When is the best time to visit the National Parks of the US and Canada? You might think the answer would be one of the summer months. But when we looked at the 'best time to go' picks by Lonely Planet guidebook authors for the most visited and best-known parks in the US and Canada and stacked them all up on a calendar, the answer came as something of a surprise: October. (September, which we recently argued was the best month to travel anywhere, came in second with 17 picks to October's 21.)
Why October? It's a combination of several factors that add up to make the so-called 'shoulder season' - the sweet spot between high and low season - the favorite time to be on the road and exploring the great outdoors for many savvy travelers:
- Fewer crowds: kids are back in school after the summer break and ski season hasn't started.
- Weather: Temperatures in desert regions have dropped to reasonable levels and are not fully into the cold season in most montane regions. October is prime time for Indian summer, so don't be surprised if you luck into some unseasonably warm temperatures.
- Cost: Low-season rates for lodgings have kicked in for many areas to attract more travelers as the crowds thin.
- Foliage and wildlife: It's not just the maples of New England putting on a show, trees are turning colors across the continent. Aspens, cottonwoods, oaks, willows, dogwoods and more are all putting on their autumn best. October is also rutting season for many of the large mammals of North America (elk, moose, antelope, bison), so it's a great time to see wildlife and the sometimes dramatic mating behavior.
The rest of the year
Some parks, Alaska's Denali National Park for example, can't be easily visited for large parts of the year due to extreme weather conditions. Other parks - notably Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala - can be comfortably visited year-round. In fact, apart from the the occasional road-closing lava flow, high elevation snow flurry or bad vog day, there really isn't a bad time of year even if the parks see higher numbers of visitors in the summer.
High season doesn't mean that the parks should be avoided, but expect more people (sometimes too many people, depending on your taste). The busiest parks can be enjoyed even at peak times if you book lodgings and trail permits early and make the effort to get off the beaten path (for example, see these helpful tips from two Grand Canyon guides). Death Valley is best enjoyed during the brief wildflower explosion of early spring, so it's both high season and the best time to go. With Denali you have little choice but to go during high season. The Everglades can get miserably hot and humid in the summer, so the crowds are right to go in the cooler months.
Low season shouldn't be overlooked either, and some parks can be at their most beautiful and peaceful in the winter months. The Grand Canyon with a dusting of snow; Half Dome towering over white-blanketed meadows in Yosemite Valley - these are sights you won't quickly forget.
October's fantastic - it really is. But if you look at the chart above, another pattern stands out: there isn't a single month of the year that isn't a great time to be in some National Park. The best time to visit a National Park? It's right now.
This article was first published in October 2011 and was refreshed in August 2012.