6 Tips for Finding Solitude in National Parks
The moments I first gazed dizzily into the Grand Canyon, it felt as if the chasm was continually expanding, growing more vast and cavernous by the second. I watched my skin begin to turn warm red-brown; camouflaging as the fields of baking dust. I was at once so powerful and so fragile; at once fully my own and fully a piece of the landscape. I was mesmerized.
Suddenly a drone dove into my view before careening skywards. My attention snapped to the elbows of zealous selfie-takers brushing by, and at least a hundred voices roaring together. Ah, the Grand Canyon: think hikers in precarious wedges, and unmonitored junior highers ignoring the National Park Service’s warning signs. My precious solitude vanished.
I am adamant that everyone has reason to love and respect National Parks. Even after that hot, crowded day, or squeezing myself onto a bench in anticipation of Old Faithful’s next blow, I am confident that there are precious, priceless moments of solitude to be experienced in our beautiful National Parks. The key is knowing how to chase and discover them. These 6 must-do’s will give you that key.
1. Go Far.
At overlooks and nature trails conveniently near a visitor’s center or parking lot, it looks as if entire populations of a few countries plus at least half of the United States’ is at the park with you. At Grand Teton National Park, walking just 100 feet down a path radically thinned out the crowds. While hiking Jenny Lake, my girlfriends and I encountered less than ten people in the miles furthest from trailheads and parking areas. Many visitors drive park roads and venture no further than the quickly accessible “highlights”- so get yourself on a trail!
2. Experiment with Time.
When vacationing, people tend to sleep in and eat a leisurely breakfast before arriving at a trailhead. On my trip to the Grand Canyon, my now-husband and I embarked on the Kaibab Trail at 5:00 a.m. For hours, we were alone to experience the Grand Canyon stirring awake. Our return hike was filled with group after group, but we had found our silent moments the canyon. On the other end of the day, many vacationers enjoy relaxing evenings at camp. In North Cascade National Park, my husband and I set out on a popular trail in the late afternoon. We encountered few day hikers, and relaxed on the trail. Bear in mind that these options require careful, complete preparation. Leaving a light source behind is especially serious in later hours, and early starts typically mandate heavier clothing.
3. Find Dispersed Camping.
In peak season, National Park Service campgrounds are bursting at the seams. To avoid chaos and heavy fees, I suggest doing research on dispersed camping near park boundaries. National Parks are often located in close proximity to a National Forest, where dispersed camping is permitted almost anywhere for free (following LNT principles, of course). Stopping by a ranger station will get you information and maps. Another amazing resource is freecampsites.net, which allows you to search any area for dispersed camping. At Crater Lake National Park, my freecampsites.net spot parked my husband and I in a National Forest conveniently near the park entrance, with only the sounds and scents from our site invading the solitude. Using freecampsites.net is risky, both in campsite quality and the possibility that the spot is taken. I highly recommend it, but with the caveat that reasonable caution be exercised.
4. Pack Your Meals.
A simple way to avoid crowds is to pack a lunch, and even everything you need for dinner. In Olympic National Park, my husband and I took our MSR PocketRocket and favorite Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai for a scenic dinner for two away from crowds. Be sure to pack out your trash!
5. Discover Remote Parks.
The United States has 58 National Parks. A journey to a lesser known park will inevitably reward you with a unique experience. For me, this rang true at Congaree National Park in South Carolina. From a solitary boardwalk above spindly tree roots and shaded swamplands, I caught sight of a white spotted owl, swimming turtles, and even a massive, noisy wild pig. It was a one of a kind experience, and it allowed me to enjoy the natural beauty and history of a fascinating place.
6. Get Creative.
Most parks have one peak season with a few typical activities. Try creating an out of the ordinary trip to see a park in a completely new light, and make the experience your own. While at Crater Lake National Park early in the year, I walked down a road closed to vehicles until peak season. Had I planned my trip even earlier, I could have snowshoed that segment and seen the sapphire lake surrounded by pristine white. Maybe someday I will go back and do just that. Off-season trails at Rocky Mountain National Park allow practice in this art with plenty of resources for off-season wanderers. Play with your plans, and see what ideas come your way!
Whether visiting Yosemite in mid-summer or conceiving an adventure totally yours, savor the solitude you find. Happy exploring!
*Pending Publishing. By Erin Rain Gautier.