Everyone loves the National Parks. Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains: they’re our country’s greatest natural treasures. But if you go at the wrong time of the year–say in June, to Yosemite—you’ll wind up in a tourist hellhole. So when is the best time to visit?
A new visualization by the designer and engineer Jordan Vincent uses visitor data from 54 national parks between 2013 and 2019 to show the peak visiting times for people using different types of lodging. (A handful of parks were excluded because of incomplete data.) Vincent uses data on how many people are staying in hotels, RVs, tents, and out in the backcountry as a proxy for how busy the parks are with different types of visitors. He also adds temperature as a variable to show the correlation between surges in park visitors and how nice it is outside.
Vincent created one visualization for each national park. He calls each data viz—which looks like a radar dial with colorful looping rings to represent each lodging type—an onion ring chart. The dial is shaded to indicate when the average temperature is above 70 degrees or below 50 degrees, and each concentric ring of the dial indicates another 5,000 visitors.
In many parks, summer is clearly peak season, though for desert parks, unsurprisingly, spring is most popular. Some parks are entirely dominated by backpackers and have few traditional campsites, while larger more popular parks also have hotels. One way to use the visualization is to zero in on the edge seasons, finding a time when there aren’t as many people using your preferred type of lodging but the weather will be nice enough for spending time outside.
Some parks have peculiar visitor patterns: for instance, Mount Denali National Park has an aberration in May and June, when there’s a huge surge of backcountry visitors. Vincent thinks that’s because that is the most common time for people to try scaling Mount Denali. Then, later in the summer, other kinds of visitors show up to camp in tents or RVs—so for campers, it might make sense to go earlier in the year during peak climbing season. The Great Smoky Mountains similarly have a spike in the fall, unlike most mountainous parks. Vincent was confused by this trend, but when he did some research, he realized that people were coming to see the fall colors. Unfortunately, if you’re going to catch the fall colors, you’re probably going to have to pile in with the crowds.
You can use the visualization to determine when is likely the best time to go to any park—which may or may not overlap with peak season. You’ll have to judge for yourself whether you’re comfortable with more crowds and beautiful weather, or fewer crowds and less optimal temperatures.
For easy reference when planning future trips to National Parks, you can buy a poster of Vincent’s full visualization for $25 here.