Park visitation is at a record high — good for tourism, not so good for peace and quiet. From Acadia to Zion, Bryce Canyon to Yosemite, leading writers and environmentalists share their alternatives to the most popular spots.
1. The attraction: Acadia National Park, Maine (3.5 million annual visits)
The alternative: Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota (237,000 visits)
Location: Northern Minnesota, on the Canadian border
Top place to stay: Camping near Kabetogama Lake, for the incredible quiet
Best entry point: Start paddling from Ash River visitor center
When you think of stunning waterscapes, places like Acadia National Park in Maine and Olympic National Park in Washington likely come to mind. Yet Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota offers some of the same activities with a fraction of the crowds. Almost half the park is water, with more than 500 islands and 655 miles of undeveloped shoreline. As someone who grew up in the Rockies, lived near the mountains of California and adventured in Alaska, I can tell you that Voyageurs is like no place else.
Start your adventure at either Kabetogama Lake visitor center or Ash River visitor center. Rent a boat, canoe or kayak and set out for a campsite across the water. From there you can spend the day fishing or cruising around. If you’re visiting in July, the wild blueberries and raspberries are ripe for picking and make an excellent addition to your campfire pancakes. There is beauty in taking a break from modern conveniences. When flipped over, the bottom of your canoe provides a great surface to prep your food and perhaps is a better tabletop than a picnic table.
At Voyageurs, you can wrap yourself in quiet that is both comforting and exhilarating. We’re not talking complete silence, but rather a silence that gives you space to enjoy the calls of wildlife from miles around. It’s one of my favorite aspects of this park: You can literally go an entire day without hearing any human sounds.
Will Shafroth is the president and CEO of the National Park Foundation.
2. The attraction: Biscayne National Park, Florida (447,000 visits)
The alternative: Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida (54,000 visits)
Location: Garden Key and six other small islands, 68 miles west of Key West, Fla.
Where to stay: A rustic campsite (BYO tent, charcoal, water, flashlight, and food in a varmint-proof container)
Best sight: Sunrise and star rise over Florida Bay
If you yearn for more solitude than that afforded by Biscayne National Park, head to the other end of the Florida Keys coral archipelago: Dry Tortugas National Park.
Three centuries after the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León named the islands Tortugas for the sea turtles — they still nest there — Fort Jefferson was built from 16 million bricks. Construction stretched over 30 years, done largely by enslaved, quarantined or imprisoned laborers. The fort was never finished and never saw combat. It was abandoned by the military, and its grim history ended in 1908, when it became a nature reserve. Like so many of our national parks, this beautiful place was once seared with human misery. Today, nature has restored peace on Garden Key. The country’s only breeding colony of magnificent frigatebirds lives here, having moved west when development encroached on their former rookery, closer to Key West.
Garden Key is 40 minutes via seaplane or three hours via ferry from Key West. There isn’t much to do here, which is precisely the allure. Watch pelicans and cormorants dive for fish; read books; and revel in absolute inaccessibility. Wander the massive fort’s bastions, battlements, ramparts, moats and lighthouse. The play of ocean light on the red-brick walls and the contrast with cadmium-green waters will mesmerize. Late each afternoon, the ferry and seaplane spirit away daytrippers and the island belongs to the few campers. Sit on the sand beach or moat wall and watch frigatebirds soar, scarlet balloons at their throats, as the sun burns from sky to sea. A thick cloak of stars and silence unfurls over endless water, a sliver of beach, your tent and nothing else.
3. The attraction: Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah (2.6 million visits)
The alternative: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah (983,000 visits)
Location: Southern Utah, about 200 miles northeast of Las Vegas
Top places to camp: Anywhere in the backcountry (with a permit) or at the developed campgrounds near the tiny town of Boulder
Best hikes: Explore a classic slot canyon like Zebra, Peek-a-Boo or Spooky
Utah is unrivaled for soul-juddering landscapes — untamed scenery that has defined the West in everything from John Ford’s films to HBO’s “Westworld.” I fell hard for this land of red rock and sculpted geology while just a wide-eyed teen from Jersey, and I’ve never tired of exploring it — along with the millions who visit Utah’s marquee national parks each year. But for an equally unforgettable experience, visit the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which was designated 22 years ago by then-President Bill Clinton. The monument includes literally the last lands to be mapped in the continental U.S., and most of them remain just how the cartographers found them.
(Note: By presidential proclamation, Donald Trump has attempted to split the almost 1.9 million-acre monument into three much smaller parts to allow drilling and mining. That’s being challenged in court by the Sierra Club and others, and for now these unspoiled lands remain accessible to the public.)
Grand Staircase–Escalante is huge and wild, so stop at one of the visitor centers on the monument’s two main paved highways to get oriented. You’ll find them in the towns of Kanab and Big Water (Highway 89) and in Escalante and Cannonville (Highway 12). Just driving these highways is astoundingly scenic. In dry weather, most cars can manage the gravel loop known as Hell’s Backbone between the town of Boulder near the monument’s northern border and Escalante, 30 miles to the south, but don’t expect to make good time no matter what you’re driving. You’ll want to stop at every scenic viewpoint to gape anyway.
Hell’s Backbone might whet your appetite to investigate more of the monument’s unpaved byways, such as Hole-in-the-Rock Road, which dates back to the Mormon wagon trains. It’s about 5 miles southeast of Escalante on Highway 12. Four-wheel drive is recommended for such explorations, but even then be aware that wet weather could turn your track into a quagmire or worse. Hikers and backpackers will want to check out some of the monument’s gorgeous slot canyons. Several spectacular ones are accessible from Hole in the Rock Road. Bring paper maps — your phone won’t help you here.
Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club.
4. The attraction: Canaveral National Seashore, Florida (1.6 million visits)
The alternative: Cumberland Island national seashore, Georgia (52,000 visits)
Location: About 35 miles north of Jacksonville, Fla.
Best place to stay: The amenities at Sea Camp — restrooms, cold showers and potable water — are welcome after a day hiking in coastal wilderness, though reservations are a must
Most amazing hike: Take Parallel trail from the ferry dock north toward Roller Coaster trail
Cumberland is wild magic, the southernmost and largest in a chain of barrier islands along the Georgia coast. Its forests are dominated by wind-tortured live oaks draped with Spanish moss and greened by resurrection fern, gnomish and ceaselessly amazing. Painted buntings and summer tanagers flash among cabbage palms. Beyond white-sand dunes held in place by sea oat and beach morning glory, the restless Atlantic rises and falls in dramatic tidal fluctuations, ebbing 6 feet to 8 feet. In summer, loggerhead sea turtles lumber ashore to scoop out enormous nests, from which hatchlings emerge and drift out to sea.
The 18-mile-long island is accessible only by ferry or private boat, and I advise starting at the mainland town of St Marys. Because Cumberland is long and narrow, hikes will take you toward its wild north end. A walk through the ruins of Dungeness, a mansion constructed in the 19th century, is highly recommended. Summer is almost unbearably hot, so I propose spring or fall, when Pelican Banks is thick with rafts of shorebirds such as ruddy terns and American oystercatchers. You may want to treat yourself to a night or two at private Greyfield Inn, halfway up the island.
It is the profoundly beautiful salt creeks that ever call me back to Cumberland. Below a 20-foot bluff overlooking a continent of marsh grasses, a kingfisher dives into Christmas Creek. The water, though opaque, is so alive with shrimp and mullet and oysters that it wiggles, thrashes and mutters as it rises and falls with the moon.
Janisse Ray has written five books of nature writing, including “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.”
5. The attraction: Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska (643,000 visits)
The alternative: Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska (68,000 visits)
Location: Southern Alaska
Best place to stay: Kennicott Glacier Lodge
Top trail: Root glacier trail, a 4-mile hike winding beside Root and Kennicott glaciers
Wrangell-St Elias is a vast, remote and rarely visited wilderness of mountains and icefields, alpine valleys and glacial rivers. At 13.2 million acres, it’s the nation’s largest national park and protected wilderness; it’s also part of the largest protected international wilderness left on the planet. It firmly reminds you of humanity’s essential dispensability even as it opens you to your own vastness.
The adventures are unlimited: You can backpack, flightsee, mountain-climb, river-raft or simply wander trails near the quirky Alaskan town of McCarthy in the heart of the park. Whatever you choose, the experience begins on the drive there. It’s a full day through an astonishment of mountains, rivers and glaciers. Perhaps the most luminous is at the confluence of the Copper and Chitina rivers, where dipnetters clinging to high bluffs fish for red salmon. The Chitina scribes the fault line that gave rise to the park’s peaks, some of North America’s highest.
Here your route enters the park for 60 miles of a narrow, often nasty, summer-only dirt road — one to be driven slowly. My first time, sharp rocks blew out two tires. Take it easy; stop at a lake and listen for loons or trumpeter swans. The last leg you’ll do sans car, walking a footbridge across the roiling Kennicott river.
Spend some time in McCarthy and drop in at the Golden Saloon. Tour the Kennecott copper mine and ghost town. Hike beside Root glacier, marveling at cerulean crevasses marching off to the horizon. Continue as the white-crowned sparrow’s melody urges you farther upvalley, to views of the Stairway icefall, a magnificent ice formation spilling 6,000 feet off Mount Regal. Then, go farther.
Marybeth Holleman is the author of several books, including “The Heart of the Sound and Among Wolves.”
6. Another alternative to Denali: Bering Land Bridge National Preserve (3,000 visits)
Location: North of Nome, Alaska
Top place to stay: In Shishmaref, arrange accommodation through locals
Best hike: From Shishmaref, trace climate change along the rapidly eroding Chukchi Sea coast
You may find yourself holding a gun for the first time not far from the Bering Land Bridge natural preserve. You may be with your father, who accoutered himself with a weapon in case you encountered bears, wolverines or worse. You may not be in search of game, but perspective, as you clamber up the slopes of the mountain called Grand Singatook. You may hope to see the preserve from up high and to glimpse Ugiuvak across the Bering Sea, the island of my mother’s childhood and home to my ancestors for countless generations until the the federal government closed the island’s school in 1959. You may bear your toddler son on your back and your younger son in the womb. Your father may offer to carry his grandson and encourage you to take his canteen and firearm. You may hold the gun and regret it, and switch back. You may pause to note snow arnica nodding its battered bloom, stray bones and shed antlers, inuksuit. The land is truly sacred, and the mountain a weather-maker. From it, one may begin to comprehend our vast Inuit lands and the stories of survival inscribed within them.
Within the preserve you may visit the 100,000-acre Imuruk volcanic fields or Serpentine hot springs (Iyat in Inupiat) amid granite spires. Or you may remain on the life-thrumming coast. On the final night of my 2015 trip, we traveled along the Chukchi Sea coast toward Ikpek lagoon, across eroding strands of fine sand beaches. I was on foot, despite having had hip surgery some weeks before, and suffering through a cough that would later result in a positive TB test. We built a driftwood bonfire and gathered starfish, shells, even plastic trash. The lagoon was still. We saw neither polar bear nor walrus nor seal. Neither did we visit whales on their migrations, yet the blue-white churn of the Chukchi Sea seemed to afford me and the dozen Inupiaq children who chose to spend the evening in the company of their visitors a moment to consider the cerements of the sea and our rightful, if imperiled, place on its shores.
Joan Naviyuk Kane has written nine books and raises her sons as a single mother in Alaska.
.7. The attraction: Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania (1 million visits)
The alternative: Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia (606,000 visits)
Location: 30 miles west of Washington, D.C.
On Veterans Day last November, I traveled to one of my favorite hidden gems: Manassas National Battlefield Park. Situated a short drive west from Washington, D.C., on I-66, the battlefield is in Manassas, Va. Manassas was home to two significant battles in the Civil War, including the first battle of Bull Run, and is part of America’s military history. I rode a horse through the battlefield, taking in the sights and sounds of a now-peaceful landscape that once saw intense fighting between fellow countrymen.
As I rode and looked out on Manassas battlefield, I was amazed at how visitors could see the way the terrain shaped the battle and troop movements over 150 years ago. I was also encouraged to see engaged volunteers rebuilding fences and maintaining the park. There were Scout groups and school classes learning about the history and nature, families enjoying hikes on the park’s more than 45 miles of trails, and senior citizens taking advantage of the more than 20 miles of paved roads for driving tours.
Manassas National Battlefield Park is one of many lesser-known parks that are worth a visit. Our national parks tell the story of America’s history, people and land. Many Americans do not have to travel very far to enjoy one of these treasures — in some cases, they are just down the street. I encourage all Americans to get outside and enjoy a park this summer with their families.
Ryan Zinke is the US secretary of the Interior.
8. The attraction: Glacier National Park, Montana (3.3 million visits)
The alternative: North Cascades National Park, Washington (30,000 visits)
Location: Newhalem, Wash., 110 miles northeast of Seattle
Where to sleep: Goodell creek campground, small and central, along the Skagit river
Best hikes: Hidden Lake trail (strenuous), Maple pass trail (moderate)
Glacier National Park, in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, is home to 26 glaciers, a world-famous scenic drive, a healthy wolf and grizzly population, and a rare triple continental divide. North Cascades, about two hours northeast of Seattle, houses more than 300 glaciers, more than any other U.S. park outside Alaska. It has the wildlife: black bears, marmots, wolverines, gray wolves, eagles and osprey. It has the glacier-fed alpine lakes, the steep mountain peaks, the backpacking routes and the scenic drives. What it does not have: crowds.
Known as the American Alps, the North Cascades is a hiker’s dream, with hundreds of miles of trails for day hikers, backpackers and mountaineers alike. North Cascades was the 40th park we visited during our whirlwind year of visiting all 59 national parks, finishing up on the National Park Service centennial in August 2016. We had traveled north from the much-loved parks along the West Coast and were ready for a break from humanity. North Cascades gave us what we needed: During our long day hike on the Fourth of July trail, switchbacking through miles of quiet forest, stepping over waterfalls that crossed our path and eating lunch with peek-a-boo glacier views, we saw fewer than five other hikers.
Much of the hiking was inaccessible and snow-covered when we visited in early May, but peaceful camping in the nearly empty Newhalem campground, lower-elevation hiking to spots like Thunder Knob and Ross Dam, and stunning views straight off the road at Diablo Lake overlook and all along the North Cascades Highway made for a good consolation.
In August 2015, Cole and Elizabeth Donelson quit their jobs to visit all 59 US national parks.
9. The attraction: Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California (15 million visits)
The alternative: Point Reyes National Seashore, California (2.5 million visits)
Location: Point Reyes Station, Calif., 40 miles north of San Francisco
Top place to stay: Check out the Point Reyes Lodging Association
Best hike: Chimney Rock trail (1.75 miles round trip), for a chance to see marine life and wildflowers
If you want to experience the natural beauty preserved just outside the urban San Francisco Bay Area, drive just 90 minutes north. Visit the Point Reyes National Seashore on a good day and you may see elephant seals, tule elk or migrating gray whales. Round a corner on its 150 miles of hiking trails and catch a view of whitecaps on the Pacific. From February to late August, enjoy spectacular wildflower blooms along the hillsides and in the valleys. In winter, keep an eye out for red and white-speckled fly agaric mushrooms or the booted knight mushroom.
If you’re up for a 14-mile round-trip hike (beginning at the Bear Valley visitors center), you might be able to view Alamere falls. When the tide is high, Alamere Falls cascades over a 30-foot shale cliff directly into the Pacific Ocean. Known as a tidefall, it’s one of only two waterfalls of its kind in California. You’ll probably prefer to arrive at low tide. Then, you have a better chance of approaching the falls along the exposed sand of Wild Cat beach, but even if you can’t get right up to the falls, your journey there and back is sure to be breathtaking.
For a less strenuous day, try a stroll to the Point Reyes lighthouse. History buffs can take a 0.8-mile walk from the Bear Valley visitor center to see a replica of a Coast Miwok village, while thrill seekers can hike the 0.6-mile Earthquake trail to see evidence along San Andreas fault zone of the time when the Point Reyes peninsula jolted 20 feet toward the northwest. This park is, after all, just a little over an hour’s drive from San Francisco, where much of the human drama of that 1906 earthquake unfolded.
Camille T Dungy is the editor of “Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry” and author of five books, most recently Guidebook to “Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood and History.”
10. The attraction: Grand Canyon National Park (6.3 million visits)
The alternative: The canyon’s lesser-known North Rim
Location: 210 miles from Flagstaff, Ariz.
Top places to stay: Grand Canyon Lodge North Rim or North Rim Campground; reserve ahead
Best hike: North Kaibab trail into the Grand Canyon
Caveat: The North Rim closes between Oct. 15 and May 15
It’s a faded 1970s Polaroid memory now: my first American road trip in a boyfriend’s family station wagon, the start of a 40-year love affair with national parks. A drive across California’s Mojave desert, a night in Zion, then south to the quiet high country of the North Rim, where 2 billion years of Earth history twists, turns and sheers into impossible complexity, sculpted by wind and water. We peered into the mile-deep abyss and spent hours sitting on the verandah of the historic stone lodge, the world’s most scenic porch, trying to make sense of this immensity of time and space. Then as night fell, we threw sleeping bags in the back of the wagon and were lulled to sleep by the whooshing of canyon winds stirring the pines.
Only 10 percent of park visitors travel to the North Rim, and it’s still quiet. It’s a storied landscape that has attracted Ancestral Puebloans, polygamous Mormon pioneer ranchers and adventurers like Buffalo Bill, who accompanied a shooting party of British nobles through the area in 1892.
Traveling north on 89A, you’ll pass through the Navajo Nation and enjoy sweeping views of the Painted Desert and Hopi mesas, remnants of the area’s volcanic past. Marble Canyon offers a first view of the Colorado River and glimpses of river runners. At Lees Ferry, visit Lonely Dell Ranch, where the banished Mormon elder John D. Lee operated a ferry in the mid-1800s, then paddle in the water and scramble up a trail high into the Vermilion Cliffs.
The road winds onto the Kaibab Plateau, and the first ponderosa pines appear on limestone cliffs. At the North Rim turnoff, stop at Jacob Lake Inn for a slice of the famous pie that moved an enraptured Buffalo Bill to declare: “I kiss the hand that made the pie.”
Nicky Leach is the author of “Insight Guides: Arizona and Grand Canyon” and more than 60 visitor guides to the natural and cultural history of the American West and the national park system.
11. Another alternative to the Grand Canyon: the quiet East Rim
Location: Midway between Flagstaff and Page, Ariz.
Top place to stay: The rustic Navajo “glamping” spot Shash Dine’, near Page
Top hike: Humphreys Peak trail, near Flagstaff
Franklin Martin stands on the edge of the Grand Canyon. “Listen,” he says. But there’s nothing to hear.
“Exactly,” he says. “Now look.”
Far below the striped sandstone cliffs, I can see the blue ribbon of the Colorado River flowing through the bottom of the great gorge. A silvery side creek flows into it, the Little Colorado, with a blur of turquoise water where the two rivers meet.
“This confluence is one of our most sacred places,” said Martin.
We’re standing on Navajo Nation land in northern Arizona. It’s a spot on the edge of the Grand Canyon called the East Rim. Few tourists have heard of it. It’s only about 30 miles as the crow flies from Grand Canyon National Park, but there are no buildings, roads, traffic, fences — no people at all except us. Franklin and his wife, Anna, run a tiny family tour business, Sacred Edge Tours, that brings a maximum of seven people at a time in an SUV across scrubby wilderness, a few miles from the nearest highway, to this unspoiled rocky edge.
This land has been sacred to the Navajo and other American Indian peoples for millennia, but it’s easy to forget this amid the South Rim gift shops and shuttle buses. A visit to the East Rim not only provides a uniquely clear and private view of the river; in the company of someone like Franklin, it is a way of connecting with that deeper history. More recently, too, the Navajo have been instrumental in defending the canyon from big business: Navajo voters recently saw off plans by an outside developer to build a giant tram system and resort on this spot.
As a cool breeze wafted up from the gulch, Martin remarked that the canyon was sighing with relief.
Joanna Walter is a freelance news, features and travel journalist, based in New York City.
12. The attraction: Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming (3.3 million visits)
The alternative: Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho (1.3 million visits)
Location: Stanley, Idaho, about 130 miles from Boise
Top place to stay: Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch, a small, rustic-luxe lodge with a prime view of the Sawtooth range
Top hike: Seven miles one way from Tin Cup trailhead, 18 miles south of Stanley, to Alice Lake, a gorgeous alpine lake ringed by peaks
The Sawtooth Valley, in blissfully remote central Idaho, once came close to becoming a U.S. national park — but I’m so glad it didn’t. With national park status comes too much pavement for a place that’s meant to be wild.
Established in 1972 and overseen by the U.S. Forest Service, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area is 756,000 acres — with 700 miles of rugged, sun-drenched hiking trails, 100 or so locals who live in the tiny, dusty town of Stanley, more than 300 alpine lakes formed from receding glaciers, and a staggering, godly range of some 40 peaks 10,000 feet tall. “It’s the Tetons without the handrails,” a local hiking guide from Sawtooth Mountain Guides once told me. We were winding our way up, up, up through groves of aspens and fields of bright-yellow balsamroot to a picnic at a nameless alpine lake beneath a snowcapped spire known as Thompson Peak.
Not all outings call for a guide. The best way to kick off a day in the Sawtooths is to stop, first, at Stanley Baking Company for fluffy sourdough pancakes and a fresh-baked berry scone before choosing your own adventure: a Class II-III raft down the sparkling Salmon River? An overnight rock climb up Elephant’s Perch, perhaps? The roughly 1,000-foot granite slab is Idaho’s most famous climbing spot, an attainable feat for the super-fit, not only the super-experienced. Or a relatively lazy hike that begins with a brief speedboat shuttle across Redfish Lake to a trailhead that leads a gently undulating 4 miles to Bench Lake. Bring a fishing rod, a book, and if you were smart: a “turkey gobbler” sandwich from Stanley Baking Co., on Idaho’s beloved Bigwood bread. At the end of the day, hit some of the local natural hot springs, then kick back with a beer or a lemonade and toast the mountain peaks you’re staring at.
Rachel Levin is the author of “Look Big: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds.”
13. The attraction: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee (11.3 million visits)
The alternative: Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina (5.4 million visits across this and another forest)
Location: Western North Carolina
Top place to stay: Black Mountain campground, where you blessedly lose cellphone service
Top hike: Table Rock mountain and its panoramic payoff overlooking Linville Gorge
The hazy-blue Great Smoky Mountains drew more visitors than any other national park in America last year, who all seemed stuck behind the same ponderous RV with Florida tags on the main mountain pass between Cherokee, N.C., and Gatlinburg, Tenn. Drive less than two hours to the Bohemian boomtown of Asheville, and Pisgah National Forest offers the same Appalachian reward in a roomier retreat.
Pisgah rings Asheville with rock-hopping rivers and waterfalls, firefly-lit campgrounds and hikes through temperate rain forest that can feel more like the Pacific Northwest than the American South. Hebrew for “peak”, Pisgah’s half-million acres stretch up the highest summits in the East, and down potpourri valleys that bloom pink and white in summer with rhododendron and mountain laurel.
The tallest peak east of the Mississippi, Mount Mitchell, rises 6,684 feet from the artsy South Toe River Valley. Sixteen years ago, I watched our son swing and kick his chubby baby legs from the blue carrier on my husband’s back as we hiked the legendary 6-mile trail to the top. Every summer, Pisgah holds new surprises for the kids as they grow. Families with young swimmers can head to Carolina Hemlocks recreation area for the gentle tube run and smooth-rock “butt slides.” For teens, some of the most thrilling natural slides in the country cascade in Pisgah’s southwestern region near Brevard. At Sliding Rock, line up for a turn to shoot down a 60-foot waterfall into Looking Glass Creek.
In a firefly’s blink, the chubby baby legs are impossibly skinny, but their 6-foot-4-inch owner has not forgotten Pisgah — now he prefers backpacking in its rugged Linville Gorge wilderness area.
Cynthia Barnett is the author of three water books including “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History,” and is the environmental journalist in residence at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications
14. Another alternative to the Great Smoky Mountains: Sumter National Forest, South Carolina (fewer than 1 million visits)
Location: North and west of Columbia, S.C.
Top place to stay: Whetstone Horse campground
Top hike: Foothills trail for autumn color and spring warblers, Lick Fork Lake for fishing
South Carolina’s natural beauty belies its diminutive size. It has a single spectacular national park, Congaree, which exists in old-growth, bottomland-swamp splendor less than an hour south of the state capital of Columbia. But I often favor the back roads and byways leading to more remote treasures. In the northwestern “golden” corner of the state, the Sumter national forest sprawls at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Chattooga River –—designated “wild and scenic” — flows through mature forests and rock-walled gorges, and there are montane trails and even an abandoned Civil War-era railroad tunnel. I can hike the hills and hollows in the morning and hear ruffed grouse drumming to my heart’s rhythm. For those so inclined, there’s even a chance for lurking brook trout in some tumbling streams.
There’s much more to the Sumter if you’re willing to travel a couple of hours south into the gentler terrain of the piedmont. In total there are more than 370,000 acres to hike, hunt, camp or simply find solace in tall trees and birdsong. All are within a few hours’ drive of one another and touch state-managed wildlife management areas like the stunning Jocassee gorges, one of National Geographic’s 50 Last Great Places, and demure Stevens Creek heritage preserve, a botanical treasure chest teeming with rare and endangered plants. The landscape offers recreational forays as wild and remote as even the most adventurous would demand but is tame enough around the edges to embrace the novice. And it is just a red-tail hawk’s short glide from refined “civilization” in two of the state’s largest metropolitan areas, Greenville and Columbia, where museums, eateries and post-feral glamping opportunities abound for the weary.
J Drew Lanham is the author of “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” and the alumni distinguished professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University.
15. The attraction: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana (2.2 million visits)
The alternative: Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota (156,00 visitors)
Location: Northeastern Minnesota
Easiest entry point: Lake One (a number of campsites available without portaging; quota permit required and reservations recommended)
Top hike: Kawishiwi Falls trail with views of Kawishiwi Falls and Fall Lake dam
Well past dusk on my birthday in late August 2017, I paddled my kayak as loons called and air chilled rapidly around me. I kept one eye on a steadily darkening opening in the trees — my path out of the Kawishiwi river and toward my bed for the night. I was alone in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), exhilarated by the night and the encounter I had just had with a family of river otters.
Every summer for the past 35 years, I have sought the soul medicine of the BWCAW. A million wet blue acres, this watery paradise of glacial lakes and pine-scented air in northeastern Minnesota boasts 1,200 miles of canoe routes. Residents of Chicago and Minneapolis may love their local parks — the popular Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the St Croix National Scenic Riverway — but if they looked a little further afield, they’d find this rich and uncrowded water wilderness.
In the BWCA, days fill with paddling, fishing and swimming; nights blanket you with layers and layers of stars while wolves howl and beaver tails splash the dark waters. In your sleeping bag on the still-warm ledge rock, occasionally you will be treated to meteor showers or an unforgettable show of northern lights. You can also connect to the history of this canoe country. A day paddle on North Hegman Lake yields a magnificent example of American Indian pictographs. Some say the canoes in these Anishinaabe rock art images are traveling the Path of Souls. When I lift my paddle in this country, sometimes I feel myself following.
Kimberly Blaeser, the past Wisconsin poet laureate, is the author of “Apprenticed to Justice.”
16. The attraction: Joshua Tree National Park, California (2.9 million visits)
The alternative: Saguaro National Park, Arizona (960,000 visits)
Location: 15 miles from Tucson, Ariz.
Best hike: From the El Camino del Cerro trailhead to the top of Wasson Peak via the Sweetwater trail — best done in cooler weather
My poet’s moonlight hike will take us to Saguaro National Park. To the indigenous people of the Sonoran desert, the saguaro is a sacred being. Uniquely adapted to the rigors of the desert, the saguaro forests, alongside the palo verde and ironwood forests, with all the beings they shelter and sustain, form a single interlocked ecosystem of great diversity and tenacity. The fruit the saguaro cactus bears is dependable even in drought years, so that humans and others owe their survival to the beneficence of the saguaro.
Saguaros bloom from April to June, but the radiance of the direct sun this time of year can paralyze one at midday. This dissuades a great many from coming to experience the great flowering of the desert forests. So we should become desert creatures of the dusk and the dawn. Start at El Camino del Cerro trailhead. It is good to set out from the parking lot while there is still light from the sun behind the mountains. At the intersection of Thunderbird trail and Sweetwater trail, turn right onto Thunderbird. The earth here is mostly chalky white volcanic ash that makes the trail visible under the moon. This poet’s hike is about magical transformations by the light of the moon, not distance, not even a mile. It is only a quarter mile to a hilltop vantage point.
Allow your eyes to become accustomed to the light of the night, which isn’t darkness at all. This desert glows in green waves of energy. The saguaros are so tall that they are the first to catch the glow of the moon as it appears. The saguaro flowers shimmer iridescent white. In the moonlight the saguaros are entirely different beings; we all are transformed by the moonlight. Listen: The wind softly whistles through the saguaro needles and together they play their ancient song. If one is blessed, one may catch a glimpse of something wonderful perhaps from another dimension. The winds sway with them and then after midnight it may be the saguaros walk.
Leslie Marmon Silko is the author of “Ceremony” and other books.
17. The attraction: Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota (2.4 million visits)
The alternative: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota (708,000 visits)
Location: About 135 miles west of Bismarck, N.D.
Best place to stay: Rough Riders Hotel, Medora
Best hike: The Wind Canyon trail
If you travel all the way to the Black Hills of South Dakota, skip the Mount Rushmore come-ons and cruise an extra 260 miles straight north to bask in the majesty of North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This is where our 26th president spent his wilderness years as a rancher, hunter and naturalist, and this desolate stretch of ridges and bluffs is beyond ethereal. Bison graze in every direction, giving meaning to the song “Home on the Range.” The prairie dog villages are among the most impressive in the world. If you venture off the uncrowded two-lane road that winds through the park, you’ll find hoodoos and contoured rocks of the weirdest shapes; these surreal hills reminded Roosevelt of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales and poems. On hikes I’ve found that these jagged buttes and towering sandstone pinnacles change shades by the hour, from heliotrope red to nickel gray.
The gateway hamlet to the national park is Medora. This Little Missouri River community has happily eschewed fast-food franchises and strip malls: There are Old West saloons that stay open until 2 a.m. for whiskey drinkers, wooded-plank sidewalks, and mini-golf for kids. The local specialty is ribeye dipped in cheese (steak fondue). In the summer, Burning Hills Amphitheater hosts a kitschy, Lawrence Welk-esque variety show, and there are folksingers strumming six-strings performing Gene Autry and Ian Tyson standards in cozy venues.
The true star attraction, however, in both Medora and the adjacent national park, is the wind. It is fierce and fresh, and blows all the way down from the Arctic, which, as one cannot help but recall, is now melting away. I find Theodore Roosevelt National Park to be an all-around good place to study extinction.
Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University and the author of “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Land of America.”
18. The attraction: Natchez Trace Parkway, Tennessee to Mississippi (6.3 million visits)
The alternative: New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, Louisiana (41,000 visits)
Location: New Orleans
Best place to stay: The French Quarter
Best place to explore: The former U.S. Mint, for artifacts and performances
Wynton Marsalis once said: “The bloodlines of all important modern American music can be traced to Congo Square.” Congo Square, now part of Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans, was one of the first places in the country where enslaved Africans and African-Americans were allowed to gather on Sundays and play drums. Jazz was born from this open celebration and fusion of musical inspiration, and as I stood where my ancestors stood, I could almost hear in my mind the drumbeats that are a part of jazz today. This musical heritage is celebrated at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park.
National parks can be more than beautiful landscapes. Enormous numbers of vacationers take the Natchez Trace parkway, a 450-mile scenic drive extending all the way from central Tennessee to Natchez, Miss. But I advise continuing on for just a few more hours to America’s only national park devoted to jazz, right in the heart of the city, where even the park rangers play for you.
Follow markers of famous jazz venues include recording studios and musicians’ houses. Tours highlight areas in and around the French Quarter that have a rich history in jazz, like the birthplace of the guitarist and banjo player Danny Barker on Chartres Street.
At the New Orleans Jazz Museum, housed at the Old U.S. Mint, there is a treasure trove of photographs, sheet music, films and instruments played by jazz greats, including Louis Armstrong’s first cornet. Be sure to stop by the National Parks Service visitor center here, too, and check out shows by local jazz legends and emerging talent in the state-of-the art performance space.
Rue Mapp is the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, based in Oakland, Calif.
19. The attraction: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and other states (4.1 million visits)
The alternative: Wind River Range, including Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming (2.5 million visits)
Location: Western Wyoming
Top place to stay: The rustic Lakeside Lodge on Fremont Lake
Best Hike: Toward Titcomb Basin from the Elkhart Park trailhead
It’s been said that real Wyoming begins the moment you leave behind the state’s famous crown jewel national parks. I’ve never regretted the day I heeded the sage advice and escaped into the vaulting, glacier-sheathed summits of the Wind River Range.
Venerated simply as “the Winds” by locals, this strapping subrange of the northern Rockies is set along the continental divide and stretches across portions of the Bridger-Teton and Shoshone national forests. A special corner of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, it holds the highest peak in the state — 13,810-foot Gannett — and is studded with aquamarine-tinted alpine lakes. The Winds attract hardy mountaineers and hikers drawn to extended backcountry forays on hundreds of miles of trails and have gotten wilder since my first visit in the 1980s, for there are again grizzly bears and wolves thanks to conservation efforts.
Your adventure begins at the Elkhart Park trailhead on the west side of the Winds, 15 miles outside the quaint cowboy town of Pinedale, where you can stock up on provisions (including bear spray). Whether going overnight or on the 4.5-mile day hike one-way to Photographers Point, all trails leading to Titcomb Basin astound.
If pressed for time, a stellar camping alternative is at Green River Lakes, where you can ogle 11,695-foot Squaretop Mountain from your (reserved) campsite and admire water that owes its jade color to glacial silt. It’s mind-bending to think these tranquil flows eventually merge with the Colorado River, then roar through the Grand Canyon in Arizona and, eventually, reach northern Mexico.
Todd Wilkinson has been a Montana-based environmental journalist for 33 years.
20. The attraction: Yosemite National Park, California (4.3 million visits)
The alternative: Yosemite’s lesser-known parts
Location: Tuolumne Meadows, 190 miles east of San Francisco
Top place to stay: Tuolumne Meadows campground, amid high mountain splendor
Best hike: Elizabeth Lake, for a genial overview of the meadows in three hours
Note: Tuolumne is only accessible by road in the summer and fall
Ah, Yosemite Valley! Rock climbers scaling granite walls twice the height of the Empire State Building! Half-mile-tall waterfalls draped over cliffs like strings of pearls! Raw wilderness where an aching soul can find peace and …
Wait, scratch the wilderness part. It’s true that the fabled valley features rock climbers and waterfalls. It also features grocery stores, lodges, a gazillion cars, a Starbucks, and most of the 4 million visitors who travel to Yosemite every year. Good news: If you’re seeking the wild, you have the other 99 percent of Yosemite National Park to choose from. A great place to start: Tuolumne Meadows, 55 miles from the valley and 4,000 feet higher. The meadows host magnificent peaks, peaceful lakes and a congenial, meandering Tuolumne river.
The trail to Elizabeth Lake, a 4.8-mile, three-to-four-hour round trip, will put you in a Tuolumne mood quickly. Pick up the trail near Loop B of the Tuolumne Meadows campground. The way is easy at first, winding slowly upward among granite boulders, lodgepoles, mountain hemlocks. The wildflowers are exquisite, the trees towering and majestic, the scent piney. You won’t see bears or foxes or mountain lions, but they’ll see you.
The trail steepens as you ascend 400 feet in half a mile. It levels out as you leave the forest and arrive at your destination: Elizabeth Lake, an alpine gem. Total altitude gain: 1,000 feet. Now you’re on your own. Have a picnic. Circle the lake for a closer view of Unicorn Peak preening in the distance. Soak your toes in the water. Think of John Muir, who herded sheep in Tuolumne Meadows in 1869. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” he later wrote. “Cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Robert Leonard Reid’s latest book is “Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West.”
21. The attraction: Zion National Park, Utah (4.5 million visits)
The alternative: Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah (909,000 visits)
Location: Southern Utah; about 70 miles northeast of St. George
Best place to stay: Point Supreme campground (tents and RVs), amid epic summer wildflowers
Most amazing hike: To the Spectra Point overlook, for the jaw-dropping view into the Cedar Breaks amphitheater
In lovely Cedar Breaks, the air is startlingly clear at its over-10,000-foot elevation. This means the daytime views are grand and the nighttime stars are crisp at this marvelous place. The first time I gazed out over the deep bowl of its natural amphitheater containing fantastic sandstone fins and hoodoos, the landscape spoke to my heart as eloquently as any in southern Utah.
I also happened to be there at the height of the summer season, which meant the wildflowers were off the hook. Outrageously colorful displays demand attention from one’s camera at every turn. White cushion phlox blanket the ground, purple silvery lupine sway and nod in lush patches, and orange-red scarlet paintbrush dots the landscape as you wander along trails. For maximum exposure, plan to arrive during the annual Wildflower Festival in July. You can download the monument’s very own wildflowers app to help you identify more than 100 types.
To take in the full grandeur of Cedar Breaks, stroll down the Spectra/Ramparts trail. The 2-mile round trip to Spectra Point overlook lets you gape into the geologic beauty of the amphitheater. Maintained by subtle yet powerful weathering and erosion processes, the amphitheater is really spectacular, even if you’ve seen the far more famous nearby Bryce Canyon. A beautiful palette of umbers and tangerines and maroons, the amphitheater’s spiky formations let your imagination fly. Yet I have to admit my favorite part of the hike is the gnarled, ancient bristlecone pine that sits sentinel right beside the trail at the overlook. Sturdy, strong and resolute, it seems to hold the quiet secrets of centuries deep within its polished silvery-white bark and dark green bottle-brush needles.
22. Bonus park: Adirondack Park, New York
Location: Northern New York state
Best place to stay: Below 4,000 feet in elevation, you can camp anywhere that’s not right next to a stream or trail
Best hike: Goodnow Mountain, for the remarkable view from the fire tower
The largest park in the lower 48, to the surprise of many, is not a national park at all — it’s the Adirondack Park, which takes up a massive chunk of upstate New York, near the Canadian border. It’s very old (one of the first protected areas in the country), very wild (under the state constitution you can’t cut a tree on the vast public lands), and very close to a huge percentage of the American population.
So if you’re determined to find crowds, you can: The High Peaks area in the center of the park, near the Olympic village of Lake Placid, can get overrun in midsummer. But what makes the Adirondacks special is that, beginning in the 1890s, the state legislature set aside not just the most spectacular rocks and vistas, but also an endless expanse of lowland forest, swamp, stream and lake. Check out the recreational opportunities around the small town of North Creek, for instance: It lays fair claim to being the muscle-powered sports capital of the East, with extensive hiking and mountain biking trails, superlative Nordic skiing, a big state-run alpine resort, and epic whitewater rafting along the upper stretches of the Hudson. (Those used to the broad and placid river that shoulders by Manhattan will be awed by the muscular rapids that run through the river’s great Adirondack Gorge.)
The Adirondack Park is a curious hybrid: The big swaths of protected land are interspersed with small hamlets where year-round residents and tourists congregate. Old Forge, Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, Indian Lake, Newcomb, Wilmington, Elizabethtown — these and a dozen more communities offer accommodations and good food. But mostly they offer a gateway into truly remarkable wilderness. Much of the Adirondacks had been cut over before the state government began protecting the land, but with a century to grow back, and with the wet climate that marks the Northeast, the forest has returned to the point where moose, bear and eagle are common.
There’s no gate to this park, and no entry fee — and if you stay away from the obvious centers, no crowds.
Bill McKibben is an author, environmentalist and activist.
Note: All annual park visitation figures have been taken from the most recently available data.