Guest post from our friends, The Switchback Kids. . .
From sea to shining sea, coast to plains to mountains to forests, our country is full of some amazing places. And people are figuring this out. In 2015, our national parks saw more than 305 million visitors. The summer of 2016 is predicted to crush even that record.
This recent boom isn't to say we should stop visiting national parks. Quite the opposite: we should see more national parks. A wider variety. Think historic sites, monuments, recreation areas, and less-touched public lands. But if you find yourself drawn to popular national parks, don't fret. There are still ways to up your adventure, ditch the crowds, and find a new pristine corner of the park. And it isn't as hard as you think: no forty-mile backpacking trek or canyoneering skills required.
Thought national park secrets were only for the extreme adrenaline junkies? Think again. We are traveling to all 59 national parks this year, and we have stumbled upon some pretty amazing, crowd-less spots that don't require a whole lot of effort.
1. Murphy Point - Canyonlands National Park
A park that is relatively impenetrable to the typical visitor without special tires or equipment, Canyonland's overlooks are jam-packed with visitors and cameras trying to get a glimpse into the depths. We knew we wanted to avoid a crowd, but also catch an epic sunset, so we did a little research. Turns out, the park issues only one overnight permit per night for Murphy Point, located just a 1.8-mile hike off the main road through the Island in the Sky area. We turned our sunset into a overnighter, set up our tent right next to the cliff, and sipped tea in bed with the best view ever. Without a soul in sight. In the peak season of September. If backpacking (albeit short & easy) is not your thing, it's only another 1.8 miles back to your car after the sun sets.
2. Moro Rock Overlook - Sequoia National Park
Everyone knows about climbing Moro Rock: it was one of the best sweeping views of the Sierra Nevada range that we saw in Sequoia. But the rock itself is also worth photographing. Our hint: after parking in the Moro Rock parking lot, backtrack a bit to the back of the lot where you'll see a very short trail leading up in the opposite direction. After a quarter-mile climb, the trail leads to an amazing overlook of Moro Rock in all its glory. This secret short trail was a great place to relax in solitude before climbing up Moro Rock elbow-to-elbow with other visitors.
3. Storm King Mountain - Olympic National Park
If low-effort is not quite enough for your adventure style, this short but strenuous hike might be more up your alley - and you can do it in one afternoon. While in and around Port Angeles, we kept hearing from locals about hiking up to Storm King Mountain. We didn't catch this same enthusiasm from park rangers, so we assume it's somewhat of a community secret. After a steep 1.75-mile climb, including a few short sections where the provided rope is necessary, a hiker is rewarded with a heck of a view of nearby bluest-of-blues Lake Crescent. Take your time at the top; the scramble down is even tougher on wobbly legs. After returning to the trail, continue with the herd of visitors to beautiful Marymere Falls and reminisce about the top of the mountain where you enjoyed your views all alone.
4. Chokoloskee - Everglades National Park
If your trip to Everglades includes time in Big Cypress National Preserve (which it should!), consider driving a few extra miles out to Chokoloskee, back into Everglades National Park. Much of this area of the park is only accessible by water, but don't let this deter you: stick around for sunset. We snagged a tent spot in the private Chokoloskee RV Park and didn't want to leave. Besides the atypical luxurious showers and full communal kitchen, our two nights' sunsets were (and still are) the best of our year-long trip. Activity slows a bit up here, so turn down your typical national park speed and take in this beautiful section of coast.
5. Johnson & Baker Lake Loop - Great Basin National Park
Remote Nevada park Great Basin is a bit of a secret itself: it ranks among the lowest visitation of parks in the contiguous states. Since its opening in the 1930s, it still hasn't hit as many visitors as Yosemite sees in one year. Lehman Cave, Wheeler Peak, an unbeatable night sky, and the ancient bristlecone trees should be reason enough to visit, and you won't encounter a crowd many places. But if you truly want to be alone, consider the 11-mile loop that takes you past Johnson Lake and Baker Lake in the Great Basin wilderness. This can be a long day hike or split, like we did, into an overnight trip. Hint: between the two, Johnson Lake was an incredible backdrop and the perfect backcountry alpine lake to set up camp. This secret isn't totally low effort, but as far as backcountry lakes go, it was pretty serene.
6. Beaver Marsh - Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Nestled in between Akron and Cleveland, Cuyahoga is an urbanite's heaven. It serves as a quick weekend getaway, or even an after-work place to exercise for hundreds of thousands of nearby residents. It's hard to imagine a lot of wildlife, then, in this skinny, small city park. But that's because you haven't seen Beaver Marsh. Right along the Towpath Trail, the Beaver Marsh boardwalk provides an amazing place to see wildlife like birds, jumping fish, and, of course, beavers. Time your visit for when a volunteer is stationed there and you can learn more about this animal oasis. And you can borrow some binoculars for your viewing convenience. Pro tip: also a great sunset spot.
7. Off-trail hiking - Petrified Forest National Park
As the only national park located right along Route 66, with one road stretching through the park from north to south, and with no available camping in the park, Petrified Forest is the definition of a drive-through park. And this is exactly how most travelers visit: stopping at overlooks, driving through the scenic drives, stopping for a souvenir pin and getting on their merry way. This is not how we roll, so we were determined to find a way to see more. With a quick stop by the visitor center, we found out that what the park calls "backcountry" are not really that. There are about five "backcountry" trails throughout the park that range in length from 1-5 miles. The common thread is that they are more routes than trails, so if you are willing to follow cairns and keep an eye on how to get back to your car, you'll be rewarded with some views and petrified forests you just can't absorb from the overlooks.
8. Secret swimming hole - National Park of American Samoa
Our last secret is the secret of secrets, and to access this spot, you'll have to complete quite the journey. American Samoa is located about 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii and can be accessed by either of the two flights from Honolulu that land on the island per week. Once there, visit the village of Vatia to descend along the short Lower Sauma Ridge Trail, leading to the coast. Once at the end, marvel at what appears to be the perfect swimming hole like we did. If you are brave enough, mind the incoming waves and slide into the lukewarm water hole. In a country like American Samoa, where the climate is hot and humid year-round, it will be an extremely welcomed treat.