Don’t go to a National Park this summer

Yes, you read that headline right: Don’t go to a National Park this summer. Hear me out, I promise I’m not insane.

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North Kiabab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, a place you shouldn’t go this summer

We in the United States are amazingly lucky. Spread (somewhat evenly) throughout the country we are all but surrounded by our National Park System. The 58 main parks are the crown jewels of the the American outdoors experience; and, if you were to somehow explore all these parks in one lifetime, there are 349 more places managed by the National Park Service. To steal a term from Ken Burns, the National Park System is unquestionably America’s best idea.

But here is the thing: the National Parks don’t need you. In total, the entire NPS system receives over 275 million visitors per year. The big three (Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone) parks receive more than 12 million visitors per year alone. There are serious questions whether this visitation rate is sustainable from a water, wildlife, or pollution perspective. Even worse, the vast majority of this visitation occurs in the summer, concentrating the impact of all those individuals into a just a few months. Logically outside entities see us tourists as the walking dollar signs we are, and there are pushes to develop areas just outside park boundaries where environmental protections are weaker, despite the fact that environmental impacts bleed into the the interior of the park (for example, click here). All this paints a picture of a park system bursting at the seams.

This, obviously, is a problem. However, in the grand scope of things, its a good problem to have. Too many people trying to access our parks means that there is a real economic incentive to protect these areas. In fact, there is so much money to be made that many (Republican lead) states want to take over the management of the parks themselves.

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park
Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, another place you shouldn’t go this summer

In contrast to the over-pressure and over-development of our National Parks, other public lands are under attack. States are rapidly closing state parks to close budget shortfalls. The federal government is trading public lands at the behest of the ultra-wealthy. The vast majority of public land is managed by a mismash of federal and state agencies across multiple cabinets, all of which have different missions, making coordinated planning difficult.

In putting these two stories together we can really understand the difference between NPS managed and other public lands: While states want to take over the National Parks because they make a ton of money they want to close other public areas because they are losing money. In other words, we have an National Park System that is under pressure due to over-use while the rest of our public land is under pressure because of under-use. Luckily, there is an obvious solution to this problem: Don’t go to a National Park this summer, go to another amazing piece of public land instead.

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Echo Canyon Trail, Chiricahua National Monument, again, don’t go here this summer

Coming from a person who painstakingly listed the cutest animal in every National Park (in three parts here, here, and here) this advice must seem pretty ridiculous. However, choosing to utilize other public lands isn’t a death sentence for your outdoor plans. If anything choosing to visit our country’s lesser places should open your eyes to how many amazing options the U.S. has to offer.

Take my wonderful, glorious home of Phoenix for example. You can recreate the vast majority of National Park experiences within a couple of hours of the city while simultaneously decreasing the overcrowding of these parks and increasing the incentive to protect these lesser known, but equally amazing locals. Don’t believe me? Lets run though it.

If you want the high alpine meadows and wolves of Yellowstone, why not backpack the Mt. Baldy Wilderness?

West Baldy Trail, Mt. Baldy Wilderness
West Baldy Trail, Mt. Baldy Wilderness

Or, if you are looking for the peaks of Rocky Mountain why not hit up the Inner Basin Trail?

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Humpreys Peak via Inner Basin Trail

Araviapa Canyon will make you forget Zion and Bryce.

Horsethief Canyon, Looking towards Aravaipa Creek
Horse Camp Canyon, Looking towards Aravaipa Creek

And if you are looking for the desert landscapes of Saguaro, the Superstition Wilderness is ready, waiting, and better anyways.

Battleship Mountain, viewed from Boulder Canyon Trail, Supersition Wilderness
Battleship Mountain, viewed from Boulder Canyon Trail, Supersition Wilderness

And, you can always just wait for a less busy time to visit the National Parks. Ironically, despite being the busiest season, summer isn’t the best time to visit many National Parks. For the Grand Canyon, winter is by far the best time to visit. For one, you get pictures of the Grand Canyon in snow…

Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park
Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park

…and what’s more, at the bottom winter daytime highs are in the 50s and 60s rather than the 90s and 100s of the summer. Because it’s colder, your star trail pictures will be better too:

Black bridge, Grand Canyon National Park, n.b. it would have been way to hot to sit out and take this picture in the summer.
Black bridge, Grand Canyon National Park, colder winter air means better star trail pictures

So do the world a favor: This summer don’t go to a National Park, because while the National Parks don’t need you, your local lands do. Instead, find some state park, some national forest, some piece of BLM land, pay any fees you can to support these less visited places, fill up your gas tank at that creepy gas station to help support the locals, and prove to the powers at be that you care about all your public lands not just the best known ones.


Disclaimer: This post, and all posts on LesserPlaces, may contain affiliate links– links that allow me to receive a small kickback at no additional cost to you when you shop through them. This is how we keep the lights on. 


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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.

16 thoughts on “Don’t go to a National Park this summer

  1. Great article. As a camper I love going to places where there are no other people. While I was a wildland firefighter I’ve discovered many locations that are unused but beautiful. If more of us went exploring instead of going to tourist spots the wealth and the wear and tear on the land would be more evenly distibuted.

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    1. Thanks, Michael! I couldn’t agree more. Its really amazing, at least where I live, how easy it is to get away from everyone by just driving or hiking a little further.

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  2. What an inspiring article. I’ve only ever visited National Parks during the “off” seasons, and even then the crowds can be a nuisance. This year however, I ended up tacking on to a last-minute Half Dome trip in early June – huge mistake. I was shocked to see Yosemite in the summertime. I described it to a friend as Disneyland for nature. Pretty sad to see, actually.

    Thanks for listing some great alternatives! Cheers 🙂

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    1. Thanks– I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      I just got back from the Grand Canyon, and even though I knew there would be a TON of people there, to actually see all of them was otherworldly. It always makes me feel torn– on one hand, so many people is certainly hard on the land and lessens much of the experience; but on the other, everyone has to start somewhere and the more people we can get to fall in love with the outdoors the better. There are just no simple answers.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This was a very informative article, and a fantastic blog in general. (I found it through Instagram.) Thank you for all the work you put into it! One request: in the future, when naming lesser-known parks, would you mind also listing what state they are in, for quick and easy reference? I don’t know if I can assume that the “alternative option” is in the same vicinity as the original Nat’l Park named or not. I know there are links and Google, but it’d be a lot faster to just learn from the original article. Thanks again…love the photos and all the inspiration!!

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    1. Hi, there! I’m glad you found and enjoyed the post. All these areas are in Arizona, and Lesser Places is generally Arizona-centric.

      You make a really good point, though! In the future I’ll be sure to list where each of the locals are. And next summer maybe we’ll do an alternatives post that highlights nearby alternatives, not just those near me.

      Thanks again for reading and for the feedback!

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