In 5 National Parks, Hidden Gems and Roads Less Traveled

Those of us who’ve had to squeeze our way through crowds at national parks recently can attest how hugely — and annoyingly — popular the parks have become. The pandemic turned a Klieg light on nature’s allure, so much so that 44 parks set visitation records in 2021, according to the National Park Service. And, given the upward trajectory of 2021’s visitation numbers, it’s safe to say greater numbers are likely to be seen in many parks this year.

In some cases, reservation systems or timed entries for vehicles at peak hours have been implemented to deal with the crowds.

But even the most popular parks have hidden gems and entrances that aren’t clogged with traffic. With a little planning, those hitting the road to see the misty inlets of Maine’s Acadia National Park or the plunging waterfalls in California’s Yosemite should be able to find some serenity to go along with those heavenly sights.

Packing a little patience, along with water, snacks and sunscreen, will go a long way. The N.P.S.’s new app helps with snags, offering real-time updates on road closures, long lines, weather and a portal for park-related reservations, including lodging. It also has hiking suggestions, audio tours and downloadable maps.

Virtually every national park without a reservation system recommends arriving early to avoid bottlenecks. But if 6 or 7 a.m. is just too early, here are other ways to find less crowded experiences in five national parks.

Acadia National Park

Home to bobcats, harbor seals, walruses and peregrine falcons, the 48,000-acre Acadia National Park, which had 4 million visitors last year, is spread across sections of Maine’s windswept northeastern coast.

Stephanie Clement, the chief executive and conservation director of Friends of Acadia, said that areas like Mount Desert Island, home to Cadillac Mountain, can feel overrun in the summer; she suggests choosing the more secluded Schoodic Peninsula, the only section on the mainland.

The Schoodic Peninsula is an hour’s drive from the Hulls Cove Visitor Center on Mount Desert Island. From the campground near the entrance, visitors can walk or drive on the park’s new roads or bike the 4.3-mile loop to Schoodic Point, the tip of the peninsula where views of the turbulent Atlantic Ocean are vast. “It is a great recreational experience,” Ms. Clement said.

The peninsula is also home to the Schoodic Research and Learning Center, managed by the Schoodic Institute. The compound has lodging for those attending lectures, classes or workshops.

Another remote section is on Isle au Haut, 25 miles southeast of Mount Desert Island, reachable only by ferry. Isle au Haut has about 18 miles of trails that offer an opportunity to explore the island’s rugged shoreline. The trails and the weather can be challenging; the island is about 10 degrees cooler than the mainland, so pack accordingly.

If Mount Desert Island remains on the itinerary, Ms. Clements said it’s worth the effort to get up early or stay later. “Sand Beach is divine both early in the morning and right around sunset,” she said.

Reservations required for Mount Desert Island, but not Schoodic Peninsula. Visit Vehicle reservations are released on a rolling basis. Cost: $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle and $15 per individual.

Among the many remote spots in Grand Canyon National Park: Toroweap Point.Credit…Getty

Grand Canyon National Park

Wrought by the waters of the Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona inspires awe from all vantage points, but the main attraction remains the exquisite views from the South Rim where traffic is often congested.

In 2021, 4.5 million people visited the park, compared with 2019 when the total was 5.97 million, so the park is catching up to its pre-Covid numbers.

Grant Mohn, the director of operations for Grand Canyon Adventures, an outfitter based in Flagstaff, Ariz., said getting to the south entrance at the South Rim before the midmorning crush is crucial. “The biggest thing is to get to the park early,” Mr. Mohn said. A general rule of thumb, he added, is to arrive before 9 a.m.

One less-utilized access point is the east entrance, 25 miles west of Cameron, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation. Both entrances, divided by 23 scenic miles along the canyon’s rim, lead to the same spot at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center.

“Check the wait times online,” Mr. Mohn said. “But the biggest bottleneck is going to be at the south entrance.”

After lingering at the first overlook at Mather Point, many people leave without exploring other areas, a missed opportunity, said Mr. Mohn, especially for those who want to take in the grandeur without human chatter or iPhones held aloft.

“There are tons of different viewpoints on the South Rim, and people get stuck around the south entrance, and then they kind of tire out,” he said. The walkable Rim Trail, which stretches from Mather Point along the southern rim for 13 miles, has designated outlooks for a more personal experience. An even easier way to access the trails along the South Rim is by using a park shuttle to the trailheads.

Desert View Drive, the picturesque road that runs from Grand Canyon Village at the south entrance to the Desert View Services Area at the east entrance, also has numerous places to stop for dramatic views.

And a north entrance, 30 miles south of Jacob Lake, Ariz., on Highway 67, has a visitor’s center that puts people at the North Rim where they’ll find considerably more solitude; only 10 percent of visitors go to the North Rim, according to the N.P.S. If time allows, drive to Toroweap Overlook, about 50 miles west of the visitor center, to get a spectacularly vertical view of the Colorado River, but plan carefully because the road can get rough.

Reservations are not required. $35 per vehicle, $30 per motorcycle, $20 per individual.

In Tennessee, the Tremont area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a beautiful, less-traveled section. It is also where the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont offers a family camp, photography workshops and other programs.Credit…Getty

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The park’s share of the Smoky Mountains — a sprawling low-rolling range that straddles Tennessee and North Carolina — is spectacular in summer, and even more so in fall. The park service maintains over 90 historic structures that were once part of Appalachian communities. In 2021, this was the most visited national park, with 14 million visits.

Barry Spruce, a photography guide and teacher who owns the Townsend, Tenn.-based Spruce Photo Tours, said entering from the “peaceful side of the Smokies” at Townsend (the west entrance), alleviates the need to pass through the busy resort of Gatlinburg, 25 miles south.

Mr. Spruce said an area called Tremont, a few miles south of Townsend, is a beautiful, less-traveled section. It is also where the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont offers a family camp and programs such as photography workshops.

“While millions of visitors pack into the Cades Cove valley on a yearly basis, a very small percentage have even heard of Tremont,” Mr. Spruce said. From the parking lot of the institute, he said, there are trails, including one to little-visited Spruce Flats Falls, roughly two miles round-trip.

On the North Carolina side, Vesna Plakanis, an owner of the tour company A Walk in the Woods, said visitors can circumvent the most-used entrance on the North Carolina side — in the town of Cherokee — by using the entrance at Cataloochee.

Exit 20 off Interstate 40 lands travelers at Maggie Valley, an appealing mountain town with vintage motels and craft shops. “Maggie Valley is a semi-gateway community that goes into the Cataloochee part of the Smoky Mountains, and that is where the elk have been reintroduced,” Ms. Plakanis said. “It’s just a charming little part of the Smoky Mountains with lots of very beautiful hiking trails and old-growth forest.”

Reservations are not required. Entrance to the park is free.

If getting next to a giant sequoia in California’s Yosemite National Park is a goal, head to the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias.Credit…Getty

Yosemite National Park

Known for its grand meadows, precipitous waterfalls and giant sequoias, Central California’s Yosemite National Park, which recorded 3.3 million recreational visits in 2021, lures both rock climbers and weekend nature seekers. Last year the N.P.S. turned on its timed-entry system between 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Yosemite.

Most see the park by car and focus on Yosemite Valley, so planning a hike elsewhere will likely offer some relative solitude.

John DeGrazio, a wilderness guide, said a hike around cobalt-blue May Lake, a high-elevation lake off Tioga Road north of Yosemite Valley, is one way to beat the pack. The Tioga Road east entrance is also less used than the four Yosemite entrances to the west.

The 2.3-mile, round-trip hike takes, on average, just over an hour to complete. Mr. DeGrazio noted that on a clear day, towering Mount Hoffman is reflected in the lake.

If getting next to a giant sequoia is a goal, Mr. DeGrazio suggests heading to the smaller Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias. The Mariposa Grove remains closed because of fire suppression efforts. The trailhead for Tuolumne Grove’s 2.5-mile hike is near the start of Tioga Road at the junction with Big Oak Flat Road. Then strike out to hike the Cathedral Lakes (there is an upper and a lower hike; reserve three to five hours for both routes, about eight miles), rated as “medium” for difficulty. (Park authorities recently said the Washburn fire is 50 percent contained and that the majority of sites in Yosemite are unaffected.)

Reservations required. Seventy percent of reservations for May 20 through Sept 30 became available on March 23. The other 30 percent are available seven days before arrival. Fees: $35 per vehicle; $30 per motorcycle and $25 per individual.

A favorite feature of the Zion Mount Carmel Highway drive through Zion National Park is the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel.Credit…Getty

Zion National Park

About 5 million visitors descended on Zion in southwest Utah in 2021, compared to 4.5 million in 2019; this park is busy, and getting busier.

From April through October, private vehicles are not allowed into Zion Canyon; a shuttle-bus system is the only way to traverse Zion Scenic Canyon Drive, which runs through Zion Canyon, the park’s main destination. The buses can have long wait times after 9 a.m. The shuttle-ticket system, put in place during the pandemic, has been eliminated, so Zion’s shuttles are back to first-come, first-serve, as is entry. (If your heart’s set on traversing Zion Scenic Canyon Drive, you can also bike it. There are several bike rental shops in the nearby town of Springdale.)

If shuttling feels a little too “theme park,” there are drivable routes from which you can see the wondrous work that wind and water does with sandstone.

Cheri McRae, owner of Zion Jeep Tours, which offers tours of the park’s remote sections, said Zion’s east entrance, starting near Mount Carmel Junction on Zion Mount Carmel Highway (Highway 9), has less traffic and, while it does not take in Zion Canyon, it does offer stunning overlooks.

“This is a drive that visitors can do on their own, and it’s a really beautiful and picturesque drive,” Ms. McRae said. There are also trails off Zion Mount Carmel Highway.

Ms. McCrae also suggested bypassing the park’s visitor center, continuing through Springdale and taking a right on Kolob Terrace Road, which leads to Lava Point Overlook at the park’s north end. The overlook, at nearly 8,000 feet, offers panoramic views.

To get to another less-visited section, take the northwest entrance off Interstate 15 at Exit 40 into Kolob Canyons, which has a visitor’s center with a ranger who can answer questions about the Canyons, with their desert streams, waterfalls and towering sandstone peaks. This is a five-mile drive with extraordinary views and a picnic area at the top.

The park can be scorchingly hot in the summer, so consider hiking as early as 7 a.m. Hats, sunscreen and water are strongly recommended; additionally, there are water-refilling stations throughout the park.

Reservations are not required. Cost: $35 per vehicle; $30 per motorcycle, $20 per individual.

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