How to Beat the Crowds in America's Most Popular Outdoor Destinations

What if I told you that you could visit America's most iconic and highly travelled outdoor destinations with 99% less people?

By: Jonathon Reed
November 6, 2016

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What do Zion, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon all have in common, apart from being stunning natural treasures? Being overwhelmed with tourists in peak season. As far as I can tell, it's inevitable. Of course I want to see the majesty of Half Dome high above Yosemite Valley—but so do more than four million other people every year.

It sounds almost hypocritical, but I want my wilderness wild. For me, nothing diminishes the serenity of a rugged landscape like the frantic presence of traditional tourists, both as a traveller and as a photographer. The noise, the tripods, the selfie sticks; it all gets to be a little too much. There are obvious ways around it: backcountry camping, off-season travelling, that kind of thing. But what can I do when my iconic destination—take Half Dome or North Rim, for example—lies unavoidably on the beaten path?

There's a simple, flawless answer. Go before sunrise.

Crossed paths with about 10 people on the way out, and over 1,000 people on the way back. (The Narrows, Zion National Park)

Being a sunriser is not always easy, especially if you're travelling hard. Depending on the location and the time of year, it can mean getting up at 4 or 5 AM. When I climbed Half Dome for sunrise, it meant setting my alarm for 1:30 AM. You can expect to be making breakfast during the coldest part of the day, still trying to shake off sleep while already on the move. Pre-sunrise is probably the most uncomfortable I've ever been while travelling.

But it is always worth it, and I do mean always. Not only do you get the satisfaction of experiencing nature with a fraction as many people around, but you witness arguably the most beautiful time of day, the golden hour at sunrise.

I've seen the sunrise in some pretty heavily travelled destinations, and I can tell you it doesn't matter if it's Glacier Point in Yosemite or the Bali Sea in Indonesia—odds are it's deserted. And suddenly in that stillness and quiet you'll find a greater appreciation for the untempered wilderness. The feeling of awe and gratitude that starts when the sun first lights the clouds on the horizon, that will stay with you for a long, long time.

Shared the view with a lone motorcyclist and a few quiet deer. (Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park)

I've been doing this for so long that it's become part of my identity—any new place that I go to, I have an urge to get out there for at least one sunrise. But if you're new to the idea and wondering if it's really worth it, consider this. While I was travelling with my sister this fall, we counted. We did the math and for each of the high-density hikes that we did at sunrise in Zion, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, the number of travellers out there at sunrise was 1% of the number we saw on the trail later that morning.

So it's simple. When you're trying to get out into the wilderness and get away from the crowds, obviously there's getting off the beaten path and the peak season. But there's also getting off the 'beaten' time. That's my secret.

Take it from a fellow adventurer: become a sunriser. You can't go wrong.

Two other hikers at the summit, well over 200 on their way up. (Half Dome, Yosemite National Park)

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.