Abandon all hope, ye who drive to Yellowstone this summer. Most of the park’s three million visitors a year don’t leave their cars, giving rise to a local phenomenon: the wildlife jam. A stray bear or bison can instigate bumper-to-bumper congestion worthy of an L.A. freeway.
The National Park Service recorded 272 million visitors last year, but the good news is that with hundreds of parks and millions of acres of land, you don’t necessarily have to share your vacation with legions of fellow solitude-seekers.
How can you find some of the less-trodden corners of the park system? You can start by avoiding the Interstate. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a highway running through it and gets more than nine million visitors per year—the most of any park in the system. By contrast, Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve in Alaska has no roads, is best reached by float plane, and got a grand total of 60 recreational visitors in 2006.
One good way to find out whether you’re headed for SUV oblivion is to use the statistics compiled by the National Park Service. Another tactic is simply to avoid following the herd. Most Americans probably can only rattle a few famous national parks off the top of their heads, like Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore. Pass them by this year.
Walk through the Congaree old-growth forest in South Carolina or follow the bison herds across Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and you’ll have a far better chance of seeing some spectacular scenery or wildlife without looking through someone else’s viewfinder.
But even if you decide to visit a famous park, that still doesn’t mean that you need to get stuck with the trundling masses.
“Most people stay within a couple of hundred yards of the scenic overlooks,” says Kathy Kupper, a spokesperson for the National Park Service. “If you get on the trails and into the back country, you can have a near-wilderness experience away from the crowds. Just remember to stay on marked trails and take plenty of water with you.”
Even the most popular parks have their secret corners. Sven Feitknecht, tour director for Globus Tours, says that he has traveled through Yellowstone as many as 150 times since 1991 and still looks forward to discovering the park anew, particularly his favorite corner—the Lamar Valley. Located in the northeast corner of the park and totally inaccessible by vehicle, the area is home to many of Yellowstone’s wolf packs.
“Time can never efface the image of the evening sun gently gliding behind the western mountain and casting gigantic shadows across the vale,” reflects Feitknecht. “Most tourists want to drive to the various sightseeing spots, which is why 99 percent of Yellowstone is not visited by man. Our guests are usually very surprised to find out that the Lamar Valley is still very much a hidden secret.”
So this summer, give Old Faithful a miss. How about spotting wild horses in Maryland, watching lava crash into the ocean in Hawaii or scuba diving the wreck of a passenger steamer in Michigan? We’ve compiled a list of 10 hidden gems of the national park system. Happy exploring.