Emily Ann Hart, better known to the internet as “Emily Ventures,” knows national parks. She’s currently visited 50 out of a possible 61, with plans to see those last 11 as soon as her schedule allows. Since 2015, Emily has documented her travels on her blog and Instagram account, taking photos with a keen eye for composition, offering ruminations about the nature of travel, and sharing her state of mind in long captions that recall Bourdain’s poetic monologues in No Reservations.
When she explores, Hart is known for taking her time. She never races to tick off boxes — preferring instead to slow down and reflect on the natural world. Meaning there’s literally no better person we could have asked about which national parks you should see during the last month of summer, as wild adventure blends with the introspective spirit of fall.
Check out our interview with Emily and get out and see those parks while the weather holds!
What are some of the best national parks to visit in the month of August?
I would say there are a lot of parks that are only even really accessible in the summer, because of snow. I was just in Alaska. A lot of the parks like Denali are only open May to September, so anything north, like the North Cascades, Crater Lake, Glacial National Park, even Yellowstone isn’t as accessible in the winter. Those would be the parks that I would definitely try to go to in the summer and not the desert parks, they’re way too hot!
What’s some park etiquette that people should keep in mind?
What I’ve noticed in some of the more popular parks — that you’d think would be common sense — is just not to leave trash or go up to wildlife. That’s still something that I see a lot, and you hear a lot about on the news, especially about people being attacked by wild animals while trying to feed them. I’ve also noticed a couple of times recently people just blatantly disregarding signs. I feel like one thing about national parks is that they make a really great, easy vacation. There are signs to tell you what you should do, or what is safe, or unsafe. But it seems like people just blatantly disregard what’s written. So, understanding that those things are there for a reason and the reason is to keep you safe is an important piece of etiquette.
When I was in Alaska, I did notice quite a few times there were signs that said, “This trail is closed.” Or, “It’s dangerous to go beyond here.” And people were just walking directly around them, and there were a lot of stories just this year about people who have fallen off cliffs and died because they didn’t pay attention to those signs that are pretty clear.
And then I guess, just trail etiquette. I think understanding your surroundings — like if someone is trying to pass you — those basic things are always important. And I really like when I’m in a park and parents are taking that opportunity to teach their kids about letting people go around you, or that someone who’s ascending has the right of way, just those basic things. I think it’s a good opportunity, especially for families and kids.
Is it possible to visit a popular park while avoiding large crowds?
Definitely go everywhere early — early morning is best. Once you wait until 9:00 am or 10:00 am even, everything will be more crowded, even the lines to get into the popular parks. It can take hours to get into Yosemite on a weekend if it’s later in the day. So I think: go early if you’re camping or even if you’re staying in a lodge. If you’re staying inside the park, it makes things a lot easier, because then you have those early times and later times when people who are staying outside of the park are already gone.
One thing I always do is when I go to a new park is to go to the visitor’s center and I’ll talk to rangers or go to the gift shop and ask them if they had a day off, what would they do, where would they go? They’ll usually tell you more of a hidden gem that’s not as trafficked. Also, travel during the shoulder weeks. Obviously, everything around the Fourth of July or Labor Day is going to be more crowded. I usually go somewhere the week after Labor Day, because people are more transitioned into fall, and so the crowds are a lot smaller.
If you can handle the August heat, try Utah in the summer — it’s hot but it’s also less crowded than usual.
Speaking of hidden gems, what are some of your favorite lesser-known National Parks?
I really love the North Cascades. And it’s funny because it’s only … I don’t remember exactly. I think it’s just three hours from Seattle, but it’s not crowded. There are people there. It’s not the least crowded, but it’s just such a huge difference from Mount Rainier, or Crater Lake, which are both nearby. And it’s gorgeous, it’s huge, it’s beautiful, very easy to access. I just walked into a campsite, which at a national park in the summer, really will never happen, so that’s definitely one.
I like the Badlands as well. I feel like people always tell me when they go there, they’re shocked at how beautiful it is, and there really aren’t many people there ever.
Canyonlands in Utah. Moab is always really crowded, and Arches is really crowded, but Canyonlands is only 20 miles down the road, and it’s huge, so people bypass it just to hang out in Moab and Arches.
Pretty much all the parks in Alaska have less traffic. I went to three this summer and none of them were crowded. So anywhere that’s going to be really difficult to get to. I really liked Isle Royale. It’s an island between Minnesota and Michigan. You can get there from either direction, and you have to go on a boat. It’s really small and they have camping and you can backpack. It’s very secluded and very beautiful. People don’t think of the Midwest ever as a national park area, but I was really, really shocked at how beautiful and serene it felt.
What’s the best National Park for hiking?
Oh, that’s hard.
You can list a few favorites if you want.
Probably, the Grand Tetons, or Rocky Mountain National Park, just what personally like to hike.
What are the best National Parks with swimming holes or beaches?
I mean, it’s not really a swimming hole, but you can swim at the Dry Tortugas in Florida. It’s just an island off of Key West. There are beautiful beaches there. As far as swimming, Glacier National Park actually — they have a lot of lakes, and then one of the lakes, I think it’s Lake MacDonald, has swimming. Being in that beautiful alpine lake environment while swimming is really cool during the hottest days of summer.
What’s your favorite National Park near a major city?
Well, I guess a good trip to do, if you want a base, is Las Vegas. You can go from Las Vegas on a day trip, a long day trip, but a day trip, to Grand Canyon in one direction, or up to Zion and Bryce. So I give people that recommendation a lot if they’re flying in somewhere from the east to the west, an easy place to fly obviously is Vegas. And there are those three really beautiful parks very nearby.
You talked about some parks being only accessible during the summer. So if you want to go visit a national park in the winter, where should you go?
Death Valley. [laughs] Really. I mean, yeah, you should go to Death Valley. Saguaro in Tucson, Big Bend in Texas. Those are all very warm, so in the winter, any of those would be much better, even the Florida parks, maybe not the dead of winter, depending on what you want to do. There are three national parks very near Miami. You could use that as a base and go in the fall or winter.
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I always say I’m a different person when daylight savings arrives. Joking, I think. But also, when I woke up this morning, having lost 2 hours from travel and the time change, I was so happy. Knowing what was ahead of me. Felt lighter. More alive. Because I’m always me — place or time or sunlight won’t necessarily change that — but it influences it. And in 33 years I’ve learned that daylight is a cue that I need. It triggers my routines. Health. Activity. It’s easier. And that then rewards me with joy. I’m still me. But maybe a little brighter.
Do you have any suggestions for people who want to catch a Perseid meteor shower or love to go sky watching?
I don’t personally do that, but I have noticed that a lot of the parks that I’ve gone to are designated dark sky parks for that reason. Black Canyon Of The Gunnison is one here in Colorado. Great Basin National Park in Nevada is also an underrated park that’s cool and really has no one there. So I would probably look into what that list of the designated dark sky parks are. The National Park Service has all kinds of resources for what you can see at those parks.
I noticed on your Instagram you have great photos. Do you have any travel photo-taking tips?
I just take pictures of myself, just with my iPhone. I have an iPhone tripod that … I think it gets up to 50 inches. It was really cheap, and I can have it in my backpack. And then I connect my timer with my iPhone to my travel watch, so then you can get further away to release the shutter. I mean, if it’s a crowded place, obviously I won’t do that.
If it’s crowded, since I’m alone, people usually ask me to take their photos or if I see someone taking a selfie, I’ll ask if they want me to take their photo, and then they’ll ask if I want one. So I just take the photo that I would want for myself of them. And then, when I show them how it’s framed, generally they just take the same one of me!
Okay, so I have one more question for you, and this one will probably hard, and people probably ask you it all the time. But if you had to pick one National Park to be your favorite, what would it be and why?
Yeah, people do ask me that all the time! They all have things that are cool about them, like the best hiking or whatever, like we were talking about, but I think all around I really love the Grand Tetons. It’s a mix of things because it’s not super close to me, but I could get there on a weekend. It has good swimming too, there’s boating, mountains, hiking. It’s also near Jackson, so it’s not too remote.
It just has a really good mix of everything that I like to do, and then it’s just really dramatic. I live near the mountains in Colorado, but we’re already over 5,000 feet, so the vertical distance isn’t as dramatic as when you’re in Jackson. There are no foothills really, so it’s just like what you see in the photos, but better. It can be crowded because it’s so near Yellowstone, but Yellowstone is still always much more crowded than the Tetons — which I think is so funny, because they’re on the same road and they pretty much touch each other. I would much rather go to the Tetons.
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September 2018: People always ask me what my favorite park is so far. While I can’t say I have one favorite — Grand Teton is the closest. There’s something about the changing landscape, the jagged peaks, the animals, and the water that just feel… right. Part of my affinity of course is just that I’ve spent a lot of time here. It’s a place I always come back to. To explore the new and old. Take in the air and feel the breeze. This trip was the weekend after Labor Day (pro-tip: less crowded still good weather 🤗) I drove north in anticipation and gasped when I saw the mountains. It’s always just as good as the first time. I went back to all of my favorite places. Barely spoke a word for days. Read two books. Camped in the middle of the changing leaves. There always seems to be a gap between expectation and reality — but not here. Here expectations are only exceeded by reality.