Visiting Yogi Bear in August
January 15, 2012 7:12 AM   Subscribe

Is going to a national park in late August a bad idea?

Hubs and I were thinking it would be fun to take our summer vacation to one (or more?) of the big national parks out west. The thing is: We have to take our vacation in August.

BUT-- I know these places are packed in the summer, and we're not interested in traveling 2,000 miles from home to look at bears from a traffic jam. So we were wondering if maybe the *last week* of August, which is after school starts in most states, might be better than the middle of the high season, because at least there won't be as many families with kids. Or are we just kidding ourselves?

Our idea is to stay at a lodge (or a series of lodges throughout the park) and take day hikes and tours and that sort of thing. We wouldn't be camping overnight, and I'm guessing we'd have a car.

Parks on the list of possibilities: Yellowstone, Tetons, Yosemite, Glacier, Arches, Bryce, Zion, Grand Canyon--but if you have others to recommend, please do!
posted by elizeh to Travel & Transportation around Southwest Harbor, ME (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you're willing to consider the great state of Texas, Big Bend is amazing! From the website: "Sometimes considered "three parks in one," Big Bend includes mountain, desert, and river environments. An hour’s drive can take you from the banks of the Rio Grande to a mountain basin nearly a mile high. Here, you can explore one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States, and experience unmatched sights, sounds, and solitude...Big Bend is not crowded much of the year and visitation is lowest in August and September."
posted by 200burritos at 7:17 AM on January 15, 2012

Best answer: I think it depends on the park, and where you go within it.

Of the ones you've named, I've been to Yosemite, Arches, Zion, and the Grand Canyon, and all of them during the very time period you're talking about. I was actually least impressed with the Grand Canyon, largely because my family stuck to the well-traveled and most-civilized areas. Still was impressive, but not quite the awe-inspiring experience others have reported. Zion was a little sparser, and I liked it better (I also think the fact that we were in the bottom of the canyon looking UP made it more impressive than being at the edge of the canyon looking DOWN); we still were in the more-travelled sections, but there were fewer people.

Yosemite is a good bet - it's so huge that you can get away from "the crowds" easily; the day-trippers and touristy bits are just in one little spot the size of a small town main street, and the park itself is the size of RHODE ISLAND, so it's easy to slip away and see something off the beaten path.

I would warn against Arches in August, but not for the crowds -- but because it is going to be HOT. I tried a couple of very short hikes there in summer at high noon, and it is a really, really, really bad idea to be doing that in a desert because you really don't notice if you're getting dehydrated. I sincerely think I got to a point where I was hallucinating; it was just for a second, but it spooked me enough to realize "I need to go back to the visitor's center RIGHT NOW and drink about a GALLON of water." It's a gorgeous place, and not too crowded, but if you want to be out and about during the day, summer is not a good time unless you really study up on proper hydration.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:25 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, if you get sick of Big Bend, you can drive up to Carlsbad Caverns for a day trip. It is easily one of the most beautiful natural places in the world.
posted by 200burritos at 7:27 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To expand on what EmpressCallipygos said - you can get away from the crowds somewhat if you do your hiking at sunrise and not during the day. 3 distinct advantages - you're with the serious outdoor enthusiasts and thus a much smaller crowd, you get to hike at a time of day when the temperatures are much more bearable and you get the best light and thus everything looks even more impressive. I have been to most of the places you mention and they all look their best at sunrise or sunset - and it's still quite warm at sunset and all the people who can't get out of bed in the morning will be out and about at sunset. Doing your hiking at sunrise also means you're done hiking at midday and can enjoy the pool in your hotel or whatever. So that's another thing to think about.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:57 AM on January 15, 2012

I live right by Glacier. When I want to avoid tourists and have to be on Going to the Sun road to get to the start of a hike, I just ensure I get to where I want to be by 10 am and it's fine... plus there are lots of hikes to do around the edges of Glacier and neighboring areas like Great Bear Wilderness and Jewel Basin. If you are looking for a nice place to stay outside of the park, spend a night in the town of Whitefish- it is touristy at that time but there is a great farmers market/fest every Tuesday, things to do on big mountain all the time, and events most weekends - lots of fun. In the park, there are lots of places to hike to like Sperry Chalet and Granite Chalet but book really early. It's such a huge park that you'll only realise how many folks are around you when you try to park at one of the big lots or when you are on one of the shorter trails.
posted by adorap0621 at 8:13 AM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding, thirding, whatever, sunrise sunset. When I'm out on photography trips I figure on traveling mid-day, in the car's A/C. In the summer, on the Colorado Plateau, you're gonna be down to your underpants and still wishing you could remove your skin.

May I suggest Glacier? I've been able to get camping and/or lodge accommodations without too much advance notice even in the middle of summer. You can hook down in an 8 hour drive down to Yellowstone, too. I know you said no overnight camping, but you might consider driving up to Kintla Lake in Glacier (sleep in the car)...sunrise up there is like nothing else, and on the drive up there you can stop in Polebridge and dine on some yummy pastries.
posted by notsnot at 8:17 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think Big Bend is a great idea, because I love it. However a few notes.... It is hot in August. Like, 95 degrees or more (but it's a dry heat). And the lodge is pretty hard to get last-minute reservations -- usually people make them a year in advance. On the other hand, looking at their online reservation system they seem to be wide open. I'd call just to double-check.

If you are interested in Big Bend, can get a reservation, and a little heat doesn't scare you off, you might read some of the notes I left in a previous AskMe to get an idea of what there is to see and do.
posted by Houstonian at 8:34 AM on January 15, 2012

(And a lot of the photos you see in my previous AskMe were taken in August, so you'll get a sense of the lack-of-crowds.)
posted by Houstonian at 8:38 AM on January 15, 2012

I went to Yosemite in August, and it really didn't feel that busy to me. However, all of the waterfalls had dwindled practically to a trickle. It was also pretty toasty and the little hikes we did had little to no shade.
posted by that girl at 9:02 AM on January 15, 2012

As others have said, Arches will be very, very hot, but Moab (where all the hotels are) is a great little town. Zion doesn't allow private traffic in much of the park, so even if it's busy, you can still see lots of things without being stuck in traffic because of their shuttle system. However, people sometimes have trouble getting reasonable lodging when it's really busy down there. You could also check into the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which will be much less busy than the south rim.

If you're set on in-park lodges, checking availability on those now will probably help you narrow down your choices since some of the more popular places may be booked already.
posted by BlooPen at 9:04 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

It really depends on the park and its own climate zone...but my rule of thumb is to make a scale with early May on the left side, and late October on the right...with mid summer smack in the middle. The closer you visit to either early May or Late October...the smaller the crowds. Peak crowds are different for every park...but this scale is a great rule of thumb.

Now, many National Parks will certainly have snow in May and into June or even possibly July in the high country...but for crowd avoidance...early May and early June are great times of year. I'm thinking about Yosemite and Yellowstone here.

So in places like Yellowstone, Yosemite and even Zion and Bryce...going closer to May you'll need to expect snow in high places or on shaded slopes and swollen rivers and streams as snowmelt runs down to lower elevations. This is really only an issue if you plan on traveling in the backcountry so that you can plan on what rivers may not be crossable...or whether you will need snowshoes, crampons etc...Also plan for colder temps. The coldest temperatures I have ever experienced in my life were in Bryce Canyon when I visited once in late March / early may. Snow with wind-chill down to -20 degrees. True insanity. Also, last year I encountered snow above 9,500 feet in Yosemite in July. So keep that stuff in mind.

On the other end of the scale is September and October. These are my favorite months to visit places like Yosemite and Yellowstone...even the parks in Utah. After labor day the crowds are just gone....the weather is still nice and mild, there is no snow to speak of, and many of the animals are preparing for winter and are being active in that pursuit (read: bears eating lots and lots for hibernation!)

The downside of this time period is the opposite of May and June...without snow...the rivers and streams are usually trickles (hi, Yosemite) and therefore are not so photogenic. Late October also can afford leaf-changing colors and is quite beautiful.

This all being said...I usually end up getting backcountry permits for July just because those things sell out so damned quickly. The trick for going during crowd season is to stick to the backcountry (no problems with crowds ever during any backcountry excursions at any time of year for me) or stick to the less traveled areas of the Park. I stayed in Tuolumne Meadows after a Yosemite through hike in mid-July last summer and it was EMPTY. The Valley, however, was a horrendous mess - arterial roadways clogged with the sticky cholesterol of humanity.

So tldr; look at either Early May /June or Mid September or October at many parks to beat the crowds. Trade offs will apply...
posted by jnnla at 9:53 AM on January 15, 2012

You can eliminate most of the crowds at the Grand Canyon by going to the north rim instead of the south. Also this is more convenient to link up to Arches/Zion/Bryce.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:03 AM on January 15, 2012

We did Carlsbad Caverns late last August and it was great. Because the temperature in the caves is cool, it's a great escape from the heat; plus the best bat flights occur in July and August because there's a new crop of baby bats. We did, in fact, get a spectacular bat flight show the first night we were there.
posted by Dr. Zira at 11:26 AM on January 15, 2012

Best answer: Having been to several of the parks on your list, I think you're probably going to encounter a lot of people in August, especially on the roads and by popular visitors centers. On the other hand, in the mountains, the days will still be warm, the nights won't be too cold, and the mosquitoes will largely be gone.

Yellowstone is an amazing place with lots of really cool geothermal features and amazing wildlife. Plus, it is close to Grand Teton National Park. There are also some neat places just NW of the park.

Mt. Rainier is also a beautiful place to visit. There is also North Cascades National Park in Northern Washington.

You might also want to consider the Durango/Silverton/Telluride area of Colorado (extremely beautiful and a lot fewer people).

If you like to hike, look at a hiking guide for any place you visit and get out of the parking lots. Except for the trails in Yosemite Valley and some of the Yellowstone trails, the trails are usually far less busy than the roads/parking lots.
posted by elmay at 12:14 PM on January 15, 2012

Best answer: I did a big trip in 1998 and went to all those parks (except Yosemite and Glacier) in July and August. I think you will be FINE. It was a liitle crowded, but honestly nothing like an East Coast beach destination in summer, so keep it in perspective.

Staying in lodges will expose you to more of the crowds than camping would, but you'll also have good amenities, so that's a wash. Room rates are higher, and lines a bit longer at concessions. Ranger programs will be pretty full. On the other hand, and this is a big plus, you're catching the parks at the time that they have the most programming up and running (hikes, campfires, bird walks, etc.). That's a good thing. Sure there are less crowds on the off-season, but there's less family-appropriate activity too.

The only place we got in a "wildlife traffic jam" was in Yellowstone and in fact, it wasn't really that big a thing and it was kind of a cool experience in itself.

The main thing you'll find is that activity clusters around the park visitor centers where there's a snack bar, some short trails, ranger station, nature center, etc. IF you want to lose the crowds, all you have to do is walk about a half mile away. And there you'll be in the wilderness nearly alone - well, you and some Dutch and Quebecois. Most people really don't (a) get out of their cars much, and (b) certainly don't walk very far along any trailway. If you plan a daily hike experience, or two shorter hikes in two spots, or a hike combined with something like a geyser basin or afternoon of fishing, you will be fine. It's amazing how 90% of park visitation concentrates in just a few small areas of these huge parks.

Also, the one I would be most worried about being kind of smothered in is actually Grand Canyon. We went to the North Rim which was really pretty quiet, and did some hikes along the rim. Without going down into the canyon there isn't all that much to do. Plus the landscape there was high plains, not craggy desert like at the South Rim. But we heard all these dire tales of how totally insane the South Rim is in summer, so we opted to avoid it.

I'd say go ahead, and visit the parks you want to! Yellowstone and Tetons make a good partnership, because they're really close together but quite different in feel. Yellowstone has an astounding array of different environments and activities to do. Zion was one of my most favorite parks, but a little sleepier, maybe less for the kids to get into there. But you could do Zion with Arches, Bryce, and Canyonlands in a week or a little more and keep exploring.

Don't worry about the crowds - just go! It's not that bad, really.
posted by Miko at 3:10 PM on January 15, 2012

And BlooPen's right - at this point your choice is probably down to where you can book park lodges. Things fill up starting a year out.
posted by Miko at 3:12 PM on January 15, 2012

I live in Banff National Park (I know, not one of the ones you mentioned, but just north of Glacier) and August is without a doubt the busiest month of the year. It's also the nicest month of the year as far as weather goes, so here's a mishmash of advice:

a. don't travel on Fridays/Sundays/holidays
b. book your place in advance.
c. go backcountry camping. Anything with more than a mile walk will filter out 99.9% of the people you're likely to encounter.
d. avoid the popular stuff.
e. travel early in the morning, arrive early in the morning, being somewhere at 8am is good, being somewhere at 10am is bad, and it only gets worse, and that goes for just about anything (sites, hiking, spas, breakfast, driving, you name it).
f. get passes, permits, etc. in advance.
g. find out about construction hot spots in advance, or if you can't have an iphone/ipad that can tell you where traffic hotspots are.

My final piece of advice is: if you can visit in September after Labour Day Weekend you'll be laughing, as the weather will be almost as nice (cooler in the evening but less bugs), 80% less people, and the people you will see will be retired or with kids under 5, and you'll never have to book anything in advance.
posted by furtive at 7:11 PM on January 15, 2012

Best answer: It sounds like you've got your answer, but if you do look toward Yellowstone (a truly lovely park! I could definitely have spent a full week there) I can tell you that I went to see Old Faithful on a Friday in early August about 18 months ago and it was a little crowded but totally doable.

Yellowstone on a weekend during the August high season to see one of the most famous National Park attractions in the country? Still totally doable. So you should be fine basically wherever you end up. Really.
posted by librarylis at 9:35 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Two time Yellowstone Employee here, seconding most of what others here have said. If you pick Yellowstone and want some inside info/opinions drop me a memail or something.

Two summers isn't enough to experience all that is Yellowstone, it is truly a national treasure.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:20 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

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