It can sometimes be overwhelming to plan a national park visit—with so much to see and do throughout the sprawling scenic wilderness; intrepid travelers may have a hard time deciding on what path (or paths) to follow. And the siren song of signature park attractions can’t be denied; after all, who doesn’t want to catch a glimpse of iconic spots like Old Faithful? Or watch a sunrise from the Haleakala volcano rim?
And while these popular, well-known tourist destinations certainly have their rewards, there are often a number of hidden spots scattered throughout America’s national parks—places that, for whatever reason, are the road less traveled. Whether it’s because they are off-the-beaten-track, because they are difficult to access, or simply because they are overlooked by more popular destinations, these spots often remain hidden. However, for those in the know (and with a sense of adventure), they are definitely worth a look to discover some of the best of America’s national parks and their untapped beauty.
The Colorful Cathedral Valley
The hard-to-access, incredibly rugged Cathedral Valley district of Capitol Reef National Park is sometimes overlooked because of its sheer remoteness and often unreliable road conditions. However, the rough road is definitely worth it to scope out some of the park’s most majestic and dramatic scenery. Home to incredibly shaped, Jurassic-era rock formations that are awash in varying desert hues that ride out of the desert like unearthly fangs, the Cathedral Valley may be the road less traveled—but it's definitely worth the effort.
- Location: Capitol Reef National Park, 52 West Headquarters Drive, Utah
- How To Access: The Cathedral Valley Driving Loop Tour (57.6 miles, approximately six to eight hours)
- Things To Do: Camping (two free primitive campgrounds are available); Hiking Trails; Scenic Overlooks
- Need To Know: Cathedral Valley is only accessible via an almost 60-mile-long dirt road that is susceptible to varying road conditions, especially after summer rains or winter snow. The road should not be attempted without a high-clearance vehicle, and visitors should check current road and weather conditions before attempting the trek. Because cell phone reception is extremely poor to nonexistent, travelers should pack plenty of supplies, including water, food, gas, a shovel, appropriate clothing, and an emergency kit. Travelers should also be prepared for sudden changes in temperature and/or unexpected storms.
Hawaii’s Sliding Sands Trail
One of the star attractions of Hawaii’s Haleakala National Park is undoubtedly its namesake volcano, where visitors flock in droves to marvel at its majesty—most notably during sunrises, which require a reservation to view. However, after the spectacular sunrise, most visitors simply move on to explore the park’s other wonders, perhaps abandoning one of Haleakala’s most spectacular hidden gems: the Sliding Sands Trail. Descending into the heart of Haleakala’s crater, visitors can truly experience the beauty of their surroundings—including formations left behind by past volcanoes scattered throughout the almost alien landscape.
- Location: Haleakala National Park, State Highway 378, Kula, Hawaii
- How To Access: The trail begins at the bulletin board by the entrance to the Haleakala Visitor Center parking lot.
- Things To Do: Camping inside the crater; shorten the trek, and explore other area hikes like the Pā Ka’oao Trail
- Need To Know: The Sliding Sands trail is extremely strenuous and departs from near the summit of the Haleakala crater (just over 10,000 feet elevation). The total descent down Sliding Sands is approximately 2,400 feet over four miles, and the total crater loop is about 13 total miles. After exploring, visitors must then ascend the rim, experiencing yet another dramatic elevation change. Hikers should prepare accordingly for the trek and carry plenty of water, food, adequate clothing (the temps can get very chilly); sunscreen; a hiking pole, and be sure to outfit themselves with proper footwear/hiking necessities. Hikers must stay on marked trails at all times.
The Stunning Schoodic Peninsula
Maine’s Acadia National Park is an Atlantic Coast gem full of rugged beauty, rocky coastline, and miles (and miles) of breathtaking beauty to explore. But, as one of the most visited parks in the U.S., it can also get extremely crowded with would-be adventurers. One way to beat the crowds is to take the road less traveled and head to the Schoodic Peninsula. With much of the same spectacular rocky scenery in the park’s busier areas, the peninsula is an equally beautiful—yet significantly less trafficked—alternative to many of the park’s more popular trails. A diamond in the rugged rough of Acadia, the Schoodic Peninsula is the perfect place to bask in the tranquility and stunning scenery of this famed coastline park; and offers visitors a unique perspective from its mainland location.
- Location: Acadia National Park, 25 Visitor Center Road Hulls Cove Visitor Center Bar Harbor, Maine
- How To Access: The Schoodic Peninsula is about an hour's drive from the Hulls Cove Visitor Center on Mount Desert Island, about two-and-a-half miles from the Frazer Point Picnic Area. Visitors can access it via the Schoodic Loop Road either by car, bike or on foot.
- Things To Do: Explore the 8.3-miles of bike paths; Take Arey Cove Road to Schoodic Point for views of Mount Desert Island; Camp at the Schoodic Woods Campground; Hike the Schoodic Peninsula Trails
- Need To Know: The trail to the top of Schoodic Head is an unmarked trail, so visitors must be alert after departing Frazer Point Picnic Area; additionally, the road is gravel and very narrow, so drivers should exercise caution. Drivers should always use vehicle turnouts when stopping to admire the scenery.
these off-the-beaten-track spots are located in some of America’s most popular national parks; they remain largely hidden gems due to their far-flung locations. However, visitors with a taste for adventure will enjoy the challenge of exploring these secret sites far from the crowds that may take a little extra effort to access—but the journey is truly the destination, and is definitely worth it to uncover some of the best national park nooks in America.Though