Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
A Look at Overnight Stays at US National Parks (jordan-vincent.com)
318 points by skilled 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 98 comments

See that yellow bump in the winter for Yellowstone? You can access a fair bit of Yellowstone in the winter and I highly recommend it!

If you've ever been there in the summer the experience is much different. Instead of lines of cars and crowds of tourists you almost have the place to yourself. Drive to the base and they will take you on a snow cat up to the lodge. From there, you can cross country ski, take snow cat tours or just walk around and experience amazing things surrounded by quiet nature - snow-caked bison, wolves, foxes hunting mice in snow.

My wife and I were by ourselves waiting for Ol' Faithful to blow when a coyote walked by us heading toward the hills, passing no more than 20 feet away. It's not for everyone, but if you want to do something awesome and skip the crowds, it's a great experience!

I would add the caveat that you stay off any slope greater than 25-degrees or below the runout of any slope greater than 25-degrees or below slopes where the ridgeline has cornices unless you've got at least AIARE 1 training.

If you don't know how to measure slope angle, you probably shouldn't be on anything other than the gentlest of slopes.

Avalanches kill.

Lottery applications for non-commercially guided snowmobile permits begin today and run through August. Winners are awarded in mid-September. Four permits per day.


Though most of the park is only accessible by snow cat or skis in winter, the fifty miles of road between the North Entrance at Gardiner and the Northeast Entrance at Silver Gate is maintained. Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower-Roosevelt, and the Lamar Valley are accessible by car (depending the weather).

I can second this!

Was in the area (roughly) and had a rented car. Just drove out there for an afternoon in February and it was magic.

Saw a pack of wolves harrassing a handful of elk (and heard a howl! It's a totally different experience than hearing it in a movie), got stuck in a bison traffic jam (repeatedly).

It was just astoundingly beautiful. Not even more bison than people, more wolves than people. I hear I got lucky seeing them though.

I'm sure if you cross country ski, ride the snow cat, stay at the lodge it's fantastic but if you ever show up in Montana definitely just go regardless.

It took me a bit to understand the graphs, but I appreciate them.

That huge drop in tent-camping at Big Bend during the summer is a solid warning. If you do, I highly recommend doing so in the mountains, where it can be 20-40F cooler than the lower altitudes.

I camped at Chisos Basin in July a couple years ago. We were hoping to canoe and camp along the river for a night, but that section of the Rio Grande was mostly dried up at the time. The days were in the 90s and the nights were mid-80s. At lower altitudes, the temps were around 115F during the day.

Regardless, I highly recommend the park overall. It's absolutely breathtaking. We did the Lost Mine trail, which is about 5 miles round trip. The view at the top is just outstanding.

I’ve just finished a three month trip driving twice across the US, hitting 21 states and camping in most of those (wife and three young kids). In summer. It’s been very hot and Big Bend was particularly brutal. We were up in the Chisos Basin the first night where it was cooler and then down near the Mexican border the second night where a storm made it bearable.

We camped in a mixed of national parks/monuments, state parks, water authority areas, BLM, etc.

How do you find BLM spots?

I've often had to resort to google satellite photos and referenced flat dirt patches with BLM territory maps to make sure I wasn't on private land. Wish there was an easier way.

Campendium (site and app) has been quite reliable. I set my search to Public and Free. Or if that reveals nothing, I untick free.

We bought a shuttle bus in California, ripped out most of the seats, put in beds, then drove it over to Florida and back again. Literally hours away from flying back to Australia tonight. I’ll go through and review each site on Campendium when I have a minute.

@isaacforman on IG for anyone interested. Lots of action in the stories.

Campendium misses a lot of actual spots. It might have one camping spot listed for a 25 mile radius but there are actually tons of spots in that area. It's not precise enough imo and only guides me where to start looking on satellite photos and BLM maps again.

Yeah, obviously it only shows an area by name and then it’s up to you to read reviews or use intuition to find specific spots. Often it’s a free for all once you’re in there. App is faster than using various sites IMO.

https://freeroam.app (has BLM overlays)

It would be great to see the longitudinal trend at the national parks. There was a recent report that "camping" (including in tents, RVs, and cabins) is way down in the Adirondacks, a state park system in northern New York. According to survey data, just 11% chose to camp in 2018, compared to 33% in 2013. Hotel, motel, resort, and rentals are up. Regardless of accommodation, average length of stay has dropped from 5.1 days to 2.8 days.

This apparently follows national trends:

More and more, Americans are showing a preference for short getaways of three nights or less, he said, spurring the industry term “micro-cation.”

Millennial and Gen Z travelers, who make up a significant portion of the region’s visitors, typically book accommodations at the last minute and stay two to three days max, McKenna said.

“They take a weekend trip, leave Thursday and come back Sunday,” he said. “That’s a trend we think is going to continue. We’re also seeing people take multiple trips spread out over the course of a year. (Young travelers) are less seasonal. They take trips in the summer, the fall and the winter.”

Fewer people chose to stay outdoors last year than in prior years, and more opted for hotels or short-term vacation rentals, according to the study. Hotels remain the preferred accommodation for visitors.

Source: https://www.adirondackdailyenterprise.com/news/local-news/20...

I wonder if that has more to do with the nature of work in recent years than actual preferences. I would love to take longer trips but usually can only ever fit in 2-3 day trips because of work.

For me, I figure 2-3 day trips made over a weekend cost me only 1 vacation day, so annually I get 2-3x as many days on trips for the same number of vacation days.

Of course, then you exclusively contend with weekend crowds. I dream one day the work week is culturally decoupled from M-F, and people's "weekend" is any two days of the week. It would mean less crowds for everyone and more regular business for tourist towns. K-12 school schedule is probably the chief impediment.

The issue there is the same with any flexible work option and that's coordination. If people are actually taking advantage of it it becomes increasingly harder to have meetings with multiple people involved.

Bingo. About 2 weeks is the sweet spot for me when not pressed for time.

Sometimes, it's really hard to find information that confirms a negative. (i.e., confirming that a scenario is not supported)

A while ago I was trying to plan a trip to Death Valley and I was exploring backcountry camping as a possibility. Backcountry camping is possible in Death Valley, but looking at this chart I can see that no one really does it, and it might be best to reconsider my plans.

This is valuable information for individuals planning an overnight stay at any park.

(Of course, it's possible that the data is missing, but I think my point is still valid)

Backcountry camping in Death Valley is magical if you know what you're doing. It's also a place that will kill you if you don't know what you're doing and you get lost, or panic when something goes wrong. Death Valley is also a park that's relatively easy to explore by vehicle and through day hikes, so it will always have a lower ratio of backcountry camping to other forms of camping than most other parks.

Beta is nice but if you're confident in your ability to know when to turn back, it's ok to go find out for yourself. Some of my favorite hiking trips are in the dead of winter where I don't see another soul and the snow has clearly been untouched for weeks/months. I spent more time camping last winter than I did this summer.

I also doubt those kinds of outlier trips are reported in this data set. I'm not sure how they assembled this data specifically, but most national parks around me have self issue permits or trailhead ledgers. But they're often either missing or water damaged during the winter months. If there's no infrastructure to record the outlier data, then it doesn't get recorded at all.

Which national parks have self issue permits?

I don't know the national parks specifically, but just about every trailhead in the mid WA cascades, with the exception of a few that you need additional permits for (wonderland, enchantments, etc)

Most of those are on national forest land, which is different than a national park. The wonderland is at Mt. Rainier National park, which requires permits for all overnight backpacking. Same with Olympic and North Cascades National Park.

i don't think death valley requires permits for backcountry camping, so i suspect it doesn't show up in the dataset.

btw, death valley has a lot of semi-backcountry options: places that require high clearance vehicles to access via road, may or may not have vault toilets, may or may not have water, and are generally pretty light in terms of utilization. they might be worth considering.

Currently, backcountry permits are voluntary.


I just got back from a trip to Death Valley. While it was extremely hot (116F), it was very beautiful. The mountains are where you probably want to go for hiking and camping. The valley floor is where all the heat gets trapped in. I highly recommend Death Valley. Many people stay tuned for the short-lived super blooms of wildflowers that pop up from time to time in spring after perfect conditions allow. It is supposed to be quite spectacular.

The NPS doesn't have the data as you can camp (fairly) freely without permits.

I've done it a few times before (all in the fall through spring). The major issue is in finding flat, suitable ground for a tent; the most interesting areas of the park are often the most rocky, are lacking for flat surfaces, or you would find yourself in a sandy wash/arroyo. Or, you'd be out in the open subject to horrible winds that would keep you up all night from the noise.

One of the most common/easiest places to do it is on a hike to Telescope Peak, hike in a few miles, camp the night, then hike to the top and back out the following day.

Death Valley was a National Monument until 1994. The backcountry camping requirements are more typical of BLM wilderness areas than most national parks. I'm not a lawyer but it looks to me like you can boondock a vehicle on the dirt roads. https://www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/backcamp.htm

Unlike most other National Parks and Wildernesses, Death Valley does not encourage backcountry hiking...all the trails are short out and back. There isn't an extensive through trail system. https://www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/hiking.htm

I live just outside North Cascades NP. It's only backcountry accessible but is absolutely stunning and you likely won't see a single other person while out there.

I remember car camping there once around 20 years ago, am I mis-remembering the park? The nps site, at least, provides some evidence that I’m not imagining that. https://www.nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/camping.htm

The Ross Lake National Recreation Area is a corridor along Washington Highway 20. It bisects North Cascades National Park and the Park has two sections separated by it. The Recreation Area has car camping, Like the Park, it is under the National Park Service but has different rules.

Technically, there is only backcountry camping in the park. But the car campgrounds are essentially surrounded by the it.

I once drove 50 miles on the North Cascades highway and saw no-one. Mostly due to fires in the area though, so the air quality wasn’t great

We stopped at one point and heard a motorbike come up the valley for 10 minutes before it passed us!

And that’s a fairly main road - I can only imagine how isolated it is once you’re deep in the park

Eh, Marblemount ranger station definitely has a line before opening on the weekends. Everything requires permits and permits go fast for the well-known stuff.

No fees though, which is nice.

The Denali graph is interesting. You can see how the climbing season for Denali (May-June) skews the bulk of backcountry camping much earlier in the season than the weather would predict

The, "Gates of the Arctic" graph is somewhat funny: devoid of RV camping 365 days of the year! Got back from that place last month after a 2 week stay. No RVs to be seen, either.

Well, there's no ROADS into the Park, either! We took float planes.

My idea of what a, "desolate backcountry area" is, has been recently redefined.

Interesting spike in backcountry camping in the Great Smoky Mountains relatively early in the season (starting in March). Probably thru-hikers on the Applachian Trail, hiking northbound?

It's also the nicest time to hike in that area, i.m.o. Thru hikers probably do contribute to the spike, but I'd bet a lot of it is just that April and May are the best weather.

Agreed. The heat/humidity starting in June are nigh unbearable.

Camped in Deep Creek and Cades Cove a few weeks ago and it was very warm.

I hiked the backcountry there two spring breaks during college. That was 20 years ago, but I don't really recall it being crowded. Beautiful time of year, but a little scary when I had to forge a river of snowmelt.

The thruhiking bubble also likely contributes to the similar rise in backcountry visits to Shenandoah in May and June.

Don't know that place but if it has good cliffs April could be the climbing season.

What's the difference between backcountry and tent? I feel like they overlap - I often camp with a tent in the backcountry..

Usually backcountry camping requires hiking in to a site, whereas "tent" camping would refer to stays in frontcountry campgrounds that are usually accessible via a car. With exceptions, tent camping would require a reservation, whereas backcountry camping sites often are occupied on a first-come first-served basis.

Tent camping: a flat spot, maybe a picnic table, one parking space, an elevated grill, a water spigot, on-site trash facilities, and a common toilet/shower building. The extent of your assigned site may be lined with old railroad ties, and clearly labeled with a numeric sign.

Backcountry camping: a flat spot, a firepit ring, a covered latrine pit with a park service logo on it, and a cable on a pulley for your bear bag. The extent of your site might be represented by a dot at a place on your topo map that slightly differs from reality.

Some tent campgrounds also offer wi-fi and limited electrical power distribution.

Most of the backcountry camping I’ve done in the US has been “find somewhere 1-2 miles from any formal trail” and you’re on your own. No signage, no toilet, no nothing. Usually only fuel fires and no fire rings (especially in the west).

National forests are usually like you described, but most national parks have camping areas with toilets and bear lines available at popular backcountry locations. Most national parks also allow dispersed camping, but not all - Rainier for example requires reservations for a particular campsite.

This is a subset usually referred to as dispersed camping. IME, this is usually the case in US national forests (in fact, I think the rule is that it is allowed by default).

There are a number of parks (including most US national parks) that only allow backcountry camping at designated sites (which may or may not have the amenities described by the GP).

OK. I've only formally backcountry camped in Arches (mile from any trail - no amenities or sign of previous camping where we were), Yosemite (we quietly camped on top of Clouds Rest so obviously no amenities), Joshua Tree (off trail, random spot with amenities), Canyonlands (Needles in a designated spot but no facilities just a marker, and Maze in a random spot with no indication of previous camping), and a few monuments/areas (Coyote and Buckskin Gulch, etc).

To me, "back country" can mean many things, down to no trail and essentially no services. For example, when we backpacked in Denali many years ago, all we had for toilets were the shovels and biodegradable toilet paper we brought. Very different from camping next to your car and having a restroom with running water nearby.

Going off of my experience with my state park system, there are four types of camping one can do:

1. Building Rental (Cabin, etc.)

2. RV / Camper

3. Park and Camp (Tent)

4. Hike and Camp (Tent)

With #3 you park in a nearby lot and walk to a designated camp site, often times with things like tent pads, benches, tables, grilling areas, etc., roughly a mile or so from the parking lot, usually closer than not. With #4 this is non-trivial hiking and camping in proper wilderness. Sometimes they will have designated camping sites, sometimes it's completely up to you.

I would assume "Tent" is just #3 and "Backcountry" is #4.

Thanks, this makes more sense.

The terminology that I've often used for the two modes are backpacking versus car camping. When you go backpacking, everything in your campsite has to be lugged in (and out!) on your back, which places a very high premium on weight, whereas car camping involves carrying stuff in your car's trunk. You're not going to see many 5-man tents or propane tanks going backpacking, for example.

That said, we did have one trip that ended up being "dutch oven backpacking", because the road to the campsite was blocked and we had to lug all of the gear, including the cast iron dutch ovens, the mile or so by hand instead.

Probably tent-camping campgrounds vs no campground. They didn't want to label it "campground" because that could refer to an RV campground too.

Exactly this. To go back country camping in Denali means jumping on a bus that drives the length of the park and telling it to stop wherever you want to begin your adventure. Tent camping is a traditional campground.

Drive-in campsite vs. hike-in camping area (which may or may not have "campsite" facilities).

The term backcountry is a generic descriptor for areas of a park unit outside of highly developed front-country zones.


I’ve camped in (or free-camped near) 15 of these this summer in the US during a roadtrip. Almost everywhere has been hot and while that has meant some places are less busy than peak, I can definitely recommend favouring those at elevation. Or to avoid crowds, look for accommodation in state parks or national monuments that don’t have that top-shelf brand.

Bryce is currently walk-ups only so you can grab a site before midday, be close to the rim and not get cooked.

Many of these parks are in or near quite remote areas. If you can't get a site reservation there's often some great farms or ranches around that you can stay at. For example, we stayed in a tiny, but full service cabin on a ranch in Southwest Utah very close to quite a few State and National Parks. It was awesome, there was literally nobody else for a couple miles around and the stars...my god the stars.

Is there a link to the raw data anywhere? Wasn’t able to find it via the NPS website or data.gov

I believe it's https://irma.nps.gov/Stats/Reports/Park - drill into an individual park like Yellowstone and you'll see the "Overnight Stays" data



Here's the list of stats for Rocky Mountain:


Looks like OP pulled from the Recreation Visits By Month report.

These are pretty cool! However, as a person with red/green colorblindness, I can't really reliable tell which line is "tent" and which is "backcountry".

Also, does the line thickness mean anything, or is it just correlated with the radius?

If you are planning to backpack to official Backcountry camp sites at any of the popular parks, you will need a permit. Expect to book roughly 6 months in advance, to the day, within minutes that your site is available to reserve. Not all parks offer 6 months in advance. Some are less.

Backpacking the national parks is a lot harder than tent camping at a campground but so rewarding. My shoulders can't take the weight for too long, though, and it's hard to convince family to tough it out to see parts of the park that few others venture into. Yet, doing so exposes you to incredible sights and animals that stay far away from people.

I feel the circular plots make the data harder to read. I suspect some boring line plots with time of year on the X axis would be much more visually efficient

I agree.

In general, circular plots are made by "designers" to have data look cool but they're not what someone actually trying to use the data would choose. I will actively caveat that for things like antenna radiation patterns, they are the natural choice.

But for data that has no relation to circles, it merely confuses the reading of the plot. It is very difficult to make a numeric judgement of a data point where both the radius and angle are changing.

Quoting Tufte probably, they lead to confusion between the areal depiction and the linear relationship of the numbers.

Pie charts, spider diagrams, fitness / health monitor circles, energy usage in your utility bill shown as circles, these plots, etc., they're mostly a graphical gimmick.

I agree. Infographics and the like are a cancer to the graphics world. I want data in its most simplest form, digest it using simple semiology and graphical grammer and move on. I find Cleveland et. al (Visualizing Data), Jacques Bertin (Semiology of Graphics) and Leland Wilkinson (Grammar of Graphics) much more 'scientific' in their approach than Tufte. Reading Tufte's books is akin to reading Josef Alber's - Interaction of Colors, which btw is the gospel of color theory amongst artists and designers: They provide interesting view of the problem but not the solution to the problem. They are coffee table books in my opinion - bedazzling and extremely interesting but useless in practice. Read Edwin Land (Kodak scientist) if you want to understand color theory.

I like the aesthetic of the circular plots and think it's very creative. Though if we were to take Mr. Tufte's advice to heart: the surface that's outlined by the colored ribbons does not increase in the same proportion as the actual number of visitors, which might influence the way the data is perceived visually. But I don't want to rain on somebody's parade who managed to make far more beautiful plots than I ever have..

I generally hate radar plots, but I thought it worked perfectly for visualizing seasons, which operate in a circle. Linear graphs of months of a year always look funny to me.

Circular graphs are half the problem I see on the "dataisugly" subreddit. At least this one isn't too bad.

Hmm, the first plot took me a long time to understand - way too much going on.

Second this, my mental calendar is a circle, but running counter-clockwise with January 1 at the 12, Feb at 11, etc. I have no problem looking at linear timelines, but viewing these clockwise representations of the year, with January at the 8 position, was surprisingly difficult.

That said, the data is really interesting.

Fascinating! I would have preferred January at the 6 o'clock, with the peak temperature & community interest (Northern Hemisphere at least) at 12 o'clock, and rotating clockwise.

It is so interesting to me that your mental calendar goes counter-clockwise. What is the intuition that picks that handedness?

I've always been curious about this -- mine is also counter-clockwise, but with January 1 down around the 7 o'clock position. I've always assumed I imported that from a calendar with aligned seasons (like with the peak of summer at July/August being at the top of the circle), but no real idea of where it originated.

Where do you put the break in the graph, then? Winter solstice, maybe?

I think for data which is circular in nature (in this case, as the Earth goes around the Sun), it makes sense.

Yes, a linear presentation works too. For me, that would be harder to read.

There is a variable missing on the axis somewhere: why doesnt the "average temperature" coloring extend all the way to the edge? It should be shaped like a pie slice as I understand it.

I'm not sure if I totally understand your point. But from what I'm seeing on the graph, the temperature coloring is only present when the average temperature is above 70 (in red) or below 50 (in white). So there is no coloring around the edges in spring/fall for many graphs because the average temperature is likely between 50-70.

Yes but why doesn't it look like a pie slice - outlined by "clock hands." The circle graph treats the year like a clock. There is no reason that if Aug 5 is above 70 on average, that the coloring only goes halfway on that day. It's a binary yes/no.

I presumed that represents the number of days in that month where the temperature was above (or below) that certain threshold.

This is rather common in weather sites.

Ok so that's what I mean by missing variable - the "number of days in that month" is not represented on the graph.

It also makes more sense that this is plotting 12 points and smoothing the curve, in my mind me I had assumed it was a daily plot of the data.

Late October, when the crowds have thinned but before the heavy snows arrive, is my favorite time to go backpacking in the mountains. It’s a completely different experience than visiting in the summer months. It does tend to get cold at night (below freezing, even) and can snow on occasion, so you need to plan accordingly.

For several of the sites elevation is everything. Mt Rainier? Good place to die.

The graph look amazing but they're a bit hard to read. I was hoping for some toggles to switch labels on/off! Maybe I'm just bad at reading graphs...

I'm amused that they featured Acadia as the first park in the "continental" section after summarizing by saying those parks were in the midwest.

I think you misread that. It mentions "parks in the midwest" as a subcategory of "continental".

Also amusing that they include Voyagers park in Minnesota in the "Tundra" category after saying these parks are all in remote parts of Alaska

Should have included a lakes and rivers category, probably. You're not going far in Voyageurs/BWCA/Quetico without a float-plane, canoe, or kayak.

Wish there was a version better suited for colorblinds!

This is why I like winter camping, no people!

More importantly, no bugs!

most of them are very similar... they basically say don't travel during school summer break?

I love the design of these graphs -- can I ask what you used? Thanks!

Voyeurs is NOT tundra and NOT part of Alaska.

that is probably the most beautiful way of displaying data I have ever seen. hands off to the author.


maybe you disabled js? it's ember.

if you meant that as a snide remark, i don't think that's fair. i don't require js for my websites but it's fairly standard practice. this is one of the most aesthetically pleasing sites i've seen this week.

There's always one. As if you don't know.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact