This year, we’re seeing record visitation numbers on public lands in the U.S. As examples, Yellowstone National Park recorded the most visitors ever for May and Rocky Mountain National Park has moved to a timed entry system requiring visitors to pre-purchase reservations.
The ripple effects include: under-resourced land management agencies, which were already struggling from budget cuts; a lack of employees in gateway communities; and yes, crowds! For the latter, I have a few tricks up my sleeve, helping me find solitude in even the most iconic destinations.
1. Go Early. Go Weekdays. Go Off-Season.
This is the most obvious one on the list. But it’s also sage advice. Avoiding peak visitation times means … well, you avoid crowds ... some of them at least.
2. Lean into Discomfort
Think about what discomforts you’re fine with that bother others. This could mean any number of things. For example, I’m currently planning a backpacking trip that starts in a former burn area. This is a calculated move on my part. Many online reviews of the trail talk about the charred, hot landscape sprinkled with fallen logs. I figure this will deter people. And since it’s only a few miles — miles that by the way I plan to traverse early in the morning — I’m not worried about it for myself.
Other examples of discomforts that you may be willing to embrace include: steep switchbacks, questionable weather, long water carries, lengthy drive times, rough roads and logistically challenging trips, such as multi-sport adventures or those requiring a shuttle.
3. Plan Your Own Route
One of my very favorite things in the whole entire world is looking at a map and planning routes through a landscape. Will this trail link to this lake? Will this ridge take me all the way to this basin? I wonder what the view is like from that unnamed peak?
By looking at a map first, before consulting guidebooks or apps, I often come up with creative ways to traverse a range or landscape. Yes, I might find myself on high-traffic corridors for a bit here and there, but before long I typically veer off onto my own adventure.
Going off trail, by following a rocky ridge or a compass point through a forest, can be a wonderfully immersive experience — one that fosters a deeper connection with the land. I highly encourage it, but let me be clear: I’m in no way, shape or form suggesting people cut switchbacks or storm through fragile, fauna-filled terrain. Please follow LNT practices, including traveling and camping on durable surfaces, and check local rules and regulations. In places where on-trail travel is required, please do your part by sticking to preexisting routes.
4. Pick Unknown Destinations
There are 154 national forests in the U.S. and 20 national grasslands. These lands total 193 million acres. And that doesn’t include BLM land, national park land and other public lands managed by other agencies. While Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain and Yosemite might be famed destinations, they certainly aren’t the only options out there. The USGS Map website is a great place to start looking for ideas — and I’ll warn you, can be something of a rabbit's hole, making hours miraculously evaporate.
5. Go 10 Minutes Further
This one seems silly, but it’s actually served me incredibly well. There’s often a common destination that everyone is headed toward, such as a peak or a waterfall or a lake. Going 10 minutes beyond one of those destinations has resulted in everything from stunning campsites to fresh powder (while backcountry skiing)!
6. Accept that Sometimes Crowds Happen
No matter how much I dream and scheme, sometimes I do find myself surrounded by people. In these moments, I try to celebrate just how amazing and awesome it is that so many people woke up that morning and thought to themselves, “Today I’m going to go outside!” I really do believe that the more people get to experience and feel connected with the natural environment, it will unequivocally lead to a better world. I do my best to be kind and help newbies feel welcome. Afterall, these spaces are all of ours to steward and share.
What are your favorite tips for avoiding crowds? Leave a comment below!
Amy Hatch is the co-founder of Garage Grown Gear. When not tapping away at the keyboard, she can be found playing Connect Four with her daughter, watching James Bond movies with her husband, and drinking really good coffee.