Alternative Entrances and Similar Locations Can Help you Avoid National Park Crowds.
Summer is the most popular season for visiting our country’s national parks. That means crowds, lines, parking issues, required permits, and more than a bit of frustration. However, there are ways to avoid national park crowds and still enjoy many of the most popular locations without having to go where everyone else does. Hey! You are a vanlifer. Why follow the crowd?
One key way to avoid national park crowds is not to go for that one location or scenic view other tourists do. At least not until the high season ends. While everyone wants to get that Instagram-worthy photo, think outside of the little, square box and look for an alternative location, another road or entrance, or a different viewpoint. We call these places the “back door.”
For example, if you are heading to Yosemite (prepaid and preplanned permits are required to enter the park), you should check out Twenty Lakes Basin off Highway 120 or visit Yosemite West, a much less popular location south of the park.
Additionally, because everyone and their dog needs a photo of the iconic Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, the trail and viewpoints to the location get jammed during peak lighting times. If you don’t mind a little walk, you can avoid the national park crowds with this somewhat secret back way to the Arch.
Here are five other “back door” options to popular national parks that you can visit in your van, with a little hike, walk, or a completely different travel plan.
1. “Secret” East Entrance to Yellowstone
The oldest national park in the nation is so big that it has four main entrances. Most people visit Yellowstone National Park via the South (near Grand Teton) or the West (in Montana). That leaves the North and East pretty open. Only about 200,000 of the nearly five million people who visited Yellowstone in 2021 came through the East Entrance. The East Entrance is closer to Cody, Wyoming, and farther from many basic amenities. However, the road from the East quickly gets you to Yellowstone Lake and Canyon Village. Some geysers are on the park’s eastern side, including Dragon’s Mouth Spring.
2. The Other Zion
Due to its proximity to Las Vegas and the photos of traffic jams of people on Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park in Utah is packed. It’s even difficult to drive into the park during peak season. If you happen to be there during the high season, pivot around and instead check out nearby Kolob Canyons. This beautiful red stone area is easily accessible from the nearby highway with no entry permit. It features camping, flowing creeks, and the fantastic Subway hike (a wilderness permit is required for this hike).
3. Visit Glacier’s “Backbone” Back Door
Due to its very short tourist season (July to September), Glacier National Park can get jammed during the summer. While most visitors come through the West Entrance to drive over the stunning Going-to-the-Sun Road, the East Entrance and the Many Glacier areas are a little less busy. Even better, check out the Two Medicine area of the park. It sees a fraction of the visitors, and according to the local Blackfeet tribe, the mountains here are called the Backbone of the World.
4. Rocky Mountain’s Lonely Cousin
Rocky Mountain National Park near Denver saw a marked increase in visitors last year, contributing to the need for timed entry into the park. This has not kept down the crowds. If you can skip this park, check out another park that is also close to a main metropolitan area. For some reason, North Cascades National Park near Seattle is open for entry and contains many of the same features: snowy mountains, icy lakes, hiking, and wildlife in a much less visited area.
5. Avoid National Park Crowds At Grand Canyon’s North Rim
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park gets a record number of visitors yearly. Since most of them don’t attempt to hike the nearly 10 miles down into the canyon (and the same 10 miles back up), they tend to stay on the rim–making it seem even more crowded. If you don’t mind waiting until the road opens in late May, you can avoid Grand Canyon National Park crowds by heading to the North Rim of the park. This area is located at 8,000 feet in elevation, so it’s cooler in the summer yet still features stunning views, a beautiful lodge, hiking, and camping.
One of the beauties of traveling in a van or other type of conversion is its small size allowing you to traverse some back ways and take the roads less traveled. You may even find more abundant boondocking locations within the parks or near them in areas where it’s legal to do so. But no matter what you travel in when visiting popular national parks, it’s always a good idea to look for that secret entrance or less known but just as fantastic version of popular tourist traps within them. Is there a backway or alternative must-see destination to avoid national park crowds that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments.