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If you ask me, one of the most important events in American history was the creation of Yellowstone National Park – the nation’s first.
When Yellowstone became a protected area, it ushered in an era of government action to protect the crown jewels of the American landscape. Since then, the National Park Service, which wasn’t actually created until 1916, has done an incredible job of managing and maintaining some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.
But, all that beauty draws huge crowds, particularly to the most famous parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite.
I grew up in the shadow of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, so I was fortunate as a kid to visit these incredible places year-round. And the fall is by far the best time to visit. The same holds true for most parks in the National Parks System.
So, if you’re wondering about the best time to visit national parks, it’s coming soon!
Summer is Great, But the Crowds are Crazy
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I get why people plan their national park trips for the summer. It’s convenient.
Kids are out of school, the weather is warm, and vacation days have had time to accrue so you can go for more than a long weekend.
But everyone is in the same boat, so parks are busy. And I mean busy.
If you visit a popular national park in July or August, be prepared to wait everywhere you go. You’ll wait in line to get in the park. You’ll wait in line to find a place to park. You’ll wait in line to get gas, concessions, and to go to the restroom, too.
And those crowds aren’t confined to roads, parking lots, and bathrooms, either. To see the sights, you’ll have to fight through crowds of people on walkways, paths, and trails.
The Best Time to Visit National Parks is in the Fall
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The crowds in national parks fall off (pun intended) in the autumn, so all of the troubles with crowds I listed in the previous section are all but null and void.
Now, obviously the level of crowds in the fall depends on the park. Yosemite will still be comparatively busy to a park like Badlands (shown in the image above). But that’s the case no matter the time of year.
I can tell you from experience, though, that fall in Yellowstone is like a graveyard compared to summer in Yellowstone. I’ve had many experiences over the years in which I see only a smattering of people over the course of the day in the park. This is even more the case in Grand Teton National Park – you can often find yourself at iconic locations with only a handful of people. And if you’re lucky, much of your time there might be all alone.
Other Reasons Why the Best Time to Visit National Parks is in the Fall
Reduced crowds isn’t the only reason why a fall trip to a national park is a good idea.
In fact, there are plenty of reasons why autumn is the best season for your national park trip…
Two Words – Fall Colors
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Sure, national parks are pretty in the summer, but add in an explosion of fall colors and the most beautiful scenes in the National Park System become that much more beautiful.
A park like Acadia National Park in Maine is an ideal target for a fall foliage extravaganza. Hit up Acadia, then take a road trip south and west to Vermont and New Hampshire for additional foliage exploration.
Two More Words – More Wildlife
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Another reason why the best time to visit national parks is in the fall is because you will have an increased opportunity to view wildlife.
On the one hand, less crowds means you’ll have a front-row seat to any wildlife viewing opportunities to come along. And on the other hand, wildlife are more active in the fall than they are in the dog days of summer.
As the days get shorter and the weather begins to cool, wildlife start to make their way into valleys and lower elevations to find food before winter hits. This means if you’re touring a park out west, like Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, you’ll have a chance to see elk, moose, deer, bear, and many other species of animals.
Fall is the Best Time to Visit National Parks Because It’s Cheaper
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Rates for everything from lodging and gas to food and rental cars are much higher during the busy season than it is in the fall.
So your fall trip will not only be less crowded, but it could also be far less expensive.
Entrance fees to parks don’t change based on the season, but you could find that everything else you need to buy on your trip will set you back a little less than in the summer months.
The same goes for the price and availability of camping in and near national parks. While many national park campgrounds need to be reserved months in advance, you might find that making a last-minute reservation to camp in a park in the fall is a possibility. If not, you should have no trouble setting up camp in a campground outside the park’s borders.
If you want a laid-back, less expensive trip to a national park, hit the road this fall, stay a few days (or longer!) and enjoy cooler temperatures, more wildlife sightings, and fewer people. Sounds good, doesn’t it?!