The parks of summer and fall; avoiding the crowds, enjoying tranquility

Find tranquility and quiet in some of the busiest national and state parks during summer and fall; plan ahead!

Summer vacation is almost here, and families are plotting their summer (and early fall) destinations. If you are considering western state and national parks, you may soon discover that both campgrounds and in-park lodging accommodations are booked solid. Here are suggestions to work around that unpleasant circumstance.

First, plan – and reserve – ahead. Book your lodging or campgrounds well in advance, by using on-line reservation systems. For hotels, motels, we use Kayak.com or Priceline.com; for campgrounds, recreation.gov (for national park and other federal campgrounds) and reserveamerica.com (state and local campgrounds).

Also, consider your options a bit distant from the most loved (and crowded) parks. Instead of the jammed valley of Yosemite National Park, target the park’s Tuolumne Meadows area, with lovely campground, tent-lodging and dining hall, or the forest service campgrounds just east of the park along California Highway 395. The highway offers the lovely eastern Sierra, with the intriguing Mono Lake, ghost town of Bodie and resort area of Mammoth Lakes all nearby. You can still double back to Yosemite Valley for a day-trip.

Halfdome from Olmsted Point, on the road to Tuolumne Meadows in Glacier National Park.

Following Yosemite’s Highway 120 to Tioga Pass, you’ll pass the idyllic Tenaya Lake, capturing snowmelt from the remaining snows high in the surrounding Sierra. Stop at Olmsted Point for striking views of both Half Dome to the south and the lake ahead. Tuolumne Meadows offers either a 300-site campground or accommodations in the tent cabins there. Nestled at 8600 feet in a stunning granite valley, with wonderful scenery and hiking options.

The lofty high-alpine meadows are widely touted as the area that convinced John Muir to petition for the establishment of the nation’s second national park in 1890. Its stunning views, verdant greenery and dramatic granite horizons make it a memorable experience.

Tenaya Lake, looking northeast, Glacier National Park.

Find a marvelously scenic trail on the east side of Tenaya Lake, where more serious hikers can connect to the John Muir trail, all the way to the overlook of the Yosemite Valley. From the campground, you can walk along the meandering Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, adjacent to the campground. The campground offers evening campfire programs and features the nearby Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, Store and Grill with lodging, provisions and good meals for those who don’t want to cook in camp.

Other options from the campground include easy flat hikes through the Tuolumne Valley and a four-mile hike around Lembert Dome, a dramatic granite obelisk rising vertically from the meadow. More serious hikers can climb to the top of the dome for unrivaled views of the park.

Consider slightly less busy destinations: Save Yosemite for later and head straight to majestic Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in the Sierra above Fresno. Sharing a common border and flush with the world’s largest trees, the Giant Sequoia, and cliffs and rocky heights to rival those of Yosemite, these parks attract only a third of the visitors of its often-jammed neighbor to the north.



The General Sherman Tree, largest by volume in the world, always draws a crowd in Sequoia National Park. Here a ranger explains the mighty tree’s long history.

To beat the crowds at Lake Tahoe in the summer and early fall, choose forest service campgrounds just off the lake such as Fallen Leaf Lake Campground, just up Hwy. 89 from South Lake Tahoe, just a mile off of Tahoe’s shore, and within walking distance of the lake of the same name. It’s a scenic, 2 mile-long alpine lake with good swimming and fishing options and nearby Camp Richardson offers cabins for rent, food and the lovely Beacon Restaurant, a favorite on Lake Tahoe’s scenic shore.

Lake Tahoe in summer offers plenty of quiet retreats, like Fallen Leaf Lake, just a mile off Tahoe’s shores and three miles from South Lake Tahoe.

For unique, uncrowded national Park experience that both kids and adults will love, plan a trip to Pinnacles National Park, just south of Hollister and only 2.5 hours from San Joaquin County. Or, head northwest several hours to reach Redwoods State and National Parks and cruise the Avenue of the Giants, lined with mighty coast redwoods towering over 300 feet in lofty height.

Machete Ridge in Pinnacles National Park offers hiking, several tallus caves for exploration and is home to mighty condors. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

For lovely summer or fall getaways, close to home, consider nearby destinations and surrounding forest service campgrounds like those near Pinecrest Lake, up Highway 108, just 30 miles east of Sonora, or continue a bit further to higher alpine grandeur found around Kennedy Meadows area, just below Sonora Pass. Or chose Lake Alpine, just beyond Bear Valley on Highway 4. Both destinations come with breathtaking scenery, hiking, boating and swimming options, and camping or lodging in the majesty of the high Sierra.

Even in peak month’s visitation, book campgrounds online, months in advance at even some of the most crowded destinations. Use Recreation.gov, for national parks, national forests and other federal campgrounds, or, reserveAmerica.com for state and local campgrounds. Consider booking months in advance to assure prime locations in your pristine campground of choice.

Horses on the trail, just above the Kennedy Meadows area off Hwy. 108.

You can still book a campsite for a night or two in Yosemite Valley, though you often have to book many months in advance. On the 15th of the month, they release campsites six months out (for the following 30 days); if you want a prime spot in October – this is your chance. The secret is booking at 7 AM sharp on the 15th, online. If you wait even a few minutes beyond that, most of the sites you’d like will be booked out.

For more info: For Redwoods National Park, nps.gov/redw; Pinnacles National Park, nps.gov/pinn; Sequoia National Park, nps.gov/seki; Yosemite, nps.gov/yose. Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov.

Read more from Tim’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!

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