parks trip is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It’s over a million acres of pristine wilderness, canoe routes, and hiking trails in northern Minnesota. Crowds are controlled by strict permit limits (and by the remote-ish location). You can take multi-day backwoods tent camping trips, stay in one of the remote lodges, or stay in one of the towns on Superior’s North Shore (like Grand Marais) and make day trips in to canoe. There are even canoe rental places right on the water, so you don’t need a roof rack. It’s a really incredible place.

    Reply
  5. Mary Kay Kirchner
    Mary Kay Kirchner says:

    I am so glad that you posted a link to this blog, from the Disney Tourist Blog. I wish I had known about the Disney blog, before our January 2020 trip, but better late than… I didn’t know about the Travel Caffeine blog either. I sure could have used this years ago, but I am subscribing now. Thank you for all of your excellent, entertaining, insightful, and inspiring words.

    Reply
      • Mary Kay Kirchner
        Mary Kay Kirchner says:

        You have no idea how helpful this will be. Last year, BC (Before Corona), we finally bought an Airstream, after 30 years of canoeing and backpacking on North America, plus the next 17 years of the Seven Continent bucket list. We hit the travel wall of: How many more flights? How much more jet lag? Some big-birthday numbers were creeping up and it seemed like a good time to slow down and savor the journey. Sure, we’ll still do a trip or two involving flights across an ocean, but for now, we are content to trek North America and explore the amazing sights and visit our family and friends. I will be reading all of your posts. They are so EXCELLENT!

        Reply
  6. Sue Uhal
    Sue Uhal says:

    Parks such as apostle islands and isle royal are great choices as long as the ferry is running. One of our favorite parks is Theodore Roosevelt national park in North Dakota. It is not busy but is picturesque with great history.
    This summer we will visit our state parks.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Being a native Michigander, Isle Royale National Park has been on my bucket list for a long time. However, it’s so tough to visit and entails a (typically) longer time commitment. Nevertheless, another good choice if you live in the Midwest and can make it work. Doubt Isle Royale will be too busy this summer!

      Reply
  7. Hilary
    Hilary says:

    I’ll put in a plug for Mammoth Cave National Park (admission: I used to work there in Interpretation, so have a particular love for it!). It’s the longest cave in the world, one of the 8 natural wonders of the world, and a UNESCO world heritage site. You do have to purchase tickets to go into the cave on a tour, and they’re limiting numbers so you’ll need to reserve your tickets in advance. But the top side of the park is also beautiful, and there’s a ton of great hiking and camping on the north side of the park. An easy drive from both Louisville and Nashville. Definitely something to check out, and people are so surprised to find the longest cave in the world in Kentucky! You can also head west afterwards and check out Land Between the Lakes-not a national park, but a national recreation area that’s beautiful and worth seeing.

    Reply
    • Hilary
      Hilary says:

      Also, any tips on good National Parks for dinosaur stuff? Did you do a post on this at some point and I missed it?

      Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I visited Mammoth Cave National Park ages ago (I think it was a Boy Scouts trip, maybe?) but haven’t been back since. I hesitated to include it here due to the nature of the tours (being in close proximity to other people and not as ‘open air’ as other NPs), but it could be a good pick depending upon how the tours are modified.

      Sadly, I don’t have any good first-hand recommendations for dinosaur enthusiasts. Dinosaur National Monument is on my list of places to visit.

      Reply
      • Josh H
        Josh H says:

        Dinosaur National Monument is fabulous. It’s every bit as spectacular as a national park. Frankly, I’m not sure why it isn’t one.

        Reply
  8. Karyl
    Karyl says:

    We really enjoyed visiting Garden of the Gods park in Colorado Springs last weekend. There were a lot of visitors when we went through on Saturday, but Friday it was perfect. Local bike tours (we used Pikes Peak Bike Tours) are accounting for social distancing by allowing their tour groups to be private. And while Pikes Peak is under construction (no visitor center or train this summer), we still saw many hikers enjoying the climb and the view at the top is literally breathtaking. Thanks for some great ideas on other destinations.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Thanks for the Garden of the Gods Park recommendation.

      Visiting some of these spots on a weekday as opposed to a weekend is definitely good advice. For instance, Yosemite National Park is always much more crowded on weekends, with Bay Area locals making the weekend trek out.

      Reply

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