Photo Trip Planning to Avoid Over-Crowded National Parks

Photo Trip Planning to Avoid Over-Crowded National Parks

In this episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast: avoiding over-crowded National Parks this year — with full transcript

Full episode transcript

In this episode, getting away from crowded parks this year


Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of the Fine Art Photography podcast. I’ve been looking at National Park visitor stats, and thinking about where I’d like to visit this year.

Did you know the Great Smoky Mountains got 12 million visitors in 2020?

12 million people.

That’s the population of one and a half New York Cities converging on those slow-winding mountain roads, in those parking lots, on the trails, and in the camping spaces. If you’ve ever driven around the Cades Cove loop, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a natural wonder viewed from the perspective of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Yellowstone had 3.8 million people.

Zion had 3.6 million.

I think a lot of landscape photographers are solitary characters, who go out to photograph nature because they want to be away from people.

So, why do so many insist on going to the crowded super parks every year?

I know you’ve seen those pictures of Mesa Arch with photographers stacked three rows deep and elbow-to-elbow waiting for the sunrise to make it glow orange. Several of the most popular spots have instituted lottery systems for gaining access to sites too popular for the available amount of access.
When I went to Delicate Arch, I was unable to take a photograph of it because there were always people in the shot — people walking under it. People posing next to it. People milling about. And that’s great — people were out enjoying the scenic wonders of america. It’s their park too — but I learned my lesson that day.

I follow the postings from the national park service, and the most popular parks are filled with human created drama. There are crimes. There are car accidents — in fact 31% of unintentional deaths in US national Parks are a result of car accidents. There are people falling off mountains, or getting attacked by wild animals because they got too close with their phone to take a video. 

If you’re a particularly social variety of photographer and enjoy the comradery of shooting with your tripod legs touching those of the person next to you, this episode is not for you. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with going to the most popular and crowded parks. There’s a reason they’re popular. But my point in this episode is that those crowds bring certain problems that may impact your enjoyment of the experience, and I’ll suggest some alternatives.
First a few stats:

The top ten most visited national parks in 2020 were:

  1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina 12.1 million
  2. Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana 3.8 million
  3. Zion National Park in Utah 3.6 million
  4. Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado with 3.3 million people
  5. Grand Teton National Park  in Wyoming with 3.3 million
  6. Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona 2.9 million
  7. Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio 2.8 million
  8. Acadia National Park in Maine 2.7 million
  9. Olympic National Park in Washington State 2.5 million
  10. Joshua Tree National Park in California 2.4 million

I’m a little surprised that Yosemite wasn’t on that list.

These are the top ten parks not necessarily designated as a national park:

  1. Blue Ridge Parkway 14.1 million
  2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area 12.4 million
  3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park 12.1 million as I already said
  4. Gateway National Recreation Area 8.4 million
  5. Lake Mead National Recreation Area 8 million
  6. George Washington Memorial Parkway 6.2 million
  7. Natchez Trace Parkway 6.1 million
  8. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park 4.9 million
  9. Cape Cod National Seashore 4.1 million
  10. Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area 4.1 million

Now, if you aren’t familiar with the parkways, let me describe the Natchez Trace Parkway, which I have traveled numerous times.

The Natchez Trace parkway is a two-lane highway and surrounding areas that runs 444 miles from Nashville TN, to Natchez Mississippi. The entire stretch is designated a part of the parks system. It’s maxed at 55 mph speed limit and is designed to be a leisurely drive along a rural highway surrounded by trees and countryside. There are no billboards, gas stations, fast food joints or other development on the parkway — but there are periodic exits if you need to go off for those services. Along the way you’ll see historic sites where you can stop for a visit if you want to.

Burial site of Meriwether Lewis, along the old Natchez Trace in Tennessee
Burial site of Meriwether Lewis, along the old Natchez Trace in Tennessee. Photograph by Keith Dotson.

An example of this is a place in Tennessee where Meriwether Lewis, of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, was killed in a tavern under mysterious circumstances. There’s a monument at his burial spot, and there’s a reconstructed log cabin representing the tavern. You can also see 200 year old houses, take nature walks along murmuring streams, visit ancient Indian mounds, and a lot more.

The parkway runs roughly alongside the old Natchez Trace, which was one of America’s first westward thoroughfares. It still exists in places as a deep rut into the forest floor, cut by generations of people on foot, people with carts and wagons, and before them — native Americans — and before them, bison and deer.  A lot of roads in this country started as animal treks.

A section of the original old Natchez Trace in Tennessee.
A section of the original old Natchez Trace in Tennessee. Photograph by Keith Dotson.

In the early years, it was a notorious haunt for highwaymen and robbers. In 1814, Andrew Jackson marched his army along the Trace to meet the British in New Orleans during the War of 1812.
You can walk along short stretches of the original Trace to get a feel for how it must have been in the early 1800s.

So, if we avoid the most popular parks, what are the alternatives?

Out of the 15 least visited national parks, 8 are in Alaska, and some are truly wilderness areas. Those are not places easy to access, nor are they places for a casual vacation visit. These include Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Kobuk Valley National Park, and Katmai National Park and Preserve. 

But what about low-visit places in the contiguous US? Some place we can get to pretty easily instead of Yellowstone or the Smokys?

How about Congaree National Park in South Carolina?

Congaree offers trail hiking through the hardwood forest, canoeing, and during floods you can walk the park on 2.4 miles of boardwalk. It’s located in the LowCountry between Charleston and Columbia, but closer to Columbia.

Another option is Isle Royale National Park, Michigan. This is an island with hiking, rocky shorelines, and scuba diving to view shipwrecks kept relatively intact by the cold waters of Lake Superior. You’ll need a boat to get there.

And there’s North Cascades National Park in Washington State. About three hours from Seattle, this is an alpine park that gets a lot of snow, but offers views of glaciers. 

And, Dry Tortugas National Park, located in the Florida Keys 70 miles from Key West. It’s an isolated area scattered across several islands, and you can find beaches, marine life, shipwrecks, and a historic old stone military fort from the 1800s. It’s also an exceptional spot or night sky viewing.
and Great Basin National Park, Nevada, which is located in the mountainous part of Nevada.

Situated between 5,000 and 13,000 feet, the park features dramatic views and diverse animal and plant life. You can find everything from fossils to springs, and caves to glaciers. 

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas. 

I went to this park last winter and loved it! Sunrise on the rocky face of the mountain range produces the most glorious orange you’ve ever seen. Guadalupe Mountains National Park offers tall mountains and canyons, desert terrain and even dunes. It’s home to more than 80 miles of hiking trails.
Four of Texas’ highest peaks are there. I also witnessed some wildlife.

While you’re there, travel a few hours South to the quirky little town of Marfa, which has somehow become an International art mecca. You’ll pass by the property of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, where he launched the rocket that took Shatner into space.

I’ve focused on national parks so far, but how about looking at the map, and picking a destination that maybe you’ve never considered for landscape photography or hiking.A few years ago I made a trip to Kansas, a state I’d never visited before, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I stopped at a state park there with mushroom rocks amidst the rolling hills of the prairie, and I was the only person there for the length of my visit, which was a few hours. Consider Kansas, Nebraska, or even Wyoming away from Jackson Hole.

I went to Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota. It’s a large park centered around the ancient Native American stone quarries where they collected stone for making ceremonial tobacco pipes. The quarry is interesting, but the surrounding landscape of the northern prairie also has a waterfall and several other natural features that make it fun to hike and a viable option for landscape photographers. Western artist George Catlin painted there in the 1830s. There’s also a museum.

Even popular spots can be uncrowded at the right times of year. I went to The Devil’s Tower in eastern Wyoming in winter time, and found only a few other cars in the parking lot. It was like having this sacred and incredibly stunning place all to myself. And even though it looks and feels like the middle of nowhere, the Devils’ Tower is only 80 miles from Sturgis, 74 miles from Deadwood, and 62 miles from Gillette.

I enjoy shooting abandoned places and ghost towns too, so I often research the landscape AND the potential for abandoned places. I recently returned from a road trip to New Mexico, where I wanted to shoot some desert and mountain landscapes, but I made sure to stop at various places en route and while in state, to shoot some ghost towns. I’ll talk more about this in a future episode, but planning my route to include these locations gave me a richer experience and helped me get a lot more images.

I guess my point here is that every state has scenic features, state parks, lesser known national monuments, waterfalls, or other things worth a visit for those of us who do our best to avoid crowded spots.

So, as you’re planning your summer destinations and selecting routes for road trips, don’t forget the places less travelled. The beautiful American heartland — often called flyover country — needs your tourist dollars too. 

And if you’re coming from outside the country, I think you’ll find people in the middle of the country will be really friendly, and you’ll go home with quirky experiences, and showpiece photographs that are not the same as everyone else who stood in line at Mesa Arch.

Well, happy trip planning y’all. Regardless where you go, or even if you don’t go anywhere at all, I hope you get some killer shots this year.

That’s all I’ve got for this episode. Thanks for listening, I’ll talk to you again real soon.

Sources and Links

National Park Service. “10 Most Visited ‘National Parks’ in 2020.

Travel and Leisure.The 15 Least-visited National Parks in the U.S. for Beautiful Views and Adventures Without the Crowds.” Stacey Leasca. February 09, 2022.


  1. Good stuff, Keith! When I was younger I wanted to visit all the National Parks. Now, not so much. I’ve never been to Yosemite, Grand Canyon or Zion and I’m not so sure I want to put up with the crowds to do so. I agree with you that are lots of places to see, explore and photograph that don’t have so many people. It’s a big country! (But I would love to visit Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains N.P.)

    1. I’d highly recommend Guadalupe — and to my regret, I didn’t go to Big Bend NP while I was there last year. I did attempt Big bend State Park, which is nearby and much less developed, but it’s got extremely rustic roads and my car wasn’t up to it. 4WD is recommended even to get into the park.

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