It’s a longstanding summertime tradition: warm summer days lure Americans to pack their cars, leave their homes and head outdoors. But as the country and the world continue to grapple with COVID-19, United States’ national parks have become extremely popular destinations. 

Overcrowding at US national parks is compounded by limited staffing and current COVID-19 guidelines, which require reduced occupancy at shared facilities. 

Though the draw of Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains is understandable, park rangers and the NPS are urging outdoor enthusiasts to head to lesser-known parks. 

According to the US National Parks Service (NPS), several parks have begun using timed-entry reservation systems this summer in hopes of curbing the influx of visitors. A few of those parks include Acadia National Park, Glacier National Park, Muir Woods National Monument, Rocky Mountain National Park and Yosemite National Park. To get the full updated list, visit

A large line of cars parked bumper to bumper on the road leading to Grand Teton National Park.
Avoid the long lines at popular national parks by visiting lesser-known national, state or city parks © Michael Vi / Shutterstock

The long wait times and filled parking lots have led to generally unpleasant experiences for visitors. So what can visitors do? 

Read more: 10 of the least-visited national parks in the US

“Go to the smaller city parks,” said Jessica Gossett, a park ranger at T.O. Fuller State Park in Memphis. “I know there is a great emphasis on the ‘Great Outdoors’ that [the park you’re visiting] needs to have thousands of acres to be considered a 'real park.' City parks are a great asset. It’s on a smaller scale, but you can still have those wildlife connections. 

“City parks come in a variety of sizes and shapes and every single one of them needs some loving attention. From socializing to exercising or if you just need a break from people, city parks are the way to go. … Also, it costs less to travel to them.”  

Gossett also advises that visitors try to head to parks during non-peak hours, like early in the morning and in the middle week. And for those who can't, Gossett encourages flexibility with your plans. Perhaps this isn't the summer you'll get to see that super popular park, but you can still find another park to meet your needs.

"Stop and think about what you want to do and choose something off-the-beaten-path, you may be surprised by what you find," she said. 

Despite an increased interest in the outdoors in 2020, mainly due to COVID-19 restrictions, many national parks still saw a dip in attendance. In 2019, 11 parks had more than five million recreation visits. In 2020 only seven parks achieved more than five million visitors. 

This summer is shaping up to be quite different. 

According to an article in The Wall Street Journal published earlier this month, there has been a huge increase of visitors at national parks this summer. For example, in Utah, according to WSJ, approximately 194,000 people visited Arches National Park in April – a 15 % increase from visitor numbers during the same month in 2019; at Canyonlands National Park, that increase was at around 30%.

“We expect that there will be significant increases in visitation at many parks as COVID mitigation measures are reduced, vaccination rates rise, and Americans increase their travel,” said an NPS press release. “Many campgrounds and lodgings at busy parks are already completely booked for the summer, and some parks have instituted new reservation policies to facilitate physical distancing in popular areas.”  

Read more: Five state parks that rival national parks 

Gossett said she and her colleagues have noticed an uptick in visitor attendance, particularly the parks in the eastern side of Tennessee like the Great Smoky Mountains. 

More people have meant more challenges for park rangers – namely pollution and a lack of knowledge on how to behave in the outdoors. Reports of trash left behind or hikers straying from marked trails have left some rangers concerned about the future of the parks themselves.

"I know people are excited about the beauty or [looking to] exercise and socialize," Gossett said. "We want folks to keep in mind that there’s something worth visiting after they finish."

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