It's not easy to commune with nature when you're surrounded by hordes of fellow visitors. For really specific information, you can find park-use statistics at www2.nature.nps.gov/stats. Beyond that, here are a few general guidelines.
1) Avoid the high season. For most parks in the West, this especially means July and August, but anytime schools are not in session, parks are crowded with families on vacation. Spring and fall in many of these national parks offer mild weather, vibrant plant and animal life, and relatively empty trails and roads. The exception (at least regarding crowds) is college spring break, which is usually in March or April. Some parks, such as Big Bend, get unbelievably crowded at that time.
2) Walk away if you find yourself in a crowd. It sounds simple, but often when a scenic overlook is crowded, you'll find an equally good, completely empty view just a short stretch down the road or trail.
3) Visit popular attractions at off-peak hours, especially early in the morning or late in the afternoon. You'll be surprised at how empty the park is before 9 or 10am. Dawn and dusk are also often the best times to see wildlife. You also can avoid waits and crowds at restaurants by eating at off-peak hours -- try lunch at 11 and dinner at 4. And campers using public showers will often find them jammed first thing in the morning and just before bedtime, but deserted the rest of the day.
It's the Time of the Season
Don't forget winter. You may not see wildflowers, and some roads and areas may be closed, but many national parks are wonderful places to ski, snowshoe, snowmobile, or just admire the snowy landscape.
Finally, remember that some parks are rarely crowded, and we've made a special effort to include information about many of them in this book. Generally, the more difficult a park is to get to, the fewer people you'll encounter there. And many of the smaller parks remain essentially undiscovered while offering scenery and recreation opportunities that rival or even surpass the big-name parks. Consider out-of-the-way parks such as Great Basin, as well as one of America's newest national parks, Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Planning a Trip Online
A world of information is available on the Internet -- in fact, you may find yourself inundated with almost too much information. In each of the following chapters we include pertinent websites, but a few stand out.
The National Park Service's website, www.nps.gov, has general information on national parks, monuments, and historic sites, as well as individual park maps that can be downloaded in a variety of formats. The site also contains a link to every individual park's website, and those often contain links to nearby attractions and other useful information.
Another useful website for anyone interested in the outdoors is www.recreation.gov, a partnership of federal agencies that can link you to information on national parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management sites, Bureau of Reclamation sites, Army Corps of Engineers sites, and national wildlife refuges.
Finally, those planning to travel with a dog or cat should check out www.petswelcome.com, a site that provides tips on traveling with pets, as well as lists of lodgings that accept pets, kennels for temporary pet boarding, and veterinarians to call in an emergency.
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