Spend time off the beaten path — literally. These 9 national park sites offer slower, quieter, human-paced alternatives to automobile-powered excursions.
1. Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina
If you love the beach but hate the crowds, Cape Lookout might be the spot for you. Take a ferry to one of these three barrier islands and enjoy the sun and surf in a rustic setting with few buildings, few visitor services and very few people. Take in the view from the top of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, watch wild horses roam Shackleford Banks, spend the night in a primitive cabin at Long Point or Great Island, explore historic villages and stations for the U.S. Life-Saving Service (a precursor to the Coast Guard), or just enjoy the unspoiled beauty in solitude. Just be sure to bring all the water, food and supplies you will need with you — and carry out all of your trash.
2. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin
This remote park offers 21 undeveloped islands to explore, with zero roads among them. Take a boat tour to see the remarkable geology of the park’s glaciated sandstone, including its famous sea caves; experienced paddlers can bring or rent a sea kayak to explore Lake Superior on their own. Backcountry camping enthusiasts can pick from campsites on 18 of the park’s islands, and hikers can explore trails to lighthouses, beaches, overlooks, abandoned quarries and old farm sites.
3. Oregon Caves National Monument, Oregon
Cave systems are a world unto themselves: labyrinths of dark passageways with distinctive rock formations that can only be discovered on foot. Oregon Caves is unusual in that its limestone walls changed through years of heat and pressure into smooth, white marble; the site is commonly called the “marble halls of Oregon.” Short but fairly strenuous tours showcase the cave’s uncommon geology. Longer tours give even more adventurous cavers a taste of what it was like for early explorers to navigate tight underground spaces — a feat that was not for the faint of heart! Note that this cave and other caves in the park system are operating on reduced tour schedules due to the pandemic, and the 2021 season is currently closed at Oregon Caves. Be sure to think ahead and check the park website before making travel plans.
4. Channel Islands National Park, California
Accessible only by boat or seaplane, these five islands are home to a rich biodiversity of plants and animals and an oasis of calm in the Southern California landscape. Sometimes called the “Galapagos of North America,” the Channel Islands serve as critical habitat for a variety of vulnerable and recovering animals, large breeding colonies of birds, and a surprising array of marine wildlife, including sea lions, dolphins, whales and sea stars. The park is also an idyllic spot for snorkeling and scuba diving, or just lying about on the quiet, undeveloped beaches.
5. Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, Minnesota
Experience one of the most fabled rivers in the country by bicycling alongside it for 72 miles through a changing landscape via the Mississippi River Trail. This bicycle and pedestrian path actually follows 3,000 miles of the river through 10 states via interconnected roads, streets, levees and pathways. The National Park Service offers a guide for navigating the trail within the national recreation area to see its mix of rural, urban and suburban scenery, from the countryside of northern Minnesota to the cityscape of downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul to the oak forests and prairies south of the Twin Cities.
6. Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Make no mistake — some kind of vehicle is required to get to this remote area of Utah in the Four Corners region of the Colorado Plateau. Once you arrive, however, you have two options for exploring the park’s three remarkable natural bridges and its Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. The vast majority of visitors drive the park’s paved road and experience the views from above the canyon. For an extra special experience, you can hike the entire 8.6-mile loop trail and see it all up close, enjoying the scenery and seclusion of the canyon floor, complete with full-grown trees for shade. Just bring plenty of water and check conditions with a park ranger before you hike to avoid flash flooding.
7. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
This urban park has a little bit of everything, including forests, wetlands, farms and waterfalls. You can see a cross-section of this diverse scenery by biking through the heart of it on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. This popular path follows the former canal route that opened Ohio to trade in the 1800s and where mules once used the trail to pull canal boats through the water; the remnants of locks still line the trail. Visitors can even ride one way on the path and make a return trip on the park’s historic railroad, which offers nine boarding stations along the trail and special discounts for cyclists.
8. Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, Massachusetts
Thirty-four islands and peninsulas surround this historic capital city, with a variety of outdoor adventures a short ferry ride away. Managed through a public-private partnership, these islands offer hiking, kayaking, rustic camping, historic lighthouses, a Civil War fort and views of the Boston skyline. Georges and Spectacle Islands feature visitor centers and services with ranger-led educational programs in season (generally May to October). Other islands such as Bumpkin, Grape and Peddocks offer a more rustic experience for the backcountry enthusiast. Be sure to check ferry schedules to account for any pandemic-related service reductions; note that campsites are closed as of June 2021 due to a lack of restroom facilities.
9. Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia
Take a ferry to this 18-mile-long barrier island to experience its forests, marshes and undeveloped beaches. The park features historic African American communities, Native American shell mounds and mansions from a time when wealthy industrialists vacationed here. The seashore’s extensive wilderness provides habitat for a variety of animals, including nesting sea turtles; visitors can also enjoy excellent bird-watching year-round. Note that some tours and educational programs remain suspended due to the pandemic; be sure to check the park website for current conditions before you go.
This is an updated version of a previously published story.
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- Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
- Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
- Cape Lookout National Seashore
- Channel Islands National Park
- Cumberland Island National Seashore
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park
- Mississippi National River & Recreation Area
- Natural Bridges National Monument
- Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve