How to get America's most crowded natural wonders to yourself
Some tourist meccas are meant to be savored with a crush of people.
Entering the fray in Times Square, Bourbon Street and every other man-made wonder out there is all part of the experience. No one imagines enjoying Space Mountain or the San Antonio River Walk in solitude.
Then there are the natural wonders. Places that lend themselves to quiet marveling and meditative solitude … if it weren’t for the surging mass of humanity beside you shooting phone video, jockeying for position and thinking exactly what you are: "Imagine this place without crowds."
No, you won’t be getting Bright Angel Trail or Broadway (the one in Mammoth Cave), Yosemite Falls or those in Niagara, for that matter, to yourself these days.
But even at the most magnificently mobbed must-sees of nature, a little local intel can help bring you a step (or quick shuttle ride) closer to that ideal.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Annual visitors: 4.4 million
Peak crowds: Summer
Everyone has to gawk into Arizona’s perspective-shattering, mile-deep abyss at some point.
And during the summer months, when the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village population bloats to capacity levels, it seems like everyone is.
But even during “low season” don’t expect to be the only one outside El Tovar Hotel staring through a wide-angle lens at sunset.
“Driving through that main South Gate, you’re approaching via the busiest entrance,” says Mark Wunner, the park’s Backcountry Information Center Supervisor.
Instead, he suggests entering via the South Rim’s quieter East Gate, which offers several serene overlooks and pullouts along 26-mile East Rim Drive en route to the park’s hub.
In the Village, early dawn hours afford the only reliable South Rim solitude potential before the tourist throng buzzes 'til dusk.
During civilized hours, make use of the park’s free shuttle service and head further afield to a viewpoint or trailhead hiding off the map-toting hoi polloi’s “recommended trail” radar.
“The farther away you go from that epicenter, the quieter it’ll be -- but you don’t even have to go too far,” says Wunner. “Try the Hermit Trail. It’s a shuttle-accessed threshold trail just eight miles away, but a world apart.”
For maximum solitude …
Head to the Grand Canyon’s loftier, more remote North Rim -- a crowd-thinning, five-hour drive from the South Rim -- where park facilities (there’s just a single lodge there) operate only between mid-May and mid-October, and receive a fraction of the park’s total visitors.
“It’s a whole other Grand Canyon experience on this side,” says Wunner, “at the same Grand Canyon.”
Yosemite Valley, California
Annual visitors: 3.5 million
Peak crowds: June-September
The glacial-carved peaks, towering granite walls and half-mile-long waterfalls visible as you exit the far side of Yosemite Valley’s Wawona Tunnel provoke the same three involuntary words from everyone’s mouth.
Oh. My. God.
And you can bet your 2013 Ansel Adams calendar that it’ll be a pretty big everyone joining in that chorus.
“About 95% of Yosemite [National Park’s] visitors come to the Valley, which represents less than 5% of the total park area,” says Yosemite park ranger, Scott Gediman. "So that’s a lot of people gathering in a seven-mile-long by one-mile-wide canyon.”
He suggests visiting on an early weekday during shoulder season to dodge summer crowds and weekend masses.
Winter’s an even better bet.
“You’re talking about 800,000 visitors for the month of August versus 100,000 or less in January, when it’s just as stunning and the crowds and hotel rates are at their lowest,” notes Gediman.
Best approach strategy during peak season
Either come really early in the morning or later in the afternoon.
“We see a noticeable drop-off of day visitors in the Valley by around 3 p.m.,” says Gediman.
“Driving in at that time, you’re usually going against traffic, the parking is easier and there are far less folks on the trails in the late-afternoon or dusk, when you get that gorgeous alpenglow light.”
In the Valley, lose the pack along its lesser-known trails. For a quick escape, take the short Snow Creek hike hiding behind Mirror Lake or, for a longer one, the relatively flat and unpeopled 13-mile Yosemite Valley Loop Trail.
Then check out the other 95% of this 747,956-acre park.
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Annual visitors: 400,000
Peak crowds: Memorial Day to Labor Day
There’s enough space in the longest known cave on earth -- 400 miles mapped and counting -- for more than 130 types of animals, and 14 species of bats alone.
But the human tourist species may not get as much elbow room in the main attraction of Mammoth Cave National Park.
Only 10 miles of the cave are open to the public, which can congest its main caverns with up to 120 guests per tour on a typical busy day. That can be a spoiler even in Mammoth’s gargantuan Rotunda room, or on “Broadway” -- a 40-foot high, 60-foot wide passageway that meanders for three miles.
“If you’re here in the summer, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., the place is just packed with visitors,” says Vickie Carson, the park’s public information officer.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the opposite in the winter, but here’s the thing: inside the cave, it’s the same temperature year-round.
“A wonderful 54 degrees,” says Carson.
In January, it can feel almost balmy inside, and you may get a tour nearly all to yourself.
“Walking along Broadway in the offseason when you’re practically alone,” adds Carson, “is truly one of the most surreal, peaceful experiences you could ever imagine.”
But if you’re here during high season …
Book an 8:30 a.m. tour slot before all the buses arrive.
Or reserve a spot on Mammoth’s Wild Cave Tour, an intense 6.5-hour drive, five-mile cave trek (and occasional belly crawler) restricted to just 14 helmeted souls exploring the cave’s innards, where handrails, lights and snack-doling nannies dare not tread.
“That one’s not for everyone,” says Carson.
Which is exactly the point.
Niagara Falls USA, New York
Annual visitors: 8 million
Peak crowds: Summer
Checking off this thundering cataract via crowded Niagara Gorge elevator or Maid of the Mist boat bulging with newly engaged couples is one way to go.
Experiencing the falls your own way -- no barrel required -- is another.
“Most of the summer congestion is happening in the main areas of Niagara Falls State Park, where lines for must-do’s like Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds are based,” says Michelle Blackley of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation.
She suggests investing in a Niagara Falls USA Discovery Pass to dodge long and abundant ticket lines.
For a quick escape …
Head for any of the Three Sisters Islands -- a trio of footbridge-linked islets accessed from larger Goat Island.
“They’re the most remote section of the park and offer some rare views of the Upper River Rapids just a few hundred feet from the brink of Niagara Falls,” says Blackley.
About a third of the 400-acre state park’s (America’s oldest) 8 million annual visitors arrive during the summer, with crowds frequently swelling during high season’s loaded roster of events and festivals.
The most obvious crowd ducking strategy at the world’s best-known waterfall is simply to steer clear of that time. But broadening your definition of Niagara Falls helps too -- during peak season especially.
Just north of all the tourist action, a hike into Devil’s Hole State Park leads alt-Falls travelers 300 feet into the Niagara Gorge for an intimate look at the Niagara River’s category five rapids and swirling whirlpools.
Says Blackley: “It’s one of those places where you’ll find the locals hiding out.”
Always a good sign.