Hit the trail and avoid the crowds! NPCA staff selected 11 lesser-known hikes in some of the country’s most popular parks.
1. South Fork Skokomish Trail, Olympic National Park
This trail starts in Olympic National Forest, but it connects to the park’s vast trail network, says Shane Farnor, NPCA’s online advocacy manager. Before reaching the park boundary you’ll encounter “rushing water, lush forest, huge old-growth trees and flowers,” Farnor says. Once inside the park you’ll be among “forested wetlands, marshy meadows and mountain peaks.” For a backpacking adventure, he suggests continuing on to the rugged Six Ridge Trail where you’ll find more mountain peaks, solitude and “pure Olympic wilderness.”
2. Schoodic Head Trail, Acadia National Park
Maine native Nick Lund, who manages NPCA’s landscape conservation program, says that if you want deserted trails, you’re better off avoiding Acadia’s inappropriately named Mount Desert Island. Instead, head for the Schoodic Peninsula in the northeastern part of the park. (The name likely originates from Skut-Auke, which means “place of fire” in the Passamaquoddy language.) There, a short but strenuous hike will take you through forests of spruce, fir and pines to Schoodic Head where, at an altitude of 440 feet, you’ll have commanding views of Frenchman Bay and Cadillac Mountain.
3. Logging Lake Trail, Glacier National Park
“Up on Glacier National Park’s wild western fringe, in the cool shade of ancient pine forests, Logging Lake Trail twists through meadow, mud, bug and bog to a lonely lake ringed by peaks,” says Michael Jamison, the senior program manager for NPCA’s Crown of the Continent initiative. This is not the Glacier most visitors come to see. You won’t come across any glaciers, and you also won’t encounter many fellow hikers, a luxury in this increasingly crowded park. What you’re almost guaranteed to find, Jamison says, are “the tracks of grizzly bears and wolves, a place where you most certainly are not at the top of the food chain – which is, of course, the true measure of wilderness. Walk farther, along the lakeshore, into the shadow of Trapper Peak and Wolf Gun Mountain, to icy headwaters spilling from Vulture Glacier. Now, finally, you’re out in it. But remember those grizzly tracks you saw along the trail, because the only way out is right back the way you came in…”
4. Slough Slog, Everglades National Park
There is no beaten path on this hike. In fact, there is no path at all. Cara Capp, NPCA’s Everglades restoration program manager, recommends a Slough Slog as “the best way to really get into the heart of the wetlands.” On these park ranger-led hikes, expect to walk slowly in knee-high water — especially now that we’re entering the wet season — as you make your way through the “slough” or slow-moving river. You will walk with the fishes through cypress trees and may even cross paths with an alligator or two.
5. Mule Ears Spring Trail, Big Bend National Park
Suzanne Dixon, NPCA’s senior director, regional operations, recommends this 3.8-mile round-trip hike in the southwestern part of Texas’ biggest national park. Throughout the hike, you’ll have views of the Mule Ears, twin peaks made of volcanic rock topping at 3,881 feet. After meandering through arroyos and desert shrubs, you’ll arrive at a small oasis of ferns and cattails with dragonflies and frogs. There is little shade along the path, so plan an early morning or late afternoon hike with plenty of water. Also, don’t miss the mandatory Mule Ears selfie!
6. Golden Canyon Trail, Death Valley National Park
Zabriskie Point is a highlight of Death Valley National Park, and most visitors take in the view of the badland formations after a short stroll from a nearby parking lot. Todd Christopher, NPCA’s senior director of digital and editorial strategy, recommends instead hiking from Badwater Road through Golden Canyon, rocky narrows that lead directly into the colorful badlands. The trailhead may be popular, but after a couple of miles, you’ll easily find solitude among the ancient lake sediments. Time the hike at morning for lower temperatures or at the end of the day for colors enhanced by the setting sun.
7. Trout Lake Trail, Yellowstone National Park
The country’s first national park is almost as known for its summer crowds as it is for its geysers, but the park is also vast and you can still find havens of peace away from Old Faithful. Ben Sander, NPCA’s travel program manager, suggests hiking to Trout Lake in the northeastern part of the park for a “great opportunity to see birds as well as moose and to escape the crowds and get some tranquility.” The lake’s abundant cutthroat and rainbow trout also attract river otters and osprey. Sander says it’s the perfect spot for a picnic lunch.
8. Clear Creek Trail, Grand Canyon National Park
This trail starts just above Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and winds its way through many rock formations. Here, hikers can see one of the great geological mysteries of the world, known as the “Great Unconformity” — distinct layers of rock stacked one on top of the other that are about 1 billion years apart in age, as though almost a quarter of the earth’s history never happened. Parts of the trail originally designed for mules are arduous, but the views are magnificent and bighorn sightings are possible. Clear Creek is a little more than 8 miles from the trailhead, and Cheyava Falls, the park’s tallest when water is flowing, is an additional five miles away. Kevin Dahl, NPCA’s Arizona senior manager, says you can hike the whole thing in one day “if you’re in really good shape,” but could also consider camping along the creek to break it up.
9. Middle Fork Taylor Creek Trail, Zion National Park
In this crowded park, NPCA’s Southwest Senior Regional Director David Nimkin recommends heading to the less-visited Kolob Canyons area in the northwest. There, the trail along the Middle Fork of Taylor Creek will take you through pines and cottonwoods amid towering cliffs of red sandstone. You’ll likely come across various bird species, numerous lizards and possible rattlesnakes. The trail ends at Double Arch Alcove, an opening in the cliff colored by lichens and mineral deposits.
10. Chasm Lake Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park
Visitors to Rocky Mountain are naturally drawn to Longs Peak, the park’s highest mountain, but for a less-crowded view, Nimkin suggests leaving the main trail to the summit and heading toward Chasm Lake. You’ll first pass Columbine Falls, and after scrambling over a few boulders, you’ll reach an alpine lake and enjoy stunning views of Longs Peak to the west and Mount Lady Washington to the north.
11. Gregory Bald, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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It can be a challenge to find solitude in the country’s most popular national park, but Don Barger, NPCA’s Southeast senior regional director, says it can be done on this backcountry hike in the western part of the park. Barger recommends starting on the Twentymile Trail, connecting via the Long Hungry Ridge Trail to the Gregory Bald Trail on the ridgeline, and then over to Gregory Bald before returning on the Wolf Ridge Trail for a memorable loop. Barger camped out three nights (backcountry camping permits are required), but he said hardy backpackers can hike the loop with just one overnight stop. Gregory Bald affords stunning views of nearby mountaintops and valleys, and June is prime time to see the spectacular bloom of flame azaleas there (just expect to share the sight with others if you time your hike during blooming season).
About the author
Nicolas Brulliard Senior Editor
Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as senior editor of National Parks magazine.