Best time to visit US national parks

There is no such thing as a bad time to visit America’s national parks – only places best avoided at certain times of year.
Some US national parks, such as Volcanoes in Hawaii, you can happily visit all year-round. Others, like those in Alaska, are largely inaccessible in winter, or too scorching to even contemplate exploring in summer. California’s Death Valley is a prime example, the hottest place in the world and capable of reaching 49°C in August. America’s 62 national parks are spread across the country, an enormous area, and one region can be completely different to another in the same month. So while we’ve compiled some advice below on the best parks to visit throughout the year, you’re well-advised to check the incredibly useful National Parks Service website as well for detailed information on what to expect.

Zion NP Weather Chart

RAIN (mm)

US national parks, month by month

Peak season for most American national parks falls in the summer months. Alaska’s short tourism season is well underway by July and August, the salmon are spawning in the rivers, and anyone hoping to see bears or whales will not be short of opportunities. Some parks, especially those away from the coasts, are sweltering, and exposed hiking trails are best tackled in the early mornings or late afternoons. California’s Death Valley National Park has been known to reach 49°C. September is a great month to be in Grand Teton National Park, indeed any park with a lot of forest, as the start of autumn sees the vegetation taking on beautiful shades of red, orange and yellow. Most American parks are ideal in late September and October: it’s warm but not too hot, kids are back in school, there are lower accommodation rates and most trails and restaurants still open before the winter season kicks in. October is an excellent time to see animals such as moose, elk, bison and antelope, as it’s their rutting season. Many parks such as Zion and Rocky Mountain have a range of winter activities available from November onwards, such as cross country skiing and snowshoeing. The winter months are good for visiting desert parks in general, including Joshua Tree. There are pleasant temperatures in the day, falling sharply after nightfall. And of course, Yellowstone, blanketed in snow during winter, is magnificently beautiful. It can at times feel as though you have the entire park to yourself, but some areas and trails are closed off. December can be a good time for admiring the Grand Canyon, with visitor numbers dropping as fast as the temperatures, which can get to -18°C on the south rim (the north rim is closed during winter). Wolf tracking vacations in Yellowstone, led by specialist guides, are thrilling during January. It’s mating season, and also their prey species are weak and slow, so the experts are often able to find packs on the hunt. Between wolf-watching sessions you can enjoy seeing the bison wandering around beneath their shaggy winter coats, and the snow melting around steamy hot springs and other thermal features. February is fantastic for hiking quiet trails in Utah national parks such as Zion and Bryce Canyon, the iconic hoodoos of the latter crested with snow. March, like September, is a likely time to see the spectacular Northern Lights glittering across clear skies in Alaskan national parks such as Denali and Wrangell St Elias. Meanwhile, spring is definitely the best time to visit Death Valley National Park, when it’s cool enough to hike and the famous wildflowers are starting to bloom. Walking in Yosemite National Park can be lovely in April, with the river and the falls in full torrent. May is another popular month to visit Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, and most people will see them both on the same trip given how close they are to each other. Wildflowers are abundant, and the trails yet to face the full onslaught of summer. Late May and into June is a good time to visit the Grand Canyon. The lesser-visited and recommended North Rim is just opening, and you’ll beat the peak summer months that see one of America’s most-visited national parks get way too crowded. Summer temperatures inside the Grand Canyon can get close to 40°C, so you’ll need a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water if venturing down. Summer is also definitely the worst time of year to visit Florida’s hot and steamy Everglades National Park – if the humidity doesn’t get you the mosquitoes definitely will. Visit between December and April instead when it’s much cooler.

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National Parks holiday in America, Western explorer

National Parks vacation in America, Western explorer

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How to avoid the crowds in US national parks

Many of America’s national parks are in danger of being ‘loved to death’ as visitor numbers balloon in peak season. Not only does that put greater pressure on the natural environment, the wellbeing of the wildlife, and park service resources, it also has a detrimental effect on the overall visitor experience – long queues for shuttle buses, road congestion and big crowds at the most popular locations can make it pretty miserable getting around. Here’s how to travel more responsibly and avoid the worst of it.
Avoid summer. If you can, anyway. July through August are the peak months for most, though not all, American national parks. If you are limited to only traveling in summer, then go for smaller, lesser-known parks or other protected areas. The big-name destinations such as Zion, Yellowstone and Yosemite are best explored early and late in the day.

Get up early. Some parks, such as Arches, are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That means if you’re an early riser you can enjoy a magnificent sunrise with almost no-one else around.

Try to avoid weekends, especially those around public vacations such as Memorial Day when many Americans visit their national parks. Parks close to major urban areas get much busier on a weekend, whereas those that are quite isolated, like Yellowstone, don’t tend to see a great deal of difference.
Avoid the hubs. Well-known parks often have a main area where you’ll find most people clustering, such as Yosemite Valley, and the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Give these areas a miss during peak visitation hours, instead seeing them early or late in the day. And remember that Yellowstone has hundreds of geysers and thermal features. There is really no need to join a couple of thousand other people to watch Old Faithful erupt.

Hike the back country. There’s a saying that if you hike for an hour in an American national park you’ll be among mostly Europeans; hike for two hours and you’ll be mostly alone. There’s a lot of truth in it.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mike van Dalen] [Intro: Jesse Brack] [Avoid summer: Yellowstone National Park] [Avoid the hubs: Yellowstone National Park]
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