Celebrate National Parks Week Without the Crowds (and Free Admission)

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Along with observing the centennial of the National Park Service this year, the NPS has joined the National Park Foundation to commemorate National Park Week, held April 16 to 24. The annual event was recognized by a presidential proclamation in 2015 to honor the heritage of the parks. This year, the NPS is celebrating by offering free admission to all 409 of the national parks (camping and other recreation fees will still be in effect).

Since the $3–$30 that you usually pay to visit your favorite recreation sites will be waived, you can expect to find big crowds at the park gates for those nine days (though, considering it's April, things shouldn't be too wild). Here's how to beat the crowds and enjoy National Park Week to the fullest — in nature and away from the masses. And no matter what national park you decide to visit, it’s always a good idea to ask park rangers the deal on secret trails and campgrounds.

Acadia National Park

Acadia may be the fifth smallest park, but it’s consistently in the top 10 most visited. Get off the road and utilize the 45 miles of old carriage roads that traverse the park. Since no cars are allowed, that makes plenty of room for biking, jogging, and horseback riding. If you want to camp for the night, forget the Blackwoods and Seawall campgrounds. Blackwoods requires a reservation at least five months in advance for a permit. Take your camp to Isle au Haut, which can only be reached by mail boat.

Great Smokey Mountains National Park

Cades Cove is always packed with crowds. Find solace in Cataloochee, located on the eastern side of the park off I–40, exit 20. It boasts a historic district and an abundance of wildlife, comparable to Cades Cove. Cataloochee is also home to a herd of 52 elk that usually make an appearance around sunrise and sunset. Camping in Cataloochee is based on a first come, first serve basis and costs about $17.

Grand Canyon National Park

The best way to get away from the masses of people at the Grand Canyon is to get away from popular parking areas. Take Highway 89 North to Cameron and enter the park through the lesser-used East Entrance (sometimes known as Desert View). You'll still get stunning views of the Little Colorado River Gorge and Grandview Point along the East Rim, far away from the overcrowded South Rim. To see the smaller details of the massive attractions, go on a hike. Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge (3 miles) is a scenic and easy trip. Skeleton Point (6 miles), and Grandview Trail to the first overlook (2.5 miles) also offer great, expansive views.

Yosemite National Park

The only way to escape the crowds of Yosemite Valley is to get away from Yosemite Valley altogether. Hetch Hetchy Valley is a smaller version of Yosemite Valley, offers scenery that is just as outstanding as its more popular counterpart, and is the starting point for many lesser-known trails.

Zion National Park

To avoid feeling like you are part of the mob gawking at the red rocks of Zion, drive to the Kolob Canyon area of the park. The shuttle does not service, and it’s only a 45-minute drive northwest from Zion Canyon. The Taylor Creek trailhead is located here, and the hike in is well worth it to see the Double Arch Alcove, the reward at the end of the trail. It’s also worth the time to drive the Zion-Mount Carmel highway, a 10-mile road that links the south and east entrances of the park. There are lots of opportunities to pull over and explore on your own on trails such as Angels Landing, Hidden Canyon, and Observation Point.

And if you're looking to get away from the most popular parks, some of the most beautiful hidden gems are in the less-frequented parks. A few of our favorites:

Isle Royale National Park in Michigan is only accessible by boat or float plane and includes a hotel right on the water, 165 miles of hiking trails, and the opportunity to kayak or canoe in the crystal clear waters of Lake Superior.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is in the famous North Dakota badlands and is home to giant herds of bison and elk. Recreational activities include biking, horseback riding, paddling, and hiking here along the Little Missouri River without fighting the crowds you would find on the trails at Yosemite or Yellowstone.

Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado is home to North America's tallest dunes — some more than 750 feet high — sitting beneath the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which display six peaks above 13,000 feet.

Kings Canyons National Park is in the rugged Sierra Nevadas, and is comparable to Yosemite, but receives half as many annual visitors. The Sequoia Groves, soaring mountains, and deep canyons are perfect for long hikes and rock climbing.