This summer, the country’s popular national parks are requiring reservations. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since managing visitor numbers is not just safer, health-wise, and it also relieves stress on the wildlife and natural ecosystems those many visitors are there to admire.
But rather than scrambling to make reservations (we’ll tell you how to below, just in case), we think this is the summer to get creative and look beyond the big-name parks. Often just a short drive from a packed national preserve, you’ll find a natural area with all the jaw-dropping glory of the top visit-getters but hardly any of the crowds. So read on to see what national parks will require reservations this summer and where to go instead.
1. Instead of Acadia, visit New River Gorge
Maine’s Acadia National Park boasts forested mountains overlooking a rocky, isle-dotted coastline. Those who summit Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain before dawn are the first in the country to see the sun crest the watery horizon. But as the only national park in the Northeast, and a relatively small park at that, Acadia gets too packed in summer for its own good.
From late May to October this year, visitors will have to reserve to visit the park by day, and they’ll need separate reservations for that sunrise visit to Cadillac Mountain. We recommend East Coasters drive south, not north, for their nature fix — and visit the newest national park in the country.
New River Gorge finally got upgraded to national park status in December. The New River is so spectacular — long attracting white-water enthusiasts with 69 miles of white-water — that it already had National River status. But the watercourse’s name is a paradox, given that the New River is older than the Appalachians themselves. And over eons, it has etched the terrain to create a stunning gorge. The sandstone walls are as high as 1,500 feet, offering some of the best rock climbing in the country with more than 1600 climbing routes.
If you’d been hoping for some hiking in Acadia, New River Gorge has more than enough to satisfy on its 70,000 acres. If views are what you’re seeking, you’ll find them aplenty — whether on the short-but-stunning Bridge Trail amble or longer hikes through the Glade Creek Area.
2. Instead of Yosemite, visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon
As it did last year, Yosemite has instituted a summer reservation system for visiting, something that the wildly popular park had been considering even before the pandemic. And while Yosemite’s popularity is justified, we recommend visiting that park in winter months, when snow graces the valley and you can even ski at Yosemite’s own Badger Pass.
This summer, venture to Sequoia and Kings Canyon: two national parks that are managed as one entity that stands up to the majesty of Yosemite with a regal beauty of their own. Besides being the oldest national park in California, predating Yosemite itself by six days, Sequoia is home to the largest tree on Earth. The General Sherman tree has the largest mass of any living organism, reaching 275 feet high with a base circumference of 102 feet. Its lowest branches, each as large as a street tree, are more than 130 feet off the ground.
Together Sequoia and Kings Canyon cover an astonishing 1,350 square miles, spanning 13,000 feet in elevation from the lowest to the highest points. The diversity of habitats, and the plants and animals that inhabit them, are remarkable. And these parks have more of the highest peaks of the Sierra Madre range than Yosemite, including 14,505-foot-high Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states.
As to Yosemite’s famed granite features, the glaciers that carved up Yosemite made their way through these parks too. From Zumwalt Meadows in Kings Canyon, you can look up to the Grand Sentinel, a slab of rock that rises 3,000 feet above the valley floor, roughly the same distance as Yosemite’s El Capitan. In Sequoia Canyon, Moro Rock is a granite bulge jutting out from the mountainside. A hike over a dizzying staircase carved into the rock by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1931 rewards with a stunning panorama over the valley with the snowy Sierras in the distance.
3. Instead of Glacier, visit North Cascades
Montana’s Glacier National Park stuns visitors with its jagged peaks, alpine lakes, evergreen forests, and of course, glaciers. But the park will be implementing a reservation system for this coming summer for the Going to the Sun road; you can start reserving those tickets on April 29 on recreation.gov.
While Going to the Sun road gets pretty packed, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the park beyond that popular thoroughfare. If you are camping or going backcountry at Glacier, you won’t even need to make a reservation.
But here’s a news flash: the national park with the most glaciers in the continental US is not Glacier. It’s actually North Cascades National Park in Washington state, and it’s got over 300 of them. You can hike right up to ones like the Sahale Glacier, but it’s seven miles one-way and a nearly 4,000-foot elevation gain. From the same trailhead, you could hike the gentler 3.7-mile Cascades Pass Trail up to admire the mountains capped with glistening glaciers.
The North Cascades also offer up verdant forests and mountain lakes of their own — over 500 lakes and ponds. The list of mammals who make this area home is long, including grizzlies and black bears; gray wolves, wolverines, cougars and lynx; elk, moose, deer; and otters by the rivers and tiny picas in the higher elevations. And you can reach this park within just three hours from Seattle.
4. Instead of Rocky Mountain, go to Great Sand Dunes
On May 1 of this year, you can start booking your reservations to visit Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park between late May and early October. Visitors come to this park for many things, including the superlatives: it’s the highest park in the US, and its Trail Ridge Road is the nation’s highest continual highway, for starters. And while our Rocky Mountain guide will give you plenty of tips for people-free enjoyment, it’s worth pointing out that Colorado is packed with natural areas worth visiting.
This year, we recommend exploring a different Colorado national park, one that has some unusual superlatives of its own. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to the largest dunes in North America, the tallest of which measures 750-feet tall and which cover an area measuring thirty square miles.
At Great Sand Dunes, you can still appreciate the state’s higher elevation landscapes since the park’s alpine tundra extends to over 13,000 feet and is home to five lakes and several other smaller bodies of water. In addition to forests with Rocky Mountain junipers, bristlecone pines, and pinyon trees at higher elevations, you’ll also find prairie grasslands here with yuccas, prickly pear cactuses, and other unique flora adapted to the high and dry environment.
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