America’s national parks are more popular than ever, with attendance doubling at many locations in just the last ten years – or maxing out completely as more travelers flock to outdoor destinations while the COVID-19 pandemic lags on.
The good news for intrepid travelers: most tourists never venture further than one mile from their car, so with a bit of planning, ingenuity and exercise, a clever visitor can have a great spot all to themselves, or darn close to it. Here are our top picks for how to escape the crowds and find a slice of pristine wilderness in some of the country’s most visited national parks.
1. Take in the views at Mineral King
Sequoia National Park, California
Sure, you’ll have to drive an hour down a rugged dirt road to get to Sequoia’s Mineral King area, but you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the Sierra Nevada Range and plentiful hiking and backpacking opportunities. The trail up to Franklin Lakes (12 miles round trip) is an awesome day hike or overnight trek, passing by waterfalls and, in summer, spectacular wildflowers. Serious adventurers might want to tack on a 3-4 day journey over Franklin Pass to secluded Kern Hot Springs.
2. Experience solitude on the East Inlet Trail
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Situated on the far less traveled, western side of Rocky Mountain National Park, the East Inlet Trail is a great jumping off point for hikers seeking big mountain vistas, wildlife, waterfalls and, most importantly, solitude. The trail starts with Adams Falls, then steadily climbs up through a mountainous valley, with views getting better the further your climb. It’s a 16-mile round trip to Spirit Lake, and an even farther overnight trek for those who want to travel to Fourth Lake and over Boulder Grand Pass.
3. Consider a 15-mile trek in Kolob Canyon
Zion National Park, Utah
Located in the park’s northern, higher elevation section, Kolob Canyon has all the fabulous red rock and big vistas that you’d expect from Zion, but with far fewer crowds. Take a scenic drive along East Kolob Canyon Road, then go on a hike amidst towering, rust-colored fins and escarpments on the La Verkin Creek Trail.
Serious trekkers won’t want to miss Kolob Arch (15 miles round trip – mostly flat) as a long day hike or a mellow backpacking trip along a gently burbling creek (permits available online or at the visitor center).
4. Paddle the tide pools at Schooner Head Overlook
Acadia National Park, Maine
Download a tide schedule app onto your phone, then traverse the Park Loop Road to Schooner Head Overlook. Head down to the rocky seashore at low tide to check out numerous tide pools filled with barnacles, sea urchins and crabs, just watch out for slippery seaweed on the rocks.
Visitors comfortable scrambling on wet rocks will definitely want to check out Anemone Cave, which can be accessed only at low tide via careful rock-hopping. Like the NPS, we don't recommend entering the cave, but the interior can be safely viewed from the rocks nearby.
5. See the spring alpine flowers in Hetch Hetchy
Yosemite National Park, California
Located in the least-visited northwestern quadrant of Yosemite, Hetch Hetchy is an area John Muir once called “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.” Unfortunately, the valley was dammed to create a reservoir for drinking water, but the surrounding mountainous landscape is still spectacular and free of the usual hustle and bustle of the rest of Yosemite.
Visitors can day hike here or check out an epic, 25-mile backpacking loop that traverses several of the area’s stunning lakes and waterfalls. Go in spring for rainbow bursts of alpine wildflowers.
6. Try a short off-trail route on Sidewinder Canyon
Death Valley National Park, California
Just 20 minutes by car from Badwater Basin lies a small, unsigned parking lot and a vague trail leading toward a series of three slot canyons. After hiking 6 miles up an imposing desert wash, visitors here can squeeze, shimmy and scramble through narrow breccia rock formations.
Grab detailed, printed directions for the 5-mile (round trip) journey at the ranger station in Furnace Creek if you’re at all nervous about off-trail exploration, and be sure to pack plenty of water.
7. Cliff dive at Sinks Swimming Hole - if you dare
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Enjoy one of the most picturesque spots on Tennessee's Little River Road scenic drive, located just 12 miles west of the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Travelers here can hang out on the massive river boulders, relax near a rushing waterfall and swim in the clear, natural pools to cool down on a hot, summer day. The bravest of your group might even want to try cliff diving from the nearby rocks, a popular activity among locals.
8. Experience total solitude in the West Tetons
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
The Idaho side of the Tetons offer an access point that's much less crowded, with camping in Caribou-Targhee National Forest and services in nearby Driggs and Victor. It should be noted that while some of these hikes are technically outside the national park boundaries, they sit within the same range.
Table Mountain is an outstanding hike starting in Targhee which offers solitude, wildflowers galore and stunning high-alpine scenery without the crowds found on the eastern side of the range. The flat-top summit of Table Mountain affords great gawping views of the Grand Teton, Alaska Basin and the western slope of the peaks – so good that photographer William H Jackson took the first photos of the Grand Teton here, during the 1872 Hayden Geological Survey.
Another option is to head to the southern extreme of the park, where you'll find hikes that are gaining in popularity, but still offer solitude on longer routes. Lesser-known Death Canyon offers moderate hiking up an ethereal river valley flanked by granite climbing walls. Another day-hike loop starts from the top of the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram, heading down the South Fork into Granite Canyon and back to Teton Village (15 miles).
9. Follow a low-grade hike around the Lone Star Geyser
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Escape the madness at Old Faithful and visit Teton County, Wyoming's Lone Star Geyser instead. A mellow, 4.8-mile (round trip) hike or bike ride down an old park road takes visitors here through a dense pine forest, occasionally opening up to beautiful meadow views. At the turn-around point is Lone Star Geyser. The geyser erupts about every three hours, so use a geyser times app to check the predicted schedule. It’s a great spot to hike to for lunch and hang out as you wait for the geyser to blow. Be sure to download the NPS Yellowstone App onto your phone before going on this hike – there’s little to no cell service inside the park.
10. Go at sunrise to Shoshone Point
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Shoshone Point has all the grandeur of Mather Point and Bright Angel, without the throngs of crowds that can make it difficult to snap a decent picture. That’s because travelers here have to walk an easy, 1-mile (each way) former service road to get to the viewpoint. Gaze out at layer upon layer of bright red canyon rock and try to catch a glimpse of the powerful Colorado River, a vertical mile beneath your feet. Go at sunrise to have the place all to yourself.
This article was originally published in March 2020. It was updated in September 2021.