National Park Secrets: 10 Fresh Ways to Find Paradise
Get a jump on the crowds. Explore our favorite hidden corners, empty spaces, and wild places in ten iconic National Parks
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The National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary next year, meaning hoopla, poo-bahs, and crowds. If 2014 saw a record 292.8 million park visitors, just imagine the chaos that a centennial year will bring. Even this year, parks are expecting record numbers.
But you'll only get hounded by the hoi polloi if you don't know where to go. Start early with these adventures in ten classic—and should-be classic—parks. We're sharing our favorite ways to get an adrenaline rush, the hidden spots where you won't be stepping on other tourists' Tevas-clad feet, and the finest nearby eats.
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Kenai is a 669,983-acre rampart of rock, crevasses, and impenetrable ice on the Gulf of Alaska shore, but don’t be intimidated—that’s why you’re going. The park is a two-and-a-half-hour drive south of Anchorage and just ten miles from the harbor town of Seward. One of the best hikes is at Exit Glacier: a steep four miles alongside the edge of the icy slope, the trail yields impressive views onto the large Harding Icefield.
But the park is best seen by boat. Take an overnight sea-kayak tour with Kayak Adventures Worldwide, which includes a three-hour boat ride to 22-mile-long fjord Aialik Bay, where you’ll see whales, sea otters, sea lions, and puffins ($699). You’ll paddle along the mile-wide face of Aialik Glacier, then head two miles south to camp near Pedersen Glacier’s lagoon, with a maze of icebergs to explore. For a softer landing, the 16 cabins at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge are also on a beach near Pedersen Lagoon and are the only lodging within the park’s boundaries ($725, meals included).
Trail Mix: Head to Chinooks in Seward for cod hauled off the boat that morning.
Gateway Activity: Seward is spectacular in its own right, set at the end of glacially carved Resurrection Bay. Reserve one of three waterfront cabins at Angels Rest ($239).
Olympic National Park, Washington
The massive Elwha Dam was removed two years ago to restore the river’s salmon population. Paddlers are cheering, too, since this opened up an uninterrupted float through Olympic’s former Lake Aldwell to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Go with Olympic Raft and Kayak, which is launching ten-mile trips through the lower dam site, including three miles of Class III–IV water ($54). A raft is the perfect vantage point from which to spot eagles and other wildlife and to view the river’s restoration up close.
Also, the Boulder Creek Trailhead re-opened last fall. (It was closed for three years during demolition of a second dam.) Now you can hike 2.5 miles to Olympic Hot Springs, a handful of clothing-optional, rock-ringed pools in the fir and hemlock forest along Boulder Creek. For a longer trek, the Hoh River Trail on the park’s west end climbs 17.4 miles from the Hoh rainforest to alpine wildflowers at Glacier Meadows. There you’ll find the starting point to ascend 7,980-foot Mount Olympus. The choicest digs are the Roosevelt Cottages at 100-year-old Lake Crescent Lodge ($279), located just 30 minutes from the gateway town of Port Angeles.
Trail Mix: For lunch, Port Angeles locals order the biscuits and gravy, sweet-potato fries, and homemade ice cream at Granny’s Café; for dinner, they congregate at the Next Door Gastropub for the green curry seafood with local Manila clams and cod.
Gateway Activity: While the park boasts 70 miles of coastline full of secluded beaches and tide pools, there’s also good surfing on Quileute tribal lands at First Beach. Fed by Pacific storm surges, the water is coldest in summer, so rent a five-millimeter wetsuit and a board at North by Northwest ($40).
Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Dry season is the time to visit the Everglades. From October to April, the rain subsides, mosquitoes disappear, and wildlife is easier to spot. Alligator sightings are all but guaranteed on a day paddle of the Turner River, and manatee and sea turtle encounters are common. Arrange a shuttle and kayak rental from Everglades Adventures for the 11-mile paddle from the put-in at Highway 41 back to the park’s Gulf Coast visitor center in Everglades City ($75). The paddling starts in a freshwater cypress swamp and ends in brackish mangroves, with open marshland and plenty of wildlife in between. You’ll likely have it to yourself on a weekday. Experienced paddlers can take longer expeditions through the Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile maze of sloughs and mangroves, or along the coastal 10,000 Islands route.
You’ll camp on beaches or on chickees, docklike platforms built over the water. Grab a backcountry camping permit at the visitor center (from $12), and be sure to pack fresh water—there’s none along the route. The paddle from Everglades City to Flamingo, at the park’s southernmost point, takes about a week, and Everglades Adventures will shuttle your car to Flamingo for $420. When you’ve made it back to Everglades City, recuperate by the pool or on the screened porch of the Ivey House inn ($99).
Trail Mix: Get lunch at Havana Café on Chokoloskee Island (in the bay south of Everglades City), known for its paella and key lime pie.
Gateway Activity: The 51 species of coral are the main attraction at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo, 30 miles from the Everglades’ east entrance. The park includes 72 square miles of water, and just 100 feet off Canon Beach are artifacts from a 1725 Spanish shipwreck that are easy for snorkelers to explore.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Everyone should visit Yellowstone’s trippy geysers and hot pools at least once. To avoid bus tours and traffic jams, go in the fall, when the park is mostly empty and the elk are horny and bugling. If you can’t pull that off, there are ways to navigate the more crowded times. Jeremy Schmidt, author of National Geographic’s Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks Road Guide, recommends Lone Star Geyser, a remote and less visited thermal area that erupts every three hours; it’s located two miles from Grand Loop Road by foot or bicycle. Get farther off the beaten path by hiking from the Heart Lake trailhead, near Grant Village, alongside hot-springs-studded Witch Creek, and pitch a tent on the shore of Heart Lake (backcountry permit, $25). It’s a 23-mile route, with an optional side excursion to 10,308-foot Mount Sheridan for views of the Absarokas to the east and the jagged Tetons to the south.
Prefer to paddle? Access the Shoshone Lake Geyser Basin via sea kayak on a two-night, 30-mile expedition through the Lewis and Shoshone Lakes. Rent boats or sign up for a guided trip with Rendezvous River Sports in Jackson Hole (from $720). To see Old Faithful’s otherworldly gallery of thermal pools, stay at the Old Faithful Inn, which was constructed almost entirely from local lodgepole pine logs ($108).
Trail Mix: Head south to Jackson’s Snake River Grill for the steak tartare pizza with garlic aioli and capers.
Gateway Activity: The fishing on the Snake River, just outside Jackson, is some of the best you’ll find anywhere. Third-generation guide Boots Allen will ensure that you make the most of it (from $475).
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
The majority of visitors to Black Canyon never make it past the rim, but it’s hard to blame them: the routes descending the 2,000-foot gorge to the churning whitewater of the Gunnison River follow steep, unmaintained gullies, some of which require technical-climbing skills. For those who do go deeper, the rewards are great: world-class trout fishing, limitless rock climbing, and stunning views of the granite walls on either side.
To keep it mellow, hike the two-mile Oak Flat Trail, which dips 400 feet into the gorge on a maintained section, or walk the three-quarters of a mile out to Warner Point, the park’s highest spot. If you go all the way down, the best camping is on the riverside beach at the bottom of the Warner Route, a six-hour round-trip scramble from Warner Point. You’ll need a free backcountry permit even for a day trip, which can be picked up at the South Rim visitor center or North Rim ranger station. To scale one of the Black’s legendarily long and airy routes—like six-pitch, 5.9 Maiden Voyage—book a day with Irwin Guides (from $265).
Trail Mix: Head to Camp Robber, 24 minutes from the park in Montrose, and fill up on sirloin or chile relleno, the house speciality.
Gateway Activity: Recuperate after your canyon adventure at Gunnison River Farms, a 1,200-acre spread near Austin with six renovated cabins, farm-to-table dining, and an on-site fly shop. Fish the farm’s riverfront, or just take a cooling plunge from the six-foot diving platform into the pond ($85).
Yosemite National Park, California
With its iconic rock domes, 200-foot sequoias, and 2,000-foot waterfalls plunging over sheer granite walls, Yosemite may be the most spectacular spot in the lower 48. Which is why it gets so crowded in summer. Our recommendation? Go early (April) or late (October) in the season, and avoid weekends. But go, by all means. Our favorite hikes include the seven-mile round-trip, 2,500-vertical-foot trail to the top of Yosemite Falls; it’s steep, but the views are sensational. For an overnight, cross the valley and backpack the 14-mile Pohono Trail from the Tunnel View parking lot on Wawona Road. You’ll get views of the valley and El Capitan from Dewey Point. Camp at Bridalveil Creek ($5 per person) and detour to the rim for views of Bridalveil Fall. The hike ends at Glacier Point, where you can catch a shuttle to the valley or hike down via the eight-mile Panorama Trail to see Liberty Cap and Half Dome in the distance.
To get vertical, rope up with Yosemite Mountaineering School, which offers group lessons on classic crags (from $148). Or book climbing instruction and scale long routes like Nutcracker—a five-pitch, 5.8 climb—or 16-pitch Royal Arches, one of the finest in the world. Stay at the Ahwahnee, an art deco masterpiece with 30-foot ceilings in the dining room and three huge fireplaces in the lounge (from $490). Rather sleep under the stars? Head to Yosemite Creek, a remote, first-come, first-served spot on Tioga Road.
Trail Mix: Fuel up at the Whoa Nellie Deli at the Mobil station in Lee Vining if you’re coming or going via Tioga Pass. The order: buffalo meatloaf or fish tacos with ginger coleslaw.
Gateway Activity: Some of the best whitewater rafting in the world is found on the rivers flowing out of the park. Sign up for a day trip on the Class IV Merced or an overnight on the Class IV Tuolumne (from $144).
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Split into three zones by the deep canyons of the Colorado and Green Rivers, and with limited road access, much of Canyonlands is impenetrable to casual sightseers. Venture deep into the red-rock desert on foot or boat, though, and you’ll encounter a 527-square-mile empty playground of the surreal. In the Needles District, hike the 11 miles round-trip to Druid Arch through Elephant Canyon, a gallery of orange-and-white-banded pillars hundreds of feet tall. Or from the Elephant Hill trailhead, take the moderate but spectacular Chesler Park Loop into a sandy bottomland punctuated by sandstone spires and deep, narrow rock corridors. To avoid crowds at the Island in the Sky’s Mesa Arch, just a quarter-mile from the road, go at dawn for an unbeatable view of the Colorado River canyon.
Summer visitors should explore the Green River by canoe, where a cooling dip is a ready option. Put in at Mineral Bottom for a four-day, 52-mile Class I float, or head farther upstream of the park boundary for longer trips. Tex’s Riverways in Moab will rent you a canoe and shuttle you to and from the river ($155). Base yourself in Moab, where Up the Creek Campground offers walk-in camping adjacent to burbling Mill Creek ($32). Or rent a two-bedroom condo downtown at 57 Robber’s Roost (from $329).
Trail Mix: In Moab, try the bacon and green chile Wescial burrito at the Love Muffin Café for breakfast, and make dinner reservations at the Desert Bistro for Gorgonzola-crusted beef tenderloin.
Gateway Activity: Six years ago, Moab locals plotted 150 miles of new trail, 90 of which have been built—like Hymasa, Captain Ahab, and the Magnificent 7 system. The Porcupine Rim Trail will also serve up everything you can handle. Rim Tours offers guided rides with shuttles.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
With 30 lakes and some 1,000 islands splashed across the Minnesota-Canada border, Voyageurs is a paddler’s paradise. Explore 600 miles of bedrock shoreline and camp among spruce and birch forests, trolling for walleye or casting for northern pike. Head out for a night or two via kayak or canoe to one of the park’s 270 designated campsites, which can be reserved online up to six months in advance (from $16). Or go for the grand tour: a five-night, 80-mile loop through the park’s three largest lakes, with just two portages. Start from the Kabetogama Lake visitor center and head west toward the half-mile Gold Portage trail to 360-square-mile Rainy Lake. Take a few days to paddle the south shore, ducking behind islands if big waves arise. At Kettle Falls, stop by the historic Kettle Falls Hotel, accessible only by boat, where you can have a meal and get your boats trucked across the quarter-mile-long portage to Namakan Lake ($5).
Take a few more days to explore Namakan’s smaller inlets and passages, swinging by 125-foot-tall Grassy Bay Cliffs, and make your way back to Kabetogama Lake via Blind Indian Narrows. Houseboats cruise the park, and they’ll be your primary competition for campsites. If you can’t beat them, consider joining them. Voyagaire Lodge and Houseboats in Crane Lake, at the park’s southeast corner, will rent you a boat with a gas grill and a hot tub on the roof. The Sportcruiser, with five double beds, goes for $605 a night. You’ll get a tutorial before you’re sent on your way. The most popular three-night route? A visit to Kettle Falls.
Trail Mix: A trip to Voyageurs will likely involve a stop in Duluth, about 2.5 hours south of the park. Swing by Fitger’s Brewhouse to see which of its 100-plus beers are on tap. And order the burger: it’s made from cattle raised by the brewery and fed spent grain from the brewing process.
Gateway Activity: In Duluth, get out on Lake Superior. North Shore SUP rents paddleboards for exploring and leads Great Lakes SUP-yoga sessions (rentals, $15 an hour; classes, $25).
Acadia National Park, Maine
*Photo credit is wrong, should be Noah Couser/Aurora*Acadia’s granite bluffs are iconic. Less well known: you can climb many of them. Otter Cliff, on Mount Desert Island’s east coast, is one of the best places to scale sea cliffs in the country, with routes from 5.5 to 5.11. Inland, the south wall of Champlain Mountain has multi-pitch trad climbing and views of the Atlantic. Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School in Bar Harbor can arrange a trip for you and your crew (from $99). Pitch a tent at Blackwoods Campground, a beautiful forested spot that fills up quickly in high season (reservations available up to six months in advance; $22).
Looking for something more remote? Take the mail boat from nearby Stonington to 5,400-acre Isle au Haut for a night at the Keeper’s House Inn, a working lighthouse (from $325, all-inclusive). Hike the island’s rugged southwestern coast, then ride one of the inn’s loaner bikes to Long Pond for a dip.
Trail Mix: The fireplace and copper tables give McKay’s Public House in Bar Harbor a cozy feel, and its local-catch fare elevates the food above standard pub grub. Wash the seafood risotto down with a pint of Bar Harbor Real Ale from nearby Atlantic Brewing Co.
Gateway Activity: Every Friday, Portland Paddle offers two-hour moonlight sea-kayaking trips along Casco Bay ($45). You’ll launch at 7 P.M. in Portland, three hours south of the park.
Glacier National Park, Montana
File this one under go before it’s gone. When the park was created 105 years ago, 150 of the namesake glaciers dotted the landscape; now there are fewer than 30. Hike four miles along the Loop Trail to the 100-year-old Granite Park Chalet, your backcountry base camp for an exploration of the stunning Grinnell Glacier, a 1.5-mile hike away (from $100).
Or take to the water: driving 30 miles up bone-jarring gravel roads to Kintla, one of the northernmost lakes in the park, might take a toll on your suspension, but your reward is a translucent body of glacial meltwater surrounded by larch forest. Load up your canoe for a three-mile paddle to the six-site campground at the head of the lake. Pack bear spray and some rope to hang food; this is grizzly country (backcountry camping permit, from $5).
Trail Mix: Located 36 miles northwest of West Glacier, Polebridge Mercantile and Bakery is off the grid. But that doesn’t prevent it from making the tastiest huckleberry bear claws in the lower 48. The Merc has sandwiches, beer, espresso, cabin rentals, and other essentials, and has served this remote outpost for over 100 years.
Gateway Activity: With more than 50 miles of lift-served downhill and cross-country trails, Whitefish Bike Park, a 40-mile drive from West Glacier, is an up-and-coming mountain-biking destination (from $22). Check out Kashmir, a black-diamond trail full of jumps and banked corners.