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Something that you may have noticed from the content that I post is that I love our National Parks! Often referred to as America’s best idea, our National Park system is intended for the enjoyment of all, and despite a growing number of challenges that the NPS faces, (including the recent government shutdown and potential for another in the near future) I believe that they’re very much still doing an excellent job.
The mission of the National Park Service is as follows:
The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.
And honestly, they’re killing it. My National Park experiences are, by and large, incredible. This includes NPS managed sites like Mount Rushmore National Memorial or the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. They’re doing more with less, and the experiences are still amazing. As I’ve said before, however, the Parks aren’t without problems.
The Problem with the Parks
There’s a significant maintenance backlog which, this blogger believes, should be addressed by increased funding from Congress. Visitor numbers swell every year, and they’re likely to continue to do so. Head to Arches on a busy day and you could potentially be stuck in traffic for hours. Zion is so busy you aren’t even allowed to drive in most of the park (instead making use of their very effective and efficient shuttle system). Yosemite Valley can seem less like nature and more like an amusement park, and that’s not even during peak season. With all of these people coming and going in the parks, but with no increase in services, staff, or amenities, it can seem impossible to enjoy the majesty of the parks without being surrounded by a swarm of people.
How to get a National Park all to yourself
It isn’t impossible. In fact, you have a few options for finding a bit more solitude in our National Parks. It’s not necessarily as easy as just driving in and pulling off at a scenic view, but in my opinion, it makes for a very fulfilling experience. So what can you do to get a park all to yourself? Well, there are three options to explore.
Check out less visited, but no less interesting National Parks
In 2016, over five million visitors flocked to Yosemite. In the same year, Wind Cave National Park saw roughly six hundred twenty thousand visitors. Some of that discrepancy is no doubt because of location, size, and park features, but I’m confident that a good deal of it is also just because more people already know about Yosemite.
Yosemite is awesome, don’t get me wrong, but Wind Cave is incredible too! The namesake cave is the sixth longest cave in the world, with 140.47 miles of explored passageway. It also has the highest volume of passages per cubic mile of any cave system on the planet! You’ll also find a particular kind of calcite formation known as boxwork in Wind Cave; roughly 95 percent of the world’s known boxwork formations are located in Wind Cave, so this is the best place to see it.
Above ground, Wind Cave National Park is home to one of the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairies in the United States, and one of only four free roaming bison herds that are genetically pure that inhabit public lands in North America.
I’m not proposing that you never explore Yosemite; it’s an awesome place and I intend to go back. It’s in the title of this post, so clearly I don’t want to shun the park! I am suggesting however, that if you’re looking for a less crowded National Park experience, and aren’t committed to a specific locale, you might consider looking at less publicized parks that still offer up amazing experiences.
Check out lesser known trails and attractions in the National Parks
While in Zion National Park, Clarissa and I spent four hours working our way up Angel’s Landing, packed on ledges and clinging to chains with hundreds, maybe thousands, of other people.
Once we finished, we scampered off onto another leg of the West Rim Trail trail. Instead of sharing the trail with multitudes of other visitors, we passed a grand total of maybe ten or fifteen people. Angel’s Landing was a cool experience, and I certainly recommend it, but if I had to choose between that and wandering off the beaten path, I’d pick the latter.
Go a mile or two on the road less traveled (or trail, as it were), and you’ll find a bit more solitude. It might not be as Instagram famous as Angel’s Landing, but it will still be a magnificent hike!
Explore the back country of the National Parks
Backpacking into a back country camp is likely you best chance at solitude in a National Park. This option is available in many of our parks, but they all manage it in different way, so make sure to research your destination. For example, at Yosemite National Park, you will need to get a Wilderness Permit and that involves a reservation application or a first-come first-serve permit. There are no guarantees, but if you don’t have a specific destination in mind, you can likely get a permit for one of the less popular spots. There are additional rules to follow, like no fires over 10,000 feet of elevation, or the use of bear canisters, so make sure you’re properly prepared.
This is what my friends and I did for a night in Yosemite in 2016. We requested a first-come first-serve permit for the next day, and after talking with a ranger about different options, we ended up choosing to backpack to Ostrander Lake. It was just low enough that we could have a fire that night, and far enough that we were likely to encounter few people in October. We encountered none.
Clarissa and I have also backpacked into the back country in Badlands National Park last year. No permit is necessary here, though you should stop by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and let them know what you’re planning on doing (you should always file a flight plan – you are filing a flight plan, right?). But there’s no permit system in place, you can just go to one of the back country registers, and then hit the trail.
It should go without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway), that you need to have a good idea of what you’re doing to camp in these spots. There are no amenities, no bathrooms, and no one around to help you if you need it. You have to haul everything you need with you, and leave no trace principles are a must. But if you’re ready for these experiences, heading into the back country is one if the best ways to get our National Parks all to yourself.
This land belongs to you and me
To my American readers, if you’ve never visited a National Park, or NPS managed property, I highly recommend that you take the time to do so; these are your National Parks, and I hope you take pride in them. This includes finding the park activities that are right for you. These three possibilities are the best ways that I’ve found to have a National Park experience without having a National Park crowd.
To my non-American readers, don’t feel excluded; 13.6 million overseas travelers made their way to US National Parks and National Monuments in 2015, accounting for over 35% of overseas visitors to the States that year. I hope that anytime you visit my country you consider a trip to one of our beautiful National Parks. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
No matter who you are, where you’re from, or what experience you’re looking for, there’s a National Park for you! Not sure where to start? Head over to Find Your Park where you can search for National Parks or other NPS managed sites by location or activity. Have you had an amazing National Park experience or planning one? Share it with us in the comments!