Outdoor World

The 22 best US national parks to escape the crowds, chosen by experts

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 m annual visits)
The alternative: Voyageurs national park, Minnesota( 237,000 visits)

Location: Northern Minnesota, on the Canadian border
Best place to remain: 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 probably 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.

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  • The northern lights above an island at Voyageurs national park
  • Start your adventure at either Kabetogama Lake visitor center or Ash river visitor center. Rent a barge, 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 blueberrieruds and raspberries are ripe for picking and make an excellent addition to your campfire pancakes. There is beauty in taking a transgres 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 stillnes that gives you space to enjoy the calls of wildlife from miles around. It’s one of my most 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)

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  • Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas
  • Locating: Garden Key and six other small islands, 68 miles west of Key West, Florida
    Best place 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 aim of the Florida Keys coral archipelago: Dry Tortugas national park.

    Three centuries after the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon named the islands Tortugas for the sea turtles- they still nest there- Fort Jefferson was built from 16 m bricks. Construction stretched over 30 years, done largely by enslaved, quarantined or imprisoned laborers. The fort was never finished and never ensure 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 frigate birds lives here, having moved west when growth 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 frigate birds soar, scarlet balloons at their throats, as the sunlight burns from sky to sea. A thick cape of stars and silence unfurls over endless water, a sliver of beach, your tent, and nothing else.
    Wendy Call has been a writer-in-residence at five national park, co-edited Telling True Stories and is the author of No Word for Welcome

    3 The attraction: Bryce Canyon national park, Utah( 2.6 m visits)
    The alternative: Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument, Utah( 983,000 visits)

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  • Hoodoo’ garden’ in the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument
  • Location: Southern Utah, about 200 miles north-east of Las Vegas
    Best places to camp: Anywhere in the backcountry( with a permit) or at the developed campsites near the tiny town of Boulder
    Best hikes: Explore a classic slot valley 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 stone and sculpted geology while only 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 the former chairman Bill Clinton. The monument includes literally the last lands to be mapped in the continental US, and most of them remain just how the cartographers found them.

    ( Note: By presidential proclamation, Donald Trump has attempted to split the nearly 1.9 m-acre monument into three much smaller portions 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 .)

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  • Zebra slot valley in Grand Staircase-Escalante
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante is huge and wild, so stop at one of the visitor centres 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 freeways is astoundingly scenic. In dry weather, most automobiles can manage the gravel loop-the-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 situated about five miles south-east 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 moras 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 m visits)
    The alternative: Cumberland Island national seashore, Georgia( 52,000 visits)

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  • A live oak covered with ferns on Cumberland Island, Georgia
  • Locating: About 35 miles north of Jacksonville, Florida
    Best place to remain: 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
    Best hike: Take Parallel trail from the ferry dock north toward Roller Coaster trail

    Cumberland is wild sorceries, the southernmost and largest in a chain of barrier islands along the Georgia coast. Its woodlands are dominated by wind-tortured live oaks draped with Spanish moss and greened by resurrection fern, gnomish and endlessly 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 autumns in dramatic tidal fluctuations, ebbing 6ft to 8ft. In summertime, loggerhead sea turtles lumber ashore to scoop out enormous nests, from which hatchlings emerge and drift out to sea.

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    The 18 -mile-long island is accessible only by ferry or private barge, 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 objective. A walk through the ruins of Dungeness, a mansion constructed in the 19 th century, is highly recommended. Summer is almost unbearably hot, so I propose spring or autumn, when Pelican Banksis thick with rafts of shorebirds such as ruddy turnstones 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 creek that ever call me back to Cumberland. Below a 20 ft 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 grumbles as it rises and falls with the moon.
    Janisse Ray has written five books of nature write, 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)

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  • Hikers stand beside a pool on Root glacier
  • Locating: Southern Alaska
    Best place to stay: Kennicott Glacier Lodge
    Top trail: Root glacier trail, a four-mile hike winding beside Root and Kennicott glaciers

    Wrangell-St Elias is a vast, remote, and rarely visited wilderness of mountains and ice fields, alpine valleys and glacial rivers. At 13.2 m 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 limitless: you can knapsack, 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 which 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 pond and listen for loons or trumpeter swans. The last leg you’ll do sans automobile, 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 township. 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 ft 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)

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  • Fall colors at the Serpentine hot spring
  • Location: North of Nome, Alaska
    Best place to stay: In Shishmaref, arrange accommodation through locals
    Best hike: From Shishmaref, tracing 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 view, 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 shut 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 foster you to take his canteen and pistol. You may hold the firearm 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 genuinely 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.


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  • Left, stone structures stand on the rims of ancient volcanos. Right, reindeer on the beach at Ikpek lagoon
  • Within the preserve you may visit the 100,000 -acre Imuruk volcanic fields or Serpentine hot springs (< em> 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 coughing that would subsequently result in a positive TB test. We constructed a driftwood bonfire and collected starfish, shells, even plastic trash. The lagoon was still. We considered 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 expend the evening in the company of their visitors a moment to consider the cerements of the sea and our rightful, if threatened, place on its shores.
    Joan Naviyuk Kane has authored nine books and raises her sons as a single mom in Alaska

    7 The attraction: Gettysburg national military park, Pennsylvania( 1m visits)
    The alternative: Manassas national battlefield park, Virginia( 606,000 visits)

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  • Henry Hill at the Manassas national battlefield monument
  • Location: 30 miles west of Washington DC

    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 DC, on I-6 6, the battlefield is located in Manassas, Virginia. 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 assured intense battle between fellow countrymen.

    As I rode and looked out on Manassas battlefield, I was astounded 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 fencings and preserving 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.

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