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the Grand Canyon
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Annual Visitors: Nearly 4 million
Worst Crowds: June to September
Claim to Fame: It’s the world’s most stunning glacial trough.

Yosemite isn’t quite the oldest bit of hallowed earth in the U.S. National Park System (that honor goes to Yellowstone). But its namesake valley — a certified Shangri-La swaddled in glacial-carved peaks, towering granite walls and half-mile-long waterfalls — is what sparked the concept of a national park in the first place, back when Abraham Lincoln granted the valley to the state of California.

Now You Know: Yosemite Valley is home to most of Yosemite National Park’s famed waterfalls, which are at their most active in the spring.

And no wonder: A whole host of Ansel Adams calendar images are gathered here in one incomparable, wide-angle-lens–defying setting. First-timers driving through the park’s Wawona Tunnel and pulling over to view it all at that first mandatory overlook tend to utter the same three words in chorus: “Oh. My. God.” The one rub: It’s a large chorus.

“We estimate that 90 percent of the visitors to Yosemite National Park come to Yosemite Valley at some point during their trip,” says the park’s public-affairs officer, Kari Cobb. “And about 4 million people visit the park annually, so that’s a lot of folks congregating in a seven-mile-long-by-one-mile-wide canyon.”
The crowd-avoiding remedy, suggests Cobb, is twofold.

Step one: If at all possible, do that mandatory valley visit on a Monday or Tuesday during either of the shoulder seasons (early spring, late fall) before or after the summer crowds hit and when those residual weekend masses have pulled out. “Winter is an even better bet,” Cobb adds. “It’s absolutely stunning here, and the crowds are as thin as they’ll get.” To wit: Last year’s August attendance at Yosemite was nearly 700,000. January’s was a mere 100,000.

Step two: Lose the congestion on one of the valley’s lesser-known trails and beyond. For a quick escape, Cobb recommends the short Snow Creek hike hiding behind Mirror Lake (which dries up and becomes Mirror Meadow in the summer and fall months) — or for a longer one, the relatively flat, relatively unpopulated 13-mile Yosemite Valley Floor Loop trail. Better yet, check out the rest of the 761,266-acre park. Laced with over 800 miles of hiking trails, Yosemite’s vast backcountry will convince road-less-traveled types that much of this place is still a well-kept secret. “Tuolomne Meadows is an easy, beautiful drive through the park from the valley,” Cobb notes. “It’s gorgeous in its own right, and, as far as the crowds go, you’ve lost them.”