For almost every reason, the best time to visit most U.S. National Parks is in summer. The wildlife is most abundant, the weather is beautiful even after dark, and, frankly, is there anything better than sipping a lawnmower beer in a hammock by the campfire? However, many parks have exploded in popularity, meaning outdoor enthusiasts now need to contend with large crowds, insane traffic, and ballooning rates on everything from entry fees to hotel stays. It is possible, however, to dodge most of these headaches with a little planning. According to recent Priceline data, here are the best (read: most affordable) times of year to visit the five most popular U.S. National Parks.
If you want to save big and avoid the crowds any time of year, camping is almost always the best option. Beyond affordability, it pays to plan your national park visit well in advance. For extensive trail maps, a list of park amenities, and detailed write-ups by local experts, check out Chimani, a free app that puts all 419 National Park sites in your pocket. And if you want to really get away from the crowds, here are five excellent lesser-known National Parks.
5. Yellowstone National Park
As home to Old Faithful and the country’s oldest bison herd, Yellowstone may be the most iconic U.S. National Park. As the fifth most popular, it has the annual attendance numbers to prove it. Across the three neighboring states, hotel stays are most expensive in June and July with ADR (average daily rates) topping $215. Visitors can find the best bang for their buck in November and December when the ADR drops by nearly half.
Best value in nearby city: Among every nearby city, Cody, Wyoming, promises the best year-round value with ADR around $156.
4. Zion National Park
Although it doesn’t have the same brand-name cache among most travelers as Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, Zion is actually the country’s fourth most trafficked park. Thankfully, hotel rates in nearby towns aren’t as susceptible to seasonal swings. February through April is the priciest time to visit with ADR at St. George and Hurricane topping $115. Plan to visit before or after the holidays in December and January when rates drop by 25-30%.
Best value in nearby city: Hurricane is the more affordable of the two closest cities with an ADR around $95 no matter the time of year.
3. Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain is the nation’s third most-visited national park with more than 4,500,000 visitors passing through the gates each year. The most convenient hotels are located in nearby Estes Park, where peak season ADR in June and July tops $180. Like most parks on this list, budget travelers can save big by planning a winter visit. Not only is it stunning to see the park’s peaks under a blanket of white snow, but rates from November through January typically fall to less than $85.
Best value in nearby city: There are several small towns in the area, but Estes Park boasts the highest concentration of hotels with the most competitive prices.
2. Grand Canyon National Park
As the second most popular park in the United States, there’s hardly a time of year when Grand Canyon isn’t busy. The key to saving money and avoiding the crowds is, of course, to plan an off-peak visit. April, May, and June are the three most expensive months. Priceline notes that ADR at the three closest towns — Page, Flagstaff, and Kingman — often top $200. If you can travel around the holidays (ideally November through January), however, expect to pay closer to $75.
Best value in nearby city: Kingman offers the most affordable hotel rates with an ADR averaging $75 regardless of the month.
1. Great Smoky Mountains
With more than 11 million visitors each year, Great Smoky Mountains is the granddaddy of all U.S. National Parks. Fortunately, there’s little change in ADR no matter the time of year. In Cherokee and Bryson City, North Carolina and Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, peak season rates from July to October hover around $120. January and February are slightly more affordable with ADR less than $100.
Best value in nearby city: Pigeon Forge offers affordable hotel rates throughout the year with ADR around $109.