As the pandemic drags on, Americans desperate to get outdoors have sought refuge in the US national parks. Even though millions of travelers are visiting the parks, it’s surprisingly easy to have the place to yourself – or at least feel like you do, provided you plan ahead.

Most people don’t have a strategy for their visit and that’s a big mistake. Being thoughtful about timing when trip planning will help you enjoy the parks as the peaceful reprieve they were meant to be instead of sitting in traffic jams or begrudging obnoxious tourists who happen to be there at the same time.

I’m a national parks enthusiast. Here are my best tips for escaping the masses and having the parks to yourself.

Get there first or be there last 

Should the opportunity present itself to be among the first or last at a park, take it. You’ll have to get a permit to watch the sunrise at Haleakalā National Park and atop Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, depending on the time of year, so when you go, stick around after the sun has made its daily debut and you’ll be rewarded with solitude to pair with the views.

Flying to Dry Tortugas National Park in the Florida Keys © Melissa McGibbon / Lonely Planet

If you’re going to Dry Tortugas National Park in the Florida Keys, take the first seaplane flight of the day to get there instead of going by ferry. You’ll have a glorious hour and a half to tour Fort Jefferson, play on the beaches, and snorkel the turquoise waters before the ferry arrives with its hundreds of passengers.

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Visit in the afternoon

Most people like to do or see the popular sights of a park between 9am and 2pm. But tour groups and school field trips have usually packed up and gone by mid-afternoon, leaving parks noticeably more sparse. Many parks are open 24-hours so you can take your sweet time leaving and maybe savor a rare view or two along the way. 

Cycling at Sentinel Meadow at Yosemite National Park © OLOS / Shutterstock

Go by bike

Many people don’t know that some national parks, like Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park, allow cyclists to ride on the main paved roads prior to or after the end of the summer season when they close to public motorized vehicles.

The inch of time for cyclists to ride these roads sans public traffic lasts just a few weeks each spring and fall, depending on snowfall and road clearing. You can ride road bicycles and e-bikes anywhere bikes are allowed but you still have to follow all of the regular traffic rules.

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Just add water

If you can, get out on a kayak, paddleboard, canoe or any other human-powered vessel that allows you to give the slip to the rest of the world and explore the park waters on your own.

Better yet, take a dive. Scuba diving is allowed at some of the US national parks. Florida’s Biscayne National Park is 95% water so there’s no better way to experience it than to go diving there. Certified divers have the advantage of being able to eighty-six surface dwellers and explore Poseidon’s realm with only their dive buddies and the life aquatic to keep them company. 

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Devil's Tower after a recent snow © Melissa McGibbon / Lonely Planet

Visit during winter or the park’s off-season

Lots of people seem to forget that US national parks still exist during winter. Indeed, some parks are even better with snow. If you’re willing to endure a bit of inclement weather and outfit yourself properly, you’ll find it quite easy to pretend you’re the only one there.

At places like Badlands National Park, Devil’s Tower National Monument, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the snow may be covering the hiking trails, but put a good pair of ice spikes on your hiking boots, layer properly and voila! Of course, dwindling daylight hours and storms will limit your park possibilities so check the forecasts and plan ahead because it makes all the difference. 

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Everglades National Park boat tour
Slow season at the Everglades National Park © GagliardiImages / Shutterstock

Take advantage of uncommon circumstances

Visiting a national park when nobody else wants to has its advantages. Gateway Arch National Park on Super Bowl Sunday has some pretty sparse crowds. As does Everglades National Park during the height of hurricane season. To be clear, the parks shut down if an actual hurricane is on its way. But going when the world thinks there might be a hurricane can score you some solid quality time with the alligators.

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This article was first published Nov 27, 2020 and updated Jan 6, 2022.

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