A few summers ago I drove the TETON Sports #yourlead van up to the gates of Yellowstone National Park. Earlier that summer I had snagged a National Parks pass + I wanted to take a quick peek at the iconic Yellowstone as I was passing through the area.
I never made it past the entrance gate. One brief glance at the long line of passenger cars + the parking lot full of tour buses had me whipping a u-turn. I couldn’t imagine attempting to gracefully share the trails with that many people on a day that was shaping up to be quite a scorcher.
Plitvice Lakes National Park — if you look closely, you’ll see a boardwalk FULL of people!
Since then, I’ve gotten much smarter with national parks. In the past month, I’ve visited two massively popular national parks in Croatia. Yup, another country, another July, another week of record breaking heat + another trip to “must see” national parks. I’m a slower learner.
Or, am I?
You see, this time around we planned ahead + we actually had space to thoroughly enjoy the parks…even during their most popular months of the year on days that topped out above 100 degrees. Let me share our “super secret” tips so you can take advantage of the rest of your summery free time in a national park or two!
Get There Early
Early-early. As in, before the park even opens early. At Plitvice Lakes National Park near Split, Croatia the gates opened at 7:00am. Our goal was to be there by 6:55am. Courtesy of my inability to read road signs we took a wrong turn + arrived at just after 7:00am…but it worked.
There are multiple perks to arriving early. For starters, you’ll get dibs on reasonable parking spots! We parked a 3-minute walk from the main entrance at Plitvice Lakes. This was a lesson I learned the hard way back in the US, by arriving at Rocky Mountain National Park’s main entrance after 9:00am…to find zero parking.
Another perk is that you’ll be strolling into the park with the first group of tourists. This puts fewer people in front of you for that stunning waterfall photo + fewer people elbowing you as you try to balance along a narrow boardwalk bridge. If you’re really lucky, you’ll even get to see the park animals wake up [more likely in a US park where the gates don’t lock you out before dawn].
Oh, the heat! Being early also keeps you out of the wrath of the heat for a few extra hours. We visited Plitvice Lakes + Krka National Park in July when the nights rarely dipped below 80 degrees + the days were often cloudless. It was not unusual for the temometer to be reaching for 95+ degrees before noon. It was HOT. At Plitvice Lakes we were done hiking most of the park before 1pm. Krka offered up a swimming hole near massive waterfalls that we hopped into before 10am.
At the Krka National Park swimming hole — all dried off by the time the crowds arrived!
My version of adventurous exploration involves a mash up of planning, hoping + winging it. While there is something freeing about rolling up to acres of wilderness without a plan, when it’s a busy public chunk of wilderness a plan is a good idea. At least a rough plan.
Before our visit to Plitvice Lakes National Park we looked at the recommended hiking routes so we had a rough idea of the park layout. While waiting in line to buy tickets + listening to the chatter at the information desk, we felt out what trails were most popular.
As soon as we had our tickets we made a beeline for those popular trails. Sure, there would be more people on them…but we wanted to hit up those trails while we were still the early birds roaming the park. Later in the day they’d be even busier, so we opted to use the later hours [read: busier hours] to visit the less popular routes. This kept our interactions with other camera wielding tourists pretty even keeled throughout the day.
Hiking in the Biokova Nature Park, on a rugged route…where the goats just stared.
Take The More Remote Route
Even if you’re not an aggressive hiker, branch out to something a bit more difficult than the standard “must see” trail the national park is known for. On one level — this is a new challenge for you. On another level — not everyone + their brother’s uncle will be on that trail.
You’ll also get to see bits + pieces of the park that aren’t flaunted all over the brochures + postcards. Will they be worth it? Eh, that’s debateable, but you’ll never know if you don’t get out there!
If you have the chance, an even better option is to get into the true backcounty of a national park. This requires much more planning + probably a few permits, but it is completely worth it. Take Yosemite National Park, for example — it’s a hugely popular park + everyone visits Yosemite Valley. However, it’s a *huge* park with so much more to offer. Having only given myself two days to explore the park a few years ago, I missed all of the backcountry. Next time I’ll put the time + effort into backcountry permits + backpacking gear to get out into the wilderness longer.
…being the first person on the trail in Plitvice Lakes = sleepy ducks + smooth lakes!
Now, it may seem like I’m strongly encouraging your to aggressively avoid people while at national parks. I guess I am. Not because people are bad [usually], but because the most stressful part of exploring a national park is often the chaos of people. As a firm believer that everyone has a right to enjoy the beauty of Mother Nature, I hope these tips give you an excuse to get out into the parks this summer.