A fast internet connection and doggedness won Trish Kenlon one of summer’s most cherished tickets: A pass to drive through the alpine scenery of Glacier National Park via the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Tickets to drive the road between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. are necessary, as the park staff juggles crowds amid construction delays and COVID-19 precautions. Obtaining the $2 tickets can be a challenge, as they’re sold through Recreation.gov, the government-backed outdoor recreation reservation site often overwhelmed by demand.
At the last minute, Kenlon was able to snag two nights’ lodging at Lake McDonald Lodge; the room came with a coveted Sun Road ticket.
Being savvy—and speedy—is key for crowd-shunning national park visitors this summer. Many corners of the National Park System already are jammed. Recently, Utah’s Arches National Park had reached capacity and closed its gate to visitors before 9 a.m. Yellowstone National Park counted a May-record 483,159 visitors, while next-door neighbor Grand Teton National Park notched 363,712, also a record. During the Memorial Day weekend, some determined to stand atop Angels Landing in Zion National Park waited four hours in line for the privilege.
Rather than endure such crowds or waits, a friend and I kayaked into the watery backcountry of Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah. We spent our days on the water and our nights under brilliant, star-choked skies in remote side canyon campsites. Heading north from Bullfrog Marina, we explored the four closest side canyons: Moqui, Forgotten, Hansen Creek, and Crystal Spring, and some of the fingers that spurred off of them.
You needn’t break a sweat paddling or hefting a backpack to commune with nature without the cacophony of cellphone conversations or having to elbow your way to see Old Faithful erupt. As more and more folks head out in search of nature, you do need to be strategic and expand the possible destinations. Here are some great options for avoiding crowds. But know that even these destinations will grow in popularity. If you can, schedule your adventures outside of the summer months and visit mid-week.
The secret of this spectacular park, with its 65-mile-long bay and ice rivers, is out. But because there are few hotel rooms in the 3.3-million-acre park and nearby Gustavus, those lucky enough to grab one will have all that natural beauty mostly to themselves. “Even with all the structural capacity full, it is not that crowded,” says superintendent Philip Hooge. “There’s just not that much tourist infrastructure here. Go out here kayaking and you’re not going to see crowds like you do down south [the U.S. mainland parks].”
Jumping-off point: Gustavus, Alaska. Explore the bay, its birds, marine life, and glaciers on a day trip aboard the concessionaire’s ship. Kayakers can also hitch a ride aboard the ship for deeper explorations in the park and schedule a pickup later.
Rocky Mountain National Park, in eastern Colorado, is operating on a reservation system again this year, and much of its backcountry is closed as the park recovers from last year’s devastating wildfires. But 30,750-acre Black Canyon, farther west in the state, has yet to see 500,000 visitors in a year. The state’s least-visited national park offers adventure, striking geology, and no-fuss encounters with nature. Head to the North Rim with its seven-mile-long dirt road, which discourages more than a few visitors, and you’ll drive into solitude and beauty. Those who land one of the park's 13 campsites ($16) can pitch their tent among the pinyons and junipers overlooking views of the nearly 3,000-foot-deep canyon from Exclamation Point or Chasm View.
Jumping-off point: Montrose, Colorado. Peer into the canyon at various times of day, as the sun highlights the facets the Gunnison River began to carve through volcanic rock two million years ago. The Deadhorse Trail, beginning at the Kneeling Camel overlook, is a five-mile (roundtrip) hike that park staff describe as easy to moderate. More experienced/adventurous hikers can trek further into the wilderness, with its stands of pinyon pine, Douglas fir, and juniper, along with some outbreaks of gambel oak.
Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, Virginia/Maryland/Delaware/Pennsylvania/New York
From 1607 to 1608 Captain John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay, “searching every inlet and bay fit for harbors and habitations…” Today you can trace his wanderings by canoe, kayak, or sailboat.
The national historic trail offers 3,000 shoreline miles to explore. Along the way, charming communities share the region’s 17th century Native American history, the role of African American “watermen” involved with shellfishing and boat building, as well as Captain Smith’s legacy.
Jumping-off points: Numerous. Call the park to find out when Werowocomoco, a 58-acre site the National Park Service acquired in 2016, opens to visitors. It’s believed that Captain Smith met Powhatan and his daughter, Pocahontas, here in December 1607, according to this park page.
True, this northwoods park saw a 40 percent increase in 2020 visitation compared to 2019, but still, that was only 263,091 visitors for the entire year. Visitors are widely dispersed across 218,000 acres, with some cruising Voyageurs by houseboat, others by kayak or canoe, and still more on foot.
“The team at Voyageurs has done a great job of siting out campsites in a manner that really gives campers a sense that there are few if any other campers in the vicinity,” said superintendent Bob DeGross. “I often hear that we have the best campsites in the National Park System.”
A number of backcountry campsites can only be reached by canoe or rowboats, which you can rent at the park. Reserve a site at Loiten Lake for arguably the most solitude, though know you’ll need to take a boat ferry across Kabetogama Lake and then hike about a mile to where you can launch your canoe.
Jumping-off point: International Falls, Minnesota. Want to enjoy the watery side of the park but fall asleep in more comfortable accommodations? Reserve a room at the remote Kettle Falls Hotel on the Kabetogama Peninsula. Fifteen miles from the nearest road, you’ll need a boat or floatplane to get there.
Crowds? Not here. So far, the busiest year in terms of visitation was 2017, and even then fewer than 170,000 people explored this park of ancient bristlecone pines and dark caves. Although a construction project is keeping the Wheeler Peak Campground at 9,886 feet closed this summer, there are five other front-country campgrounds and plenty of backcountry to find a place to pitch your tent or hang your hammock. Just one of the three usual cave tours is being offered this year, the Parachute Shield Tour, but there are more than 60 miles of backcountry trails to meander.
Jumping-off point: Baker, Nevada. Look in the Great Basin Visitor Center for the Winchester rifle that dates to 1873. Its owner for reasons unknown left it in the backcountry of the present-day park, where it was found in 2014 by researchers. Well-weathered and blending in almost perfectly with a juniper, the rifle was restored at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. Though the rifle didn’t have a cartridge in its chamber, there was one stored in its stock.
Avoid summer’s high heat with an early fall visit (when fishing starts to pick up) to this wild seashore on the Outer Banks. Unlike its northern neighbor, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Cape Lookout shuns infrastructure; there are no towns or paved roads on its three barrier islands. Experienced kayakers can navigate Back Sound, Core Sound, and Onslow Bay and pitch their tents among the dunes. Surfcasters can reserve a rustic cabin and fish day and night without crossing lines.
Jumping-off point: Harkers Island, North Carolina. Although the seashore’s lighthouse is closed for structural repairs, visit Shackleford Banks for a glimpse of the more than a hundred horses that roam here. Travel to historic, 18th-century Portsmouth Village (from Ocracoke at Cape Hatteras) to see where cargo from sea-going ships was transferred to coastal villages in South and North Carolina; or comb the beaches for sand dollars and seashells.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Yosemite and Sequoia are crowd magnets in California, while Lassen is generally overlooked. The main attraction is the trail to the summit of Lassen Peak, but it’s not the only wonder. Within park boundaries you can find four types of volcanoes: plug dome, shield, composite, and cinder.
Head to the eastern side of the park for real solitude. Pitch your tent or park your RV at one of the campgrounds or land a room in the Drakesbad Guest Ranch and spend your days on the trail, fishing, or checking off the different types of volcano. When you’re ready to leave, follow the Volcanic Legacy Highway north to Lava Beds National Monument and Crater Lake National Park.
Jumping-off point: Mineral, California. Take the trail through the Devastated Area to see the impact of the pyroclastic flow that jetted down the slopes of Lassen Peak in May 1915 and raced through this area. Don’t overlook Bumpass Hell, a geothermal area that looks as if it was moved here from Yellowstone National Park.
Kurt Repanshek is the founder and editor-in-chief of NationalParksTraveler.org, a nonprofit media organization that covers national parks and protected areas.