Too crowded – just a matter of perspective?

Talk about visiting national parks and eventually someone will complain about how crowded they are – too many people to enjoy the place.  Since I avoid crowds unless absolutely necessary, I’m sensitive to this and wonder if my visit will be disturbed by too many people.

But then a friend of mine reminded me of something I’d observed at many parks but just hadn’t incorporated into my thinking.  Crowds exist because large numbers of people behave in a similar manner.  If you behave in a different manner, you can escape being part of the crowd.  Then you just have to decide which is more inconvenient – dealing with crowds or dealing with doing things different.

On a recent trip to Yosemite we made it a point to get into the park before 7am with the intention of seeing certain sights before the masses showed up.  And it worked.  Plenty of open scenery for photography, no juggling around for a parking space, no crowds on the trails (other than wildlife).  For probably 2-3 hours in the morning it felt like we had the park to ourselves; same feeling late in the afternoon.  We started asking “where is everybody?” although in the middle of the day the answer was very apparent as the crowds streamed into the valley.

It reminded me of visits to other parks and the benefit of early morning timing.  As a landscape photographer I’m looking for that light just before sunrise and just after sunset – the middle of the day is generally not going to light up the scenery in an interesting fashion.  Turns out most tourists to national parks want to vacation, meaning they sleep in a bit.  So, except for other crazy landscape photographers and long-trail hikers, there’s usually no one around.

Lower Yosemite Falls, after lunch

Lower Yosemite Falls, after lunch

We’d visited this site before and I had the typical shots I wanted so we thought it’d be interesting to see what it’s like when everyone else decided to show up.  It’s hard to see but there are people from the foregound all the way to the base of the falls.  I rarely compose with people in the scene but this was something I wanted to talk about later so I waiting until the number of people seemed at a maximum.

Hidden Lake trail, Glacier National Park, late morning

Hidden Lake trail, Glacier National Park, late morning

This is one of the more popular trails in the park and there are generally people on it all the time.  This was probably a light traffic day but as you see users of the trail run to an assortment of characters.  What’s nice about this trail is behind me there’s an overlook to Hidden Lake that gives a great vista to the western part of the park, and there are rarely people in the scene.



Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park

Although it looks pretty isolated, standing on either side of me are about 200 people, all looking the same way.  You don’t necessarily need a backcountry hike to make a nice landscape image.

Yellowstone National Park, early morning

Yellowstone National Park, early morning

As you see from the empty trail, this area doesn’t see much traffic until the tourists start wandering around the park after breakfast.  Strolling off the walk-way in some parts of Yellowstone can be hazardous so you don’t have the freedom to find a more isolated scene.  In this case being up early is an advantage.

Highline Trail, Glacer National Park, mid-day

Highline Trail, Glacer National Park, mid-day

That trail in the bottom left is another very popular one in this park.  The place is so immense, though, all you have to do to capture an unpopulated image is just to wait until the hikers walk out of the scene.

Half Dome,  Yosemite, late afternoon

Half Dome, Yosemite, late afternoon

In the upper end of the valley are several campgrounds, which are packed during the summer (this image was taken in mid-July).  To the right of this scene is a road lined with parked cars and campers; to the left is a campground packed with tents.  In spite of my bias against people in pictures, I waited for these folks to walk into the scene because I wanted them to provide a frame of reference for the size of the trees and Half Dome.  In spite of the crowds on either side of the scene, I could have easily waited until there was no one on the trail.

Another piece of advice I’ve read lately is that the vast majority of tourists to national parks are only interested in what they can see from the road.  Either they are in a hurry to see lots in a short period of time, or they aren’t interested in hiking very far from the road.  The advice was simply to walk away from the crowds – usually only takes a mile or so to have the trail pretty much to yourself.

Tuolumne Canyon from Pothole Dome, Yosemite

Tuolumne Canyon from Pothole Dome, Yosemite

This is a panoramic I made by walking to the top of a small dome in Tuolumne Meadow at Yosemite.  The hike took me about 20 minutes of walking up a steady incline.  I was on the top about 30 minutes shooting scenes like this.  I never saw another person while there, nor did I meet anyone on the way back.  My assumption is the walk was too much for the casual tourist and not thrilling enough for the serious hiker.  Great for me – I got to make images like this and enjoy the quiet.

So what’s the point?  Yes there are more and more people visiting national parks.  It’s great that we have taken it upon ourselves as a country to preserve these unique and beautiful places.  People should be proud of them and interested in seeing what they contain.  Do I need to get over my comments about them being too crowded?  Seems that way since there are some simple decisions I can make that will enable me to see and photograph what I want without having to fight through a mob.

What’s been your experience?  And what do you think of this?


4 thoughts on “Too crowded – just a matter of perspective?

  1. I haven’t yet visited major national parks like this,Mel, but my experience is similar on a local level–if I get there early and/or go to more remote locations that require a bit of effort, I can have the kind of outdoor experience with nature that I prefer.


  2. Great article and photos, Mel. I couldn’t agree more with your approach and always enjoy your spectacular photos. I avoid the short, most popular trails and also take advantage of twilight for wildlife viewing. It seems some animals also avoid the crowds.


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