Travel | January 3, 2020 2:03 pm

America’s National Parks Will Be Really Crowded in 2020

This is not what Mr. Muir had in mind

National Parks Overcrowding
(Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Last June, I sat in traffic near Yosemite’s Arch Rock Entrance for over an hour. Thankfully, we were leaving the park at the end of the day, and I was in the back of an air-conditioned van with friends, sipping a Lagunitas DayTime IPA. The stakes were pretty low.

But the experience stuck with me, and the fact remains — at certain points during the year, America’s National Parks start to resemble Manhattan’s West Side Highway on a Friday at 5:30. And there’s seemingly nothing visitors (who’ve often flown or driven a long way to knock said park off their bucket-list) can do but wait and pray that A) parking is still available, or B) they’ll be able to exit without much drama.

That’s going to be more difficult in 2020, if the first couple days of January in Zion National Park are any indication. The park posted a photo on Instagram on New Year’s Day of a long line of cars crowding an entrance into the park, with a caption explaining that there will be no shuttles on offer this month. Zion’s shuttle system was introduced at the end of the 1990s, but hasn’t been revamped in the years since, despite the fact that the number of yearly guests has doubled in the park. (Which is a national trend, by the way; visitation is setting new records every few years.) These days, it takes an hour to flag a Zion shuttle, and once you’re on it’s standing-room only.

That’s assuming they’re even running. Hopefully, Zion’s fleet is down until President’s Day Weekend because it’s winter, and it’s a good time for improvements to be made. But that Instagram photo is a small taste of the chaos that ensues when Zion’s left to just personal autos. It’s a mad scramble for parking spaces, where the exceedingly early risers or those willing to drive out of the way to a more “wild” entrance are rewarded. Unfortunately, the situation is primed to get more complicated. Boutique hotels are opening in the backyard of many parks, which subverts difficulties in getting camping permits, but brings more day-trippers (in more obscene cars) to sites. And efforts to privatize National Parks hold more governmental support somehow than building sustainable lots, or drafting some sort of common-sense reservation system.

We recommend researching the off-peak months, days and hours of your destination park, to give yourself every opportunity to get in and out with as little stress as possible. These pilgrimages are about trees and rivers, not traffic signs and concrete.

Subscribe here for our free daily newsletter.