How do you avoid crowds when hiking? This is the million-dollar question that’s getting harder and harder to answer these days!
As National Parks become flooded with more and more people every single day, it can seem difficult to find solitude. But you can avoid crowds in even the most popular places. You just have to know how to find it and where to find it. You’ve come to the right place!
In this blog post, I’m sharing seven different ways that you can avoid crowds when hiking. These tips have worked for me many, many times over the years. While they’re not guaranteed to be applicable to every location, I believe these actions are your very best chances of finding the solitude that we all crave on the trails.
7 Ways to Avoid Crowds When Hiking
1. Hike During Shoulder Season
The first action that you can do to avoid crowds when hiking is to hike during shoulder season. Shoulder season is the period of time that falls outside peak season.
Peak season is the busiest time of year that tourists tend to flock to a particular area. Peak season is usually the time of year when the temperatures are the most comfortable and the activities and roadways are the most accessible.
Peak season can occur in different months in different locations for different reasons. Confused yet?
For example, peak season for Washington is July through September because this is when all of the trails and roads are snow-free. Peak season for New England is typically May through August for summer hikes and October for fall foliage. And lastly, peak season for Florida, southern California, and Arizona is October through April because the temperatures are more manageable.
To run into fewer people on the trails, hike in the shoulder season, or the months that fall outside of the peak season.
So to use my examples from above, shoulder season for Washington would be October through June, November through April for New England, and May through September for Florida, SoCal, and Arizona.
As always, be careful when visiting these places in shoulder seasons. Check with the park rangers or do some research on the area you are looking to explore before heading out. Extreme hot or cold temperatures in off-seasons can be fatal, and roads or trails could potentially be impassable due to snow, ice, or floods.
You should never compromise your safety for the perk of running into fewer crowds, but if you do your research correctly, you could find yourself enjoying a paradise location solo.
2. Visit Mid-Week and Avoid Holidays
Weekends are always busier on the trails, no matter where you are. Since a majority of working Americans are in the office on weekdays, and kids are studying in school Monday through Friday, weekends are the only days that they can all escape into the outdoors.
To avoid running into massive crowds, trek into the woods during the week. Hiking on a Tuesday will be a completely different experience than hiking on a Saturday, no matter where you go.
Holidays, even if they land on a weekday, are always going to attract crowds, especially in National Parks. If you wait just one week after a holiday, you will find much more solitude.
3. Arrive Before Sunrise and Stay Until After Sunset
Most “everyday” tourists don’t like to get up super early and hit the trails. Because they’re usually on vacation and want to sleep in, the idea of setting an alarm and exerting physical energy before the sun rises doesn’t seem very attractive. Take this opportunity to set your alarm for 4 or 5 AM and get a head start!
Bring a headlamp and try to arrive at the trailhead before dawn. That way, you’ll score the entire trail to yourself, and you can enjoy the summit, the waterfall, or the overlook at sunrise without anyone else around. The world will be waking up around you, and you will have already completed a major physical feat. Stick around, enjoy the solitude, and watch the landscape around you light up. Sunrise is truly the greatest time of day to hike!
And at the other end of the day, many hikers think that once the sun has sunk into the horizon for the night, that marks the end of their day as well. But the sunset could be just the beginning – or the middle – of an incredible hike!
Toss a headlamp into your backpack and when you need it, flick on the light to illuminate your way through the dark. You will love the way your senses awaken in the dark, heightening your experience as you navigate the new arising challenges on the trail through tunnel-vision glow.
Stick around for long enough and you might get to see a star-smattered sky or even the Milky Way on a clear night!
4. Go When the Weather is Cold or Rainy
A lot of people despise the rain, the wind, and the bitter cold. Use those moody days to slip into the outdoors. Bundle up in layers, boots, rain jackets, gloves, a hat, etc., and venture onto the trails.
Hiking in cold weather is a different experience than just running day-to-day errands in it. If you’re outfitted in the correct gear, you will be more comfortable, and therefore, can enjoy the trails, usually in solitude.
And hiking in the rain, especially if it’s warm out, is so fun. Just slip on a rain jacket and rain pants and hit the trails. The sound of the rain pattering the trees and dripping off the leaves is so peaceful. And oftentimes, if you’re ensconced in the forest, you may not even get very wet due to the canopy of thick trees!
Snow opens up a slew of new opportunities as well. Though most people are attracted to swimming holes, kayaking escapades, and river floats (I am, too!), few realize how many outdoor adventures are available in the winter.
Slip on a pair of snowshoes, cross-country skis, snow skis, or microspikes, and hit the trails and the slopes. Zip down a groomed trail on a snowmobile or take the kids down a snow tubing hill. Venture into ice caves, hike to frozen waterfalls, walk across one of the Great Lakes, use ice axes to climb icicles, or snowshoe through that thick, fresh powder that can only exist in the backcountry.
There are endless opportunities to hike and experience adventure without hordes of people if you just embrace the frosty temperatures and inclement weather!
5. Explore Less Popular Parks and Trails
Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, and Zion are notorious for being the busiest National Parks in the US. Even though there are times and days that you can see these parks with fewer people, they’re still the most-visited parks in the whole country, so there will always be people somewhere inside the parks.
Though I encourage everyone to go see these gorgeous public lands, there are plenty of places surrounding the parks that are worth seeing just as much. Or, consider hiking a less popular trail at a less visited time. Everyone tends to set his eyes on a handful of short or iconic trails. Consult with a ranger to discover some of the lesser-trafficked areas; he or she may even reveal a secret location or two!
Here are some examples of LESS POPULAR trails in POPULAR National Parks that see significantly less traffic:
- Gregory Bald – Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Chasm Lake Trail – Rocky Mountain National Park
- Middle Fork Taylor Creek Trail – Zion National Park
- Clear Creek Trail – Grand Canyon National Park
- Trout Lake Trail – Yellowstone National Park
- Golden Canyon Trail – Yosemite National Park
- Logging Lake Trail – Glacier National Park
Here are some examples of LESS POPULAR surrounding parks or lands that are nearby POPULAR National Parks:
- Ansel Adams Wilderness – near Yosemite National Park
- Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument – near Bryce Canyon National Park
- Dead Horse Point State Park – near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
- Coral Pink Sand Dunes – near Zion National Park
- Eldorado Canyon State Park – near Rocky Mountain National Park
- Sinks Canyon State Park – near Yellowstone National Park
- Gorges State Park – near Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Here are some examples of the LEAST VISITED NATIONAL PARKS in the NPS system:
- Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve – Alaska
- North Cascades National Park – Washington
- Isle Royale National Park – Michigan
- Dry Tortugas National Park – Florida
- Great Basin National Park – Nevada
- Congaree National Park – South Carolina
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – Colorado
6. Camp on the Trail
The ultimate way to avoid crowds would be to stay on the trail in the backcountry overnight! Backpacking allows hikers to be the first ones on the trail in the morning and sleep under the stars long after the day hikers have left for the night.
Reserve a backcountry campsite and enjoy the perks of isolation! Stay beside a lake or a river, in a fire lookout tower, on a mountain peak, in a canyon, or in a desert.
If hiking isn’t for you, consider floating down a river for an extended rafting trip or scaling the walls of a peak on an overnight climbing adventure.
Though there is no room service, your amenities in the backcountry are five-star and better than anything a hotel could offer:
- Fresh air
- Natural sounds like water, trees, and wildlife
- Wildlife viewing
- Star-studded sky
- Alpine lakes and peaceful rivers
7. Find a Hike That Requires a Permit
Permitted hikes are reserved for trails that see an overabundance of traffic and/or need to be protected. By limiting the number of people who hike the trail, we are not only preserving the land but are rewarded with seclusion.
You are guaranteed to see fewer people on permitted hikes because only a limited number of people can access the trail per day.
Here are some hikes that require a permit:
- Enchantments – Washington
- The Subway – Utah
- The Wave – Arizona
- Angel’s Landing – Utah
- Half Dome – California
- Havasu Falls – Arizona
- Cummins Falls – Tennessee
While popular places are popular for a reason, and they’re generally worth visiting, I hope you’ve learned some new ways that you can avoid crowds, even in those heavily-trafficked places.
Hike during shoulder season, visit mid-week, avoid holidays, start before sunrise and stay long after sunset, go when it’s cold or rainy outside, visit lesser-known places, go backcountry camping, and hike a permitted trail. Enjoy privacy on some spectacular trails!