So when should you plan your trip? We conducted a thorough analysis of Lonely Planet’s guides to the most visited, best-known parks in both countries to answer that very question, and the results came as a bit of a surprise: From Acadia and Arches to Yellowstone and Yosemite, October is the month we’ve recommended most often.
Why October? Smaller crowds, better prices
That sweet spot between high and low season, the so-called ‘shoulder season’ is many savvy travelers’ favorite time to be on the road and exploring the great outdoors. It’s the best of both worlds: The crowds are more manageable, as kids are back in school after summer holidays and before ski season, and the weather is less intense, especially in desert regions, where temperatures have usually dropped, and in mountainous areas, where winter hasn’t kicked in completely. You might even luck into some unseasonably warm, gloriously sunny days, depending on where you’re headed. And then there’s the financial factor – in many destinations, low-season rates for lodgings kick in to attract more travelers as the crowds thin out.
Where the wild things are: nature on parade
It's not just the maples of New England putting on a show; in October, 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, including elk, moose, antelope and bison, so it's a great time to see wildlife – dramatic mating behavior in particular.
Northern exposure: Canada at its best
Given its position north of the 49th parallel, Canada and its national parks are on a slightly different timetable. As a general rule, low season – November to April – is best for snowy-weather sports, shoulder season – May, September and October – has the lowest prices and the most colorful foliage, and high season – June to August – is ideal for hiking in the mountains. In March, “people start swapping their snowshoes for hiking boots,” Brendan Sainsbury writes for Lonely Planet, and, of course, winter holds a special appeal. Banff, for one, is at its busiest from mid-November to mid-April and from July to early September, but for our money, the best times to go are May, June, August and September.
Peak performance: when to join the multitudes
Of course, some parks have to be visited in peak season due to extreme weather conditions. With Alaska's Denali National Park, for example, you have little choice but to go during the high season, and the Everglades can get miserably hot and humid in the summer, so the crowds are right to go in the cooler months. The jaw-dropping sights of Yosemite more than makeup for the summertime hordes, and 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.
Other parks – notably Hawaiʻi Volcanoes and Haleakalā – can be comfortably visited year-round, and in fact, apart from 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.
Crowd control: surviving peak season
Even the busiest parks can be enjoyed in peak season if you book lodgings and trail permits early, visit during off-hours (think: early morning or mid-week), and consider lesser-traveled areas and attractions. Hike in solitude on the quiet western side of Rocky Mountain National Park, catch a sunrise sans crowds at the Grand Canyon’s Shoshone Point or skip the most-visited parks altogether and try something relatively more obscure – say, California’s Pinnacles instead of Yellowstone, or Minnesota’s Voyageurs versus the Everglades. “Stop and think about what you want to do and choose something off-the-beaten-path,” Jessica Gossett, a park ranger at T.O. Fuller State Park in Memphis, recently told Lonely Planet. “You may be surprised by what you find.”
Winter wonderland: traveling off-season
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 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.