Freedom to Roam
The key to finding fresh adventure in the national parks? These ten strategies will get you far beyond the camera-toting hordes to where empty peaks, forgotten trails, and lonely rivers await.
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
10. Look North
DENALI NATIONAL PARK, KENAI FJORDS NATIONAL PARK, AND LAKE CLARK NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA
Two of the year’s most exciting new trips are in the great white north. OARS‘s eight-day trip from Denali to Kenai Fjords includes a two-day raft down 30 miles of Class III–IV water on the Matanuska River, which drains the 13,000-foot Chugach Range. Guests spend the last three days camping and sea-kayaking in Kenai Fjords’ 22-mile Aialik Bay, where orcas rise and the Holgate Glacier calves. $3,699; two departures in June and July; oars.com
Great Alaska Adventure‘s weeklong Wilderness Safari trip sets 12 guests up at Bear Camp—eight feather-bed-and-lantern-equipped tents in grizz-heavy Lake Clark National Park. After arriving via a 45-minute bush-plane flight from Soldotna Airport, 140 miles southwest of Anchorage, you’ll stand on 15-foot viewing platforms and watch 70 resident brown bears pull salmon out of Chinitna Creek. Post-safari, float ten miles of Class IV Six Mile Creek, near the boundary of Kenai Fjords National Park. $3,295; weekly departures from June 5 to September 10; greatalaska.com
9. Don’t Write Off the Gulf
Everglades National Parks, Florida.
Yes, the BP oil spill devastated much of the Gulf Coast. But what you probably don't know is that Everglades National Park was unaffected. “Business is down even though we haven't seen a speck of oil,” says Jay Rose, manager of Naples Kayaks in Everglades City. See the park—and nobody else—on a six-day sea-kayaking trip along its western shores. The time to go is December to March, when the mosquitoes are fewer and temperatures hover in the high seventies. Pick up your boat and arrange a shuttle from Naples Kayaks (rentals, $195 for seven days; shuttle, $500 for two kayaks; napleskayakcompany.com). They'll drop you at the tiny outpost of Flamingo, at the southernmost tip of the state. From there, paddle northwest around Cape Sable's beaches and pick up the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway—a system of chickees (dock-like campsites) on inland sloughs—at the Nightmare Route, a six-mile tunnel through a web of mangroves. Follow the waterway north before heading west on the Chatham River (made famous by Peter Matthiessen's Killing Mister Watson), and spend your last night on the northwestern tip of Pavilion Key, an island in the Gulf. The route lacks fresh water, so pack enough bladder bags to provide a gallon per person per day. Pick up camping permits from the ranger station in Flamingo ($10, plus $2 per person per night; nps.gov/ever).
8. Hit Your Plateau
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
You’ve seen the geysers and spotted a bison or two. But have you played in Yellowstone without the 3,640,185 other annual visitors? Between July 1 and August 14, the Park Service awards permits for 14 nights of camping on the Mirror Plateau—a trailless block of wilderness on the Wyoming side of the park that takes three days to traverse. It’s too late to apply this year, but next spring mail in your application before April 1 ($20; nps.gov/yell). Can’t wait that long? Book Wilderness Pack Trips‘ six-day horseback ride through the plateau (July 17–22; $2,850; yellowstonepacktrips.com). Guests hike and ride 35 backcountry miles from the Lamar Valley’s Soda Creek Butte to Pelican Creek Trailhead, just north of Yellowstone Lake, crossing lupine-rich meadows and stopping at teardrop-shaped Mirror Lake on the way. Stay quiet when you’re not hiking. “The elk, bison, wolves, bears—they’re all skittish on the plateau,” says Ivan Kowski, Yellowstone’s backcountry program manager. “They don’t see many humans.”
Cycling in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National ParkShenandoah's Skyline Drive
In 2010, the Park Service repaved most of the classic, gorgeous 100-mile Skyline Drive, which cuts through the heart of Shenandoah. Take advantage by going in the middle of the week, when the crowds are down, and make a trip of it. Base yourself in Harrisonburg, 25 miles west of Shenandoah, at the Joshua Wilton House, a 123-year-old inn, then drive to the park, head south on Skyline, park at Doyles River Falls, and ride the 60 miles out and back to Big Meadows before cooling off in the two-tiered falls. Back in Harrisonburg, indulge in the short-order burgers and deep-fried Oreos at Jack Brown's. Note: BYO bike if possible, since the nearest good rental spot is Big Wheel in Arlington, two hours northeast.
6. Take the Hard Way
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming; Denali National Park, Alaska; Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.
Those who dismiss the parks as tourist traps obviously haven’t spent much time around the Grand Teton, Mount Rainier, or Denali, three unforgiving peaks that host some of the hairiest, most rewarding trips in the country. The big snow year in the Tetons means skiers have until June to decide whether the time has come to make turns on the 13,770-foot Grand. Every year since Mark Newcomb first guided the trip in 2004, Jackson-based Exum Mountain Guides has run the three-day tour. It starts with one guest and two guides climbing the Grand, skis on their backs, and ends with them jump-turning in the narrow Ford and Stetner couloirs. $2,500; experts only; exummountainguides.com
Fred Beckey put up the tough northwest-buttress route on 20,320-foot Denali in 1954, but it’s been climbed fewer than 20 times since. After a 20-year hiatus from guiding the buttress, Ophir, Colorado–based Mountain Trip will lead a 27-day summit attempt this May. Over six miles, climbers gain 12,000 feet of elevation, crossing glaciers in Peter’s Basin and ascending to the summit through stair-like cornices. $7,000; May 3–30, trips also available in 2012; mountaintrip.com
RMI Expeditions’ new six-day seminar gives nine climbers a shot at bagging 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, but not until they learn the requisite skills: rope work, anchor placement, and crevasse rescue. Instruction consists of a day in the classroom and three on Rainier’s Paradise Glacier; guests crash in tents and a bunkhouse. $1,668; departures July 6, August 7, and in 2012; rmiguides.com
5. Put the Groms on Belay
Yosemite National Park, California.
Want to explore Yosemite but have extra baggage? Take the kids and sample some of the park’s best adventures on Austin-Lehman Adventures’ new family-friendly trip. Kids as young as seven will learn the basics of climbing—how to tie figure-eight knots and rappel—in Yosemite Valley’s Curry Village. They’ll also scramble around giant old-growth sequoias while hiking in Mariposa Grove and cool off in granite swimming holes after a four-mile jaunt to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. Guests spend their five nights in three park lodges: the Evergreen, Yosemite, and Tenaya, all of which have playgrounds or pools for the kids and spas or bars for you. Adults, $2,398; kids, $1,918; five departures in July and August; austinlehman.com
Alert: Merging Traffic
Yosemite National Park is requiring permits for all Half Dome hikers for the first time this year. The good news: the line to the summit will be only 400 long. The bad news: you might not be in it. But you can game the system. Backcountry permits do double duty, so if you want to walk up Half Dome, opt for the three-day backpacking trip from Tuolumne Meadows to the Valley. Spend night one at Sunrise Lakes and night two at Little Yosemite Valley, just 3.5 miles from Half Dome’s summit.
4. Float Your Fancy
Glacier National Park, Montana.
Glacier National ParkThe Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead, Montana
Snowpack in the Flathead River drainage was up 25 percent this winter. That means the Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead—a 50-mile Class III–IV beauty on the southwestern border of Glacier—will be raging through June and the whitewater will linger through July. So you’ve got options. Want big rapids? Book Glacier Outdoor Center‘s four-day trip in June. From West Glacier, 12 guests fly on a puddle-jumper to Schafer Meadows, a grass airstrip in the Great Bear Wilderness, and float 60 miles to West Glacier. To mix rapids and trout, sign up in July, when the river’s still full but channelized, and nymph for westslope cutthroats in the slack water. And if you’re a diehard angler, go in August, when the water is clear and low, the temperature hovers in the eighties, and cutthroats smack hopper patterns off the surface. $1,495; glacierraftco.com
3. Paddle the Northwest
Olympic National Park, Washington; Crater Lake National Park, Oregon.
The best way to beat Olympic’s crowds? Sea-kayak the park’s remote Pacific coast. Go in July or August, when the swells are usually below six feet and the spectacular 64-mile out-and-back from Rialto Beach to Shi Shi Beach is manageable for novices. Pick up a boat from the Olympic Outdoor Center in Port Gamble ($230 per week; olympicoutdoorcenter.com) and drive 2.5 hours through the park to Rialto Beach, just north of La Push. From there, paddle three miles north to Hole-in-the-Wall, a 30-foot arch, and camp in the woods at the Norwegian Memorial, a log-strewn beach where 18 shipwrecked sailors were buried in 1903. Skip Cape Alava and Sand Point, which see backpacker traffic, and spend the night 2.5 miles north, at the mouth of the Ozette River. Then it’s on to the turnaround point and the trip’s highlight: the Dalí-like sea stacks and wind-lashed spruces at Point of the Arches and Shi Shi Beach. Get permits, book campsites, and pick up bear canisters (for raccoons, mostly) at the ranger station in Port Angeles ($5, plus $2 per person per night; nps.gov/olym).
Trek Travel‘s new five-night road-bike tour skirts the slopes of Mount Mazama before hitting 8,744-foot Diamond Peak and Crater Lake, which guests lap on the 33-mile Rim Road. Sip Oregon pinots at night in lodges like the Oxford, an eco-friendly hotel in downtown Bend, and the Cabins at Mazama Village, near Crater Lake. From $2,795; departures July 10 and 17; trektravel.com
Alert: Demolition Derby
In September, Olympic National Park will begin knocking down a pair of 100-plus-foot dams choking the Elwha River—the biggest dam-removal project in American history. Event organizers expect thousands of whitewater and wild-salmon junkies to converge for the ceremony on September 17. Book a cabin at Sol Duc Hot Springs (cabins, $178; olympicnationalparks.com), 42 miles southwest of Port Angeles, and plan to party: the weekend is filled with art fairs, bands (rumors have Bon Jovi playing), and salmon feasts.
2. Find the Next Narrows
Zion National Park, Utah.
Chances are you know someone who has hiked the Narrows, Zion’s iconic 16-mile slot canyon. But you’ve probably never heard of Parunuweap Canyon. It’s time to acquaint yourself. “Parunuweap is the Zion Narrows’ little brother,” says Melanie Webb, owner of California-based Sol Fitness Adventures. “Except that it’s empty.” That’s probably because of the three-hour drive on dirt roads to the hike’s kick-off point, at the East Fork of the Virgin River. Sol’s five-day canyoneering trip guides eight guests through the 20-mile slot, located in a wilderness study area on Zion’s eastern boundary. Sol provides the guide and food but little else: prepare to cook your own meals. It’s worth it to be alone in a 2,700-foot-deep canyon that’s ten feet wide in places. $4,500; June to September; soladventure.com
1. Win the Lottery
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
River rats used to have two options for floating the Grand: fork over a small fortune for a commercial trip or wait in line for decades to score a DIY permit. But the park recently overhauled its permit system, limiting the preferential treatment given to those who’ve been waiting years and adding 250 new slots. Which means you now have a decent shot of self-guiding the greatest river excursion in the United States. (Tip: shoot for a late-fall launch date—last year, those who applied for November 9 had a 31 percent chance of winning.) To float the Grand, you should be comfortable in Class III whitewater, and one trip member should be a wilderness first responder. But you don’t need your own equipment. Once you score a permit ($25 to enter the lottery, $100 per person if you win; npspermits.us), call Flagstaff-based outfitter Moenkopi Riverworks. That’s what I did when my buddy’s number came up last October. Moenkopi met 16 of us at Lees Ferry with everything we needed: four 18-foot rafts, kitchen equipment, food, and beer ($1,500 per person for a 21-day trip; moenkopiriverworks.com). Then it was up to us. We passed guidebooks between boats like cash, ticked off a canyoneering route in Silver Grotto, saw thousand-year-old ruins at Nankoweap Mesa, and dove into frigid pools in Olo Canyon. One thing we didn’t do: hike National Canyon, where a river-guide buddy told me he’d hidden my birthday gift. That’s OK. With a little luck, I’ll be back before too long.
BONUS: To explore by foot, sign on for Just Roughin’ It Adventures’ new Grand Canyon trek, which takes you from rim to rim in six days on the 22-mile Bass Trail. Plan on bivying (legally) in non-designated campsites and, at mile 13, crossing a flatwater section below the Class II Bass Rapids in a packraft. $1,650; two departures in October; justroughinit.com
Alert: Mule Madness
Grand Canyon National Park is allowing 2,613 more mule rides this year, bringing the total to 10,000. The animals will largely be limited to the canyon’s rim, and there will be only ten mule rides per day on the popular Bright Angel Trail—down from 40 last year.