For the 50+ Traveler

What's the best thing about hiking? The feeling of freedom, of uninhibited exploration. The chance to wind up somewhere you've never been before, to see the world through new eyes. And what better place is there to do that than in one of the United States' 58 National Parks?

In that spirit of boldly going, here are 5 secret places in National Parks that every enthusiastic hiker should know about. Maybe you'll even get the chance to explore one or two before the cold weather sets in.

1. Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park

TripAdvisor rating: 4.5/5 (Certificate of Excellence)

Watch out for the rocks -- they're alive.

No, not really, though that may appear to be the case at first glance. The reason they call this removed valley between mountain ranges "the Racetrack" is because of the peculiar markings that trail behind the boulders peppered across the floor of the gorge. Some of these trails are as long as 1,500 feet.

They give a casual observer the distinct impression that the rocks are somehow moving across the dusty ground when nobody is looking. Although no one fully understands the forces that have created this bizarre scene, the evidence suggests it's an unusual confluence of wind and rain. The rocks fall to the floor of the canyon from the surrounding mountains. When it rains ever so slightly, the ground beneath them becomes slick, and powerful winds can move them, thus leaving behind the iconic tails that have mystified visitors to the Racetrack forever.

Whatever the explanation, this is certainly a fascinating place to visit. But it's extremely tough to reach. It's a 3.5 hour drive each way, and you basically need an all-terrain vehicle to make the trek. Plus temperatures are often dangerously high in Death Valley, and there is no cellphone reception this far from civilization.

'Moving rock' with trail behind it, Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park
The unusual moving rocks of Racetrack Playa. Wikimedia Commons

2. Chickee Campsites, Everglades National Park

Florida's Everglades National Park encompasses 1.5 million acres of the most ecologically important wetlands on the planet. It also offers you a one-of-a-kind camping opportunity that gives a whole new meaning to the word "waterbed."

If you visit the marina near the Flamingo ranger checkpoint, you can rent canoes and paddle your way to the chickees -- roofed wooden platforms held aloft over the water on stilts. You can set up your tents on these chickees and pass a lovely evening out in nature.

Plus, the price is right: a camping licence will only run you $2 per person per night on top of your regular park admission.

Winter is the best time to camp out in Everglades National Park, as you might expect. In summer, the humidity is unbearable, and the mosquitos will make a quick meal of you.

A pair of chickees in the Everglades
A pair of chickees in the Everglades. Wikimedia Commons

3. False Kiva, Canyonlands National Park

TripAdvisor rating: 4.5/5 (only three reviews)

The reason there are only three reviews on this one is that it really is a secret. We're talking about an unmarked trail in Utah's Canyonlands National Park, leading to an open-mouthed cave. Just inside the cave, you'll find a small manmade stone circle known as a kiva. Kivas served some religious purpose for the peoples native to the area, although the history of this particular specimen is not well understood.

It's called False Kiva because it seems to be substantially more recent than other sites in the region. Nevertheless, it is historically and archaeologically significant -- which is why its location isn't divulged on official park maps or promotional materials. You either have to know how to follow the unmarked trail, or ask someone who does.

Until very recently, Park Rangers would tell you where to find False Kiva if you asked, but as of August 2018, the cave is off limits. (Vandals went and ruined it for the rest of us by disturbing the site.)

False Kiva in cave, view of surrounding rock formations and plains, Canlonyands Utah
The False Kiva and the view from the cave. Wikimedia Commons

4. Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite National Park

TripAdvisor rating: 4.5/5 (Certificate of Excellence)

After the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park is the most popular natural attraction in the U.S., drawing upwards of 3.8 million people every year. But there's a secret valley in the park that's far less crowded than Yosemite's picturesque rock formations. Part of the reason why it's secret is that it sort of doesn't exist anymore.

Prior to 1923, the Hetch Hetchy Valley was one of the most beautiful in the country. John Muir, the father of the National Parks, compared it to the more famous Yosemite Valley, and it had been inhabited by Native American peoples for centuries.

Unfortunately, in 1923, damming flooded the valley, turning it into a massive hydroelectric reservoir. The flooding undoubtedly destroyed some of the valley's beauty, but what remains was merely altered. The reservoir is awe-inspiring, ringed with hiking trails, fed by streams and waterfalls -- and, above all, quiet!

N.B. -- Swimming is not allowed at Hetch Hetchy.

Hetch Hetchy. Wikimedia Commons

5. Kolob Canyons, Zion National Park

TripAdvisor rating: 4.5/5 (Certificate of Excellence)

These remarkably hikeable canyons are isolated from the rest of Utah's Zion National Park, which perhaps discourages most people from taking the time to visit them separately. So much the better for you, dear adventurer, as you're more likely to have them all to yourself.

The views in the Kolob Canyons will really put your problems in perspectives, with its 2,000-foot cliff walls carved into the Colorado Plateau. Parts of your hike may make you feel like you're underground -- which is why the most famous path is called 'the Subway'.

Be forewarned: this is not the easiest hike in the world. You will need a permit to walk here, and you should check up on road closures if you're planning to visit. A construction project on the road into Kolob began in May 2018 and is not yet complete, though access should be restored some time this fall.

Interested in more outdoor adventures? Check out 5 Beautiful National Parks That Are Never Busy.

Green water runs through gorge of red rock, the Subway, Kolob Canyons
The Subway, Kolob Canyons. Wikimedia Commons

These are just a few of the secrets stowed away in America's National Park system. Get out there and explore before the weather gets too cold. Happy trails!