When it comes to national parks, especially those that receive milliions of visitors each year, knowing when to go is just as important as knowing where to go. For example, if you head to Yellowstone in July, your trip may revolve around gridlock instead of geysers. If you visit Acadia in January, you’ll find the 27-mile-long scenic Park Loop Road, which culminates on top of Cadillac Mountain, closed to vehicular traffic. And if your goal is to break in those new hiking boots you got for Christmas, don’t plan on finding many accessible trails in Rocky Mountain National Park until June at the earliest.
In a perfect world, you’d have the chance to experience all four seasons in every national park. But since most people can’t travel 52 weeks a year, below are the best times to visit America’s eight busiest national parks. Of course, “best” is subjective. It all depends on what you’re after. If you can, try to identify your goals before you get out your calendar. Remember: the NPS doesn’t provide refunds if you don’t see a bear during your visit or the waterfall is closer to a trickle than a cascade. Seriously, some visitors ask for them!
When is the Best Time to Visit National Parks?
When to Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Because it’s located within a day’s drive of where 50% of Americans live, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been the most-visited national park for several years running. While you can drive through without stopping, hiking to waterfalls (the park is home to dozens including the impressive Ramsey Cascades) is the highlight for most visitors. For that reason, the summer months are the best time to visit. However, to get your wildflower fix, you’re better off visiting in late April. If fall foliage is what you’re after, aim for the last week in October or the first week in November.
When to Visit Grand Canyon National Park
While the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is open 365 days per year, the North Rim is closed from December through mid-May. To see both rims (and avoid the hordes of tourists and 120℉ days) plan your visit for spring or fall when the kids are in school and temperatures are mild. All park services are open, and it’s the best time to ride the Colorado River’s world class rapids. Monsoon season in the Grand Canyon is in June, July, and August, and if it rains, a raft is the last place you’ll want to be stuck during a storm.
When to Visit Zion National Park
Generally speaking, the shoulder seasons are also the best time to explore Utah’s first national park. Not only is the park’s free shuttle service running, but temperatures are also pleasant enough that you can be out all day without worrying about getting hypothermia or heat stroke. That said, if you plan on checking The Narrows off your bucket list, don’t come in spring when the water levels are dangerously high, and the water temperature is near freezing. In 2023, they were closed from April 8- June 19.
St. George / Hurricane KOA Journey
When to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park
Because Rocky Mountain National Park is at such a high altitude – even its lowest point is above 7,500 feet – winter visits are out of the question unless you’re part yeti. And for hiking, you pretty much have to visit in the summer months when trails are finally open. (If you go any other time, you’ll have to pack snowshoes and possibly an avalanche beacon in order to summit.) Of course, late September is when you can hear the elk bugle and see the aspen forests awash in citrus colors so bright you’ll swear Mother Nature is using a filter.
When to Visit Acadia National Park
The sweet spot for visiting Maine’s only national park is the week right after Labor Day. Park services are still open, but since the kids are back in class, you won’t encounter the overwhelming summer crowds that make this the country’s 5th most visited national park . That said, you’ll still need a reservation to drive up Cadillac Mountain (where you can catch the first sunrise in North America). Of course, if you want to see an explosion of fall colors, come in mid-October. And if it’s the Aurora Borealis you’re after, aim for November or even later in the year.
Bar Harbor / Oceanside KOA Holiday
When to Visit Yellowstone National Park
If you ask a park ranger (off the record, of course), most will tell you their favorite months in Yellowstone are April and May. While it’s still a little too early for wildflowers, spring is when baby animals are starting to emerge, and few things are cuter than watching a bison calf take its first steps. That said, winter is the best time to see Yellowstone’s world-famous wolves. Just know that most of the park’s entrances and roads, including those to Old Faithful, are closed to car traffic approximately November to April.
Yellowstone Park / Mountainside KOA Journey
Yellowstone Park / West Gate KOA
Livingston / Paradise Valley KOA Holiday
Red Lodge KOA Journey
Cody KOA Holiday
Dubois / White River KOA Holiday
When to Visit Yosemite National Park
Despite being crowded (to the point that vehicle reservations are required every day of the week in July), summer is ideal for visiting California’s most popular national park. This is when high altitude hiking trails are passable, free shuttles are operating, and the park’s waterfalls – including one of the tallest in the world – are most insta-worthy. Try to plan your trip for June or September which each receive about 100,000 fewer visitors than July and August.
Coleville Walker KOA Holiday
When to Visit Joshua Tree National Park
Even if you plan on blasting the AC, you don’t want to visit Joshua Tree National Park in the height of summer when temperatures can easily reach into the triple digits. Visit in spring or fall when you can actually get out of the car and see the park’s namesake trees (technically, they’re succulents) up close and go for hikes among its unique rock formations. For optimal stargazing – the park is designated an International Dark Sky Park – come in October for the Night Sky Festival.
Palm Springs / Joshua Tree KOA Holiday
Katie Jackson is a writer and media specialist based in Montana’s Big Sky Country. Living and working everywhere from New York to Nicaragua, Katie is no stranger to adventure. When she’s not traveling the world (or writing about it!) she’s busy chasing after a Leonberger named Zeus. Follow Katie’s travels on Instagram @katietalkstravel.