Every single time I visit a National Park, the latest being camping the Redwoods last week with one of my brothers, I am amazed by how empty the trails can seem outside of ‘work hours’, or 9am-5pm.
As the parks become increasingly crowded (yay for more people getting out into Nature!) more parks are instituting limited permits for visiting typically overcrowded areas. This is one solution and desperately needed for many super-popular locations.
The other solution for me, is to get up at the crack-of-dawn in the Summer months, when parks are most crowded. This option has provided me with serene and peaceful experiences in the most crowded of parks in high season, from Yosemite and Yellowstone to Zion and Mount Rainier.
Case in point; last week my brother and I snagged permits for both Fern Canyon and Tall Trees Grove, areas that used to overflow with cars before the permit system. On both visits we were awake at 6am, on the road at 6:30am and to the trailhead by 7:45am.
With Tall Trees Grove we dropped off a car at the popular Lady Bird Johnson Grove parking lot as I would be spending extra time filming the Tall Trees in Virtual Reality 180° (VR180) 3-D while my brother explored other areas. At 7:15am, that parking lot was empty and the sun had been up for about 1.25 hours already! I was tempted to give the trail a quick walk just because it was empty.
Arriving at the Tall Trees parking lot we spotted four other cars. This trailhead is also used by those wishing to backcountry camp in the area so some of those cars were likely from people staying overnight the previous night.
Sure enough, we encountered just four people hiking out as we hiked in. Then we had the whole grove to ourselves for a solid half hour before walking the 1.3 miles uphill to our car.
On that hike out we spotted at least two dozen others heading down to the grove. A lot of them families with young kids (and I know from experience it’s not easy getting kids out the door early for a hike). It was 9am when we started hiking out and probably 9:40am by the time we hit the trailhead and our car.
To see only four people for the first 2.4 miles of hiking on such a popular trail is a blessing. It makes the experience with Nature that much ‘closer’ without a lot of distractions. It’s a privilege and a delight.
The same happened the next day at Fern Canyon. Up at 6, out at 6:30, trailhead by 7:40am. Parking lot, completely empty! Joy of joys.
While my brother took a swing around the .7 mile loop trail, I spent a little less than an hour filming more regular video and 3-D VR180.
Peaceful bliss with just one person passing by for the first half hour. It is unusual to have such solitude in a popular spot.
The list doesn’t end there.
The same brother and I enjoyed the entirety of Bumpass Hell in Lassen National Park to ourselves on the sunniest of mornings in the past.
My wife, her daughter and a friend hiked nearly three miles of the easy and popular Mirror Lake trail in Yosemite while only passing two other hikers (while admitting we spotted a LOT more people as we hiked out and felt like salmon swimming upstream).
This is what Old Faithful looks like in early June at 7:22am.
Upper Emerald Pool in Zion National Park, just 1.5 miles from Zion Lodge, at 6:17am with my friend Russ.
6:20am at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (had to take a selfie, no one else there) in June.
The same is true for evening hikes. Not so much for the popular sunset locations, those tend to always be packed, like this one in Grand Canyon National Park.
But if you want solitude on a hike, pick something around dinner time (sunset allowing). Last week for me was a hike on the Boy Scout Tree Trail, another ‘must-do’ and often crowded. And the parking lot was almost packed when I arrived at 4:30pm.
The trail is an out-and-back with a total distance of 5.4miles and while I experienced the fish-up-stream for the first mile, I glanced only four other hikers on the remaining 4.4miles. Bliss! Having those tremendous and delightful trees to myself is something I’ll never forget.
All because I pushed back my dinner time.
Truth be known, none of these experiences was 100% without other humans around. Even then, the humans you meet who are also the first to hit a trail tend to be the nicest and most appreciative of the solitude you both seek.
So if you can (and I realize not everyone travels with early birds or those who can forgo dinner until 7pm) make plans to get up with the sun in the Summer for an early and Nature-filled hike the next time you visit a busy National Park. Or eat a late lunch and hit the trail around 4-5pm as the trails flush out and everyone heads to dinner.
Solitude on a hike can be found in National Parks without hiking 10 miles into the backcountry.
They also make an excellent excuse for an afternoon nap while crowds take over the trails.