While its birthday is not technically until August, the National Park Service (NPS) is predicting this will be another recording-breaking year for people in parks. There was a 4.2 percent bump from 2014 to 2015, from 292.8 million to 305.2 million visitors and, like a geyser at Yellowstone, this year is expected to blow last year’s record sky-high.
With all those folks vying for a vantage point in front of Old Faithful, it can be challenging to feel like your having a special, once-in-a-lifetime experience. With over 150 national park units under my belt, I’ve jotted down some ways to get the most out of your park adventure:
TIP #1. Choose a lesser-known – but no less spectacular – park.
Year after year, the A-list parks garner most of the public’s attention–Yellowstone, Yosemite, Arches and Zion among them. But there are over 400 national parks units, including many stunning understudies.
Explore Canyonlands NP with fewer than half the annual visitors at nearby Arches NP. Its red rock mazes and spires, and canyon-carving rivers and balanced rocks, will not disappoint. Capitol Reef NP, also in Utah, is another seldom-visited geological wonder.
Consider Shenandoah NP, with 1.3 million visitors compared to its neighbor, Great Smoky Mountains NP which annually greets more than 10 million people. While still within striking distance of most mid-Atlantic cities, the park’s 500 miles of trails on nearly 200,000 acres are a welcome slice of seclusion.
Longing to see and explore peaks, glaciers, waterfalls and alpine lakes? Think about North Cascades NP (fewer than 21,000 visitors in 2015 and more than 300 glaciers) as an alternative to the better-known Rocky Mountain, Glacier or Grand Teton national parks which, all totaled, had 9.6 million visitors last year.
Want to see some California parks that aren’t packed? Try Pinnacles NP, the volcanic, cave-studded landscape which is home to falcons, eagles and the phenomenal California condor. Another astounding CA park is Lassen Volcanic NP, which with its steaming fumaroles, snow-capped mountains and wildflower-carpeted meadows makes it a mini-Yellowstone and a mini-Rainier all rolled into one.
True, there’s only one Grand Canyon. But Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP is also truly spectacular, as is Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Similarly, there’s only one Denali NP but Wrangell-St. Elias NP (with 80,000 visitors to over 13 million acres, that’s 164 acres per person!) gives its northern neighbor a run for its money.
What it comes down to is, a little research and imagination may land you that once-in-a-lifetime journey you’ve been hoping for in this most-exciting NPS centennial year.
CHECK BACK SOON FOR TIP #2!
Photo of an oxbow on the Green River, Canyonlands courtesy of Neal Herbert, NPS.