It’s a new year and as you hang that brand new calendar on the wall a sea of uncluttered boxes is displayed before you. No doubt there is that wedding in August that your cousin has been planning for a year and a half and your annual Labor Day weekend trek to the Grand Tetons with your crew. But, other than that the blank little boxes on your new calendar are screaming for new adventures to be penned (and penciled) in. So…where to next?!
With the recent heightened consciousness of public lands in the forefront of the nation’s mind due to the yearlong battle surrounding the Bears Ears National Monument and its neighboring southwestern predecessor Escalante National Monument, many people will be traveling to national parks and monuments this year. There have also been recent announcements of fee increases at some of the nation’s most popular national parks including Zion, Glacier, Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks as many of these parks break visitation records reaching into the millions.
I’ve heard many of these parks described by longtime annual visitors during their peak season (typically between May and September) as “Disney Land” and “Times Square” among various other terms. Often these conditions are described with somber looks harkening back to a time when these parks were sanctuaries for the adventurer rather than the destination of the selfie-stick wielding, flip-flop wearing, tourist seeking the nearest Wi-Fi signal and power outlet after three hours. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the general public choosing to #optoutside but with the aforesaid conditions the adventurer might find themselves searching for new, less crowded destinations. Therefore, I’ve compiled a list of 8 places in no particular order you may not know exist but are just as cool.
Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Ca. is more or less the Canadian extension of Glacier National Park. It is the lesser visited of the two but not least in views. Best known for its namesake a chain of lakes, including Upper and Middle Waterton lakes surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. There are no commercial facilities other than those in the township of Waterton located within the park. Waterton Lakes boast over 120 miles (200km) of hiking trails ranging from scenic/interpretive walks to strenuous peak summits. The park has opportunities for cycling of all kinds (mountain, road, pleasure) and a plethora of wildlife sighting opportunities. Additionally there are water recreation opportunities such as canoeing which can be combined with camping and hiking for an overnight or multi-day excursion. The views at Cameron Lake are breathtaking. If you are coming from the US you will need to bring your passport, but it’s worth it to bypass the crowds at Glacier NP on the state side.
Love the beauty of soring sandstone cliffs and interesting ecology tucked away in canyons but would rather not deal with the crowds at Zion National Park? Maybe drive an hour west (or 15min from St. George, UT) to Snow Canyon State Park, UT – just as spectacular with similar geologic formations. Located within the 62,000 acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve the park offers opportunities of all kinds for the adventurer. In addition to scores of hiking and camping opportunities Snow Canyon also has some designated equestrian trails for those skilled in all things horse. It’s fabled amongst the locals that if the canyons that make Zion NP did not exist Snow Canyon would be a national park today.
(Courtesy of Instagram User: @jbro_cyclenerd)
The general public heads to Las Vegas, NV with sunny skies, warm weather, and fancy casinos in mind. But it’s little known that 30 minutes outside of Sin City, tucked just out of view from I-15 is Valley of Fire State Park, NV. Another geologic delight consisting of sandstone spires, fins, slots (gambling free, haha), and hoodoos, is a great early spring/late fall destination. There are a number of intriguing trails winding in and out of small desert canyons as well as some scattered petrified wood. There is a campground with access to water. One interesting man-made feature of the park is the red hue of the asphalt with which it is paved.
(Squaretop Mountain in the Windriver Mountain Range reflected in lower Green River Lake, the headwaters of the 750 mile long Green River. Courtesy of Instagram user: @johnlisonbee)
I’ve always found a certain fascination with headwaters of any kind. Often times these places are in the high reaches of a mountain wilderness in the twilight zone between stunted alpine forest and elevation-tundra. Year round glacial-like snow drifts can be found scattered across north-facing ridgelines and only the hardiest of cold loving plants and creatures alike abound. There is a certain element of awe and wonder that overcomes me every time I’m in one of these places. Green River Lakes National Recreation Area, WY is no exception. Down 40 miles of un-paved gravel road from Pinedale, WY (2.5 hours from Jackson, WY) in the Wind River mountains this may be one of the most remote and wild mountain landscapes accessible by car in the lower 48 states. This is the headwaters of the 730 mile Green River which serves as the primary artery to the Colorado River.
Don’t let the remote nature of this destination scare you away – it is well worth the drive if you are prepared! The starting point of several backpacking trails, one of which follows the continental divide, Green River Lakes also is known for excellent trout fishing. Lastly one of the most remarkable features is Lower Green River Lake’s juxtaposition to the striking and majestic Squaretop Mountain which is reflected on the lake’s surface during still portions of the day.
Often when I travel across the Plain States, like many other people, I try to blast through it and pull a 16 hour drive across flattest most homogenous landscapes. But in recent years I’ve found hidden treasures not far off the beaten path perfect for a little bit of camping. One of those is Chadron State Park, NE. Located in the Nebraska National Forest (yes, it really exists!) Chadron State Park may have the most amenities of all the places on this list. While campsites are available amongst the old Ponderosa Pine forest the more popular option is to stay in the cabins which includes access to a swimming pool. There is hiking in the area, as well as equestrian trails. Chadron SP may not be a destination in my book, but it certainly is a way to mix things up and stay somewhere cheap when traversing the continent.
Pop quiz question for the day. Which president on Mt. Rushmore has a national park named after him? Answer: Theodore Roosevelt. Located in North Dakota just off of exits 24, 27, and 32 on I-94 Theodore Roosevelt National Park is amongst the least known national parks. A mixture of badlands, prairie, and native roaming buffalo, this national park actually has a lot to offer despite being more of a see-by-driving national park rather than by hiking/biking/riding. The park has two campgrounds located along the banks of the picturesque Little Missouri River as well as free-by-permit backcountry camping via hike or horseback.
Arizona may have the claim on the biggest canyon in the US, but it probably comes as no surprise that Texas comes in second. Palo Duro Canyon State Park is home of the second largest in the country which is in the Texas Panhandle just outside of Amarillo. Judging by my own experience and about 70% of the google reviews this is virtually one of the most unknown landmarks in the nation, even among native Texans. While not as pronounced in depth many canyons in the west there is a plethora of recreational opportunities. There are a variety of campsites ranging from “glamp” sites with full hookups for those whole like to pack the kitchen sink, to primitive sites of the drive-up, equestrian, and backpacking variety. Hikers who like to geocache will be particularly delighted with the volume of stashed goodies and the equestrian will find 1500 acres of dedicated space at their disposal. Best visited in the spring or fall this best kept secret may be just the weekend vacation spot you’re looking for when all your friends are headed to overcrowded national parks.
(Palo Duro State Park, TX under the recent and rare cold snap of near zero temperatures. Courtesy of instagram user: @chacheezus)
Some of the longest most desolate stretches of interstate in this country are along I-80. This is particularly pronounced in the second between Salt Lake City, UT and Reno, NV. Hundreds of miles of high-desert sagebrush strewn wilderness and vast open skies stretch out before the driver. While it has a level of beauty in its own right the homogeny of the landscape can be a little cumbersome when passing through. To break that up, enter the Ruby Mountain Range in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway. Thirty (30) minutes from the town of Elko, NV this isolated mountain range rises up like an alpine oasis from the desert floor. Impressive, vast and blocky granite ridges jut up above tree line making for some dramatic views. Opportunities abound for backcountry ski touring in the winter, and several 11,000ft+ peaks to summit in the summer. There is a forest service campground along the scenic byway. One interesting and unique feature of the range is that it is the only wild establishment of the Himalayan Snowcock, a patridge-like bird, in North America. They were introduced from the Himalaya’s in the 1960’s because they were considered to be a good game-bird by the Nevada DNR. If you’re lucky you may get to observe one of these birds which lives above tree line most of the year.
While this is hardly an exhaustive list of hidden places hopefully it encourages more discovery and personal exploration of our public lands in 2018!