1999 Family Vacation Guide, Unsung Heroes
I Want to be Alone!
How to find solitude in America's most crowded national parks
They're the blockbusters: Great Smoky Mountain, Grand Canyon, Banff, Yellowstone, and Yosemite, the five most beloved national parks on the continent. Great as they are, the rising entrance fees, conga lines of cars, and strip malls filled with tacky gift shops can make these treasured plots of real estate seem like more trouble than they're worth. But since mainstream tourists tend to congregate at the main attractions, there are still plenty of primo sites both in and around the parks that remain blissfully unpopulated. Here's how to find them.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Annual visitors: 10 million
Cades Cove in Tennessee is the park's most popular destination, so instead head on over to Cataloochee Valley in the North Carolina side of the park, which is just as gorgeous but decidedly less crowded. The park's backcountry office (423-436-1297) will help you find the trails and campsites best suited to your family. Here are some other options:
- Kick back at Fontana Lake near Bryson City. The lake straddles the park's southwest side; backcountry campsites here usually aren't even close to full. Request campsite #87, on an island you might even have to yourselves. From the lake you can access the 22-mile Lake Shore Trail, or check out nearby creeks for kayaking and fishing. Adventurous Fast Rivers Rafting (828-488-2386) rents canoes to use on the lake for $100 (you negotiate the number of days), including shuttle. Rent mountain bikes at Nantahala Outdoor Center (888-662-1662, ext. 600) and check out the Tsali Trail System, with 50 miles of singletrack and old logging roads that wrap around the lakeshore. Bike rentals start at $30, including helmet and car rack.
- Try a pack trip. The Double M Ranch (423-995-9421) in Louisville, Tennessee, offers one- to four-day pack trips for kids as young as eight (as long as they have riding experience) on Tennessee Walking Horses, known for their surefootedness and unflappability. A two-day excursion is $145 per day per person, food and gear included.
- Hit the water. The best whitewater rafting and kayaking action takes place outside the park (call Nantahala Outdoor Center, 888-662-1662), while tubing is popular within the park. Check into the Deep Creek Tube Center and Campground (828-488-6055; request the tent-only area, $16 per night).
Banff National Park, Annual visitors: 5 million
The crowds gravitate to the Icefields Parkway, Sunshine Meadows, and Lake Louise for good reason — the scenery is spectacular. Take them in quickly, then move on to lonelier spots and backcountry activities:
Grand Canyon National Park, Annual visitors: 4.5 million
- Go hiking. Waterfowl Lake Campground makes a great base camp for day hikes. Try the family-friendly (short and flat) trails to Cirque and Chephren lakes. Wilderness permits ($6 per person per night, with a $30 trip maximum; under 17 free) are required for backcountry stays. Call 403-762-1550 for reservations or to request the Backcountry Visitor's Guide, or visit www.parkscanada.pch. pc.ca./banff.
- Go biking. Unlike most national parks, Banff allows mountain bikes on hundreds of miles of designated park trails. Banff Adventures Unlimited (800-644-8888) rents bikes for $24-$40 a day, which includes helmet, lock, water bottle, and map. They'll point you to the trail best suited to your brood, but be sure to ask about Spray Lakes, the Tunnel Mountain area, and Sundance Canyon. Backroads (800-462-2848) offers a six-day family road-cycling and camping trip for $848 per person, all inclusive.
- Get wet. Kids 12 and older can charge down the waters (up to Class IV-plus) of the Kicking Horse River ($75 per person; call Banff Adventures Unlimited at 800-644-8888). A tamer river is the Class I-III Kananaskis, good for kids six and up ($49; call Mirage Adventure Tours at 888-312-7238).
- Go spelunking. Canadian Rockies Cave Guiding (403-678-8819) will take you into Canmore Caverns, a magical grotto filled with soda straws, gypsum, and other otherworldly formations. A four-hour session costs $75 per person; families are welcome, but some age restrictions apply.
Head for the North Rim, which receives a scant 10 percent of the park's visitors, or venture into the abyss. Kids should be at least 12 to handle the hike, but younger kids with outdoor experience will do just fine. Some recommended activities:
Yellowstone National Park, Annual visitors: 3 million
- Hike down to Havasu Canyon, part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation, whose thick vegetation, blue-green swimming holes, and three waterfalls make it seem like a slice of Hawaii. The trail is steep for just one mile, then mellows out for the remaining nine miles. The entrance fee is $20 per person; the campground charges $10 per person per night (call 520-448-2121 or 2141 for reservations and to arrange a mule to carry down provisions). There's also Havasupai Lodge (doubles, $80-$96; call 520-448-2111).
- Go rafting. Your chances of getting a private rafting permit are about as good as winning the lottery, so go with O.A.R.S. instead ($1,606 per person for six days, no kid discounts) and be sure to reserve a year in advance. The trip is best suited to the 12-and-up crowd (though kids as young as seven can go on some trips). Do the Upper Canyon from Lee's Ferry to Phantom Ranch to experience five-star scenery and rollicking rapids. Call O.A.R.S. at 800-346-6277.
- Hike the North Kaibab Trail. Nab a site at the area's sole campground ($15-$20 per night; call 800-365-2267 for reservations) and go from there. The North Kaibab is the North Rim's only maintained trail into the canyon, a difficult one for inexperienced hikers. (Camping below the rim requires a permit and reservation; call 520-638-7875 for information on how to reserve and to request a Backcountry Planner.) Kids love the full-day mule ride to Roaring Springs at the canyon bottom. Canyon Trail Rides (435-679-8665) charges $95 per person for a full day (minimum age 12), $40 for a half day (minimum age eight). Up top, hike the easy 10-mile (round-trip) Widforss Trail with its killer overlooks.
Old Faithful is a mob scene, but how can you possibly go to Yellowstone and not see it? Just don't linger. Less difficult to pass up is the RV-choked Grand Loop Road, a 142-mile feast of car exhaust that links the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake, and the Norris Geyser Basin. Some alternatives:
Yosemite National Park, Annual visitors: 4 million
- Head to Pitchstone Plateau in the southwestern corner of the park. You can hike ridges and explore solidified lava flows and active gas vents; late summer is the preferred time to visit. Request permits and make reservations by calling 307-344-7311. Obtain a Backcountry Trip Planner from the Backcountry Office (307-344-2160). For guided help, try The Yellowstone Institute (307-344-2294) and its family horsepacking trips (minimum age seven) and family adventure excursions (minimum age eight).
- Go kayaking. Hordes of people gaze out over Yellowstone Lake ... through their windshields. Get out on the water and you can have the place practically to yourselves. Much of the 110-odd miles of coastline — along which sightings of moose, bears, and bald eagles are common — lies within wind-protected lake fingers. Far and Away Adventures (800-232-8588) runs guided trips with single and double sea kayaks. Kids of all ages are accepted, but age five and up is preferred. A three-day trip costs $550 per person, with no kid discounts.
- Go with the four-footers. Llamas of West Yellowstone (406-587-2661) leads treks in the remote southwest corner of the park along the Bechler River (parents will appreciate soaking in the area's isolated natural hot springs) and the equally remote Gallatin Range in the northwestern section. Even infants have made these trips. Cost is $180 per adult per day, $150 for kids under 18.
- Book a guided multisport adventure. The American Wilderness Experience (800-444-0099) offers six days of hiking, biking, rafting, and horseback riding for families with kids as young as six, with lodging at a different inn each night. Cost is $1,998 per person, with 25 percent off for kids 6-12 (no kids under six). Roads Less Traveled (800-488-8483) runs a six-day camping trip with similar activities but geared for the ten-and-up crowd. Cost is $995 per person.
Unless you're seriously into RV-watching, avoid the hallowed Valley (aka Yosemi-City) at peak traffic times. That means getting up with the chickens to quickly check out storied Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Fall. With that out of the way you can explore the less-trafficked spots:
Note: You can now conveniently reserve and pay for campsites at 23 national parks via a new Web site (reservations.nps.gov). Bookings can be made up to five months in advance between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. eastern time.
- Wawona. It may not have the vaunted geological formations, but this is one of the park's least-crowded areas, home to the Chilnualna Fall and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. A six-mile loop through the grove has numerous spur trails and turnarounds to accommodate hikers of all ages. Pitch your tent at Wawona Campground ($15 per day; call 800-436-7275 to reserve) or Bridalveil Creek Campground ($10 per night, first-come, first-served). For more upscale lodging, check out The Redwoods In Yosemite (209-375-6666) with as many as six bedrooms (kitchens included) per unit; prices range from $82 to $438 per day.
- The Tuolumne River. This Wild and Scenic River offers 18 miles of almost-continuous Class IV rapids. ECHO (800-652-3246) runs one-, two-, and three-day trips ($180, $360, and $450 per person, respectively; minimum age 12). Families also should consider the Merced; in summer, the action is rated Class III-IV and kids over 11 are welcome. One-day trips are $110-$135 for adults, $95-$115 for under 18; two-day trips cost $235-$275 for adults, $205-$235 for under 18. Call Ahwahnee Whitewater (800-359-9790).
- The Walls. Climbing Yosemite's granite walls and domes is like golfing at Augusta or praying at Notre Dame. Even nonbelievers get a rush from saying they did it. While the Yosemite Mountaineering School (209-372-8344) doesn't offer classes specifically for kids, a group of up to six people (age 12 and up) can hire a guide for $70 per person per day.
— Lisa Twyman Bessone
Copyright 1999, Outside magazine