It’s cabin fever season: the time of year where everyone starts to push back against a winter that’s overstayed its welcome. While winter has its charms, most folks look forward to the increased light and outdoor living that summer brings. Planning a vacation is a great way to cast off the seasonal doldrums, but if you want to see the natural sights at one of the 59 national parks in the United States, you might want to consider holding off until after summer’s end. Planning a national park trip for the fall or late winter can reduce costs and crowds, making space for you to better enjoy your experiences outdoors.
Travel and lodging can be the priciest part of a national park visit, and as prices are at a premium during the busiest summer months, traveling in the fall and late winter is an easy way to save money. These travel windows are considered parts of the off-season – and it’s often easier to take time off work during these times. Flights are generally cheaper from mid-September to the beginning of November, before the holidays start in earnest, and then again in January, February, and early March. If you’re looking to see the outdoors without staying in the outdoors, hotel prices can be drastically reduced as well, with some hotels cutting their prices in half to increase what little business exists. If you’re feeling more adventurous and want to camp or stay in an RV, do make sure the campground you’re looking at will be open – and if they are, whether they offer reduced fees given the time of year. Weekends will still be more expensive for both travel and lodging, but if your vacation is off-season and centered around weekdays, you can reduce your costs significantly.
Weekdays will also significantly reduce the number of people you encounter in the national parks, particularly in the off-season. Fewer people means not sitting in traffic, not having to squeeze by people on trails or at viewpoints, and not feeling rushed while you’re taking photos. You’re also less likely to see trash outside of trash cans, hear Bluetooth speakers interrupting the natural sounds, or have nights in your campground or hotel interrupted by loud folks up late. Given the variability of weather during the off-season, the people that come to natural areas during these times are usually more deeply invested in having a positive, nature-focused experience – so you’ll also know there are like-minded people around you.
That variability in weather in national parks during the off-season is usually what deters people from such visits, but that variability in weather can also bring sights rarely seen in photos or videos of a place. Heavy snow can obscure broad vistas, but it can also add a sense of wonder to desert views. Rain might not be good for cameras, but the clouds and mountains reflected in the puddles left behind can make for an epic shot. Plus, what deters humans can also embolden wildlife, particularly megafauna like deer and elk, which are often put off by the large number of people about during periods of high visitation. So while you might feel like you already know a park through photos of bright sunny days or starlit nights, you’ll get to truly know that park’s landscape through the more-varied weather.
I took a mid-February trip to Grand Canyon National Park this year and had no regrets. While the North Rim is closed between November and April, the South Rim, with more than 25 road miles full of views into the canyon, was fully open – including Hermit Road, which is normally closed to all but shuttle buses. Daytime highs between 40F and 50F and nighttime lows between 35F and 25F helped foster my newfound love of winter camping. It helped that the on-site Mather Campground was mostly empty, and the early darkness of the season meant early quiet of an evening – a quiet further dampened, on more than one occasion, by an inch or more of snow that fell overnight. Even in winter, though, the snow melts off quickly enough, and I managed to get a hike in below the rim along the South Kaibab Trail. There were certainly others hiking that day, but I still had more than enough space to feel alone, to take in the beauty of the canyon at my own pace and in my own way. While I would certainly consider visiting in the fall, when temperatures are still warmer and the likelihood of snow is lower, after this trip I don’t think I’ll ever visit the Grand Canyon in the summer again.
Off-season travel is different in different places, and sometimes, it’s considered the off-season for a reason. You should probably think twice, for example, about visiting Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park during the fall and winter. And, even in the best of natural circumstances, traveling in the off-season often requires some sacrifices, as you cope with campground closures, visitor’s center closures, and area closures. As such, an off-season visit might not give you the full experience of a particular park. But if the full experience means battling crowds at that iconic view, hiking trails in a never-ending line of people, finding more trash left behind in strange places, and searching for earplugs while you’re trying to sleep – are you sure the full experience is what you want?