The popularity of America’s National Parks continues to grow, even during a pandemic. One of the reasons is the surge of RVing. Controlling more of your vacation, where you stay, who is around you, and of course, your itinerary has spiked as more Americans are renting RVs and looking for wide-open spaces.
So, if you’re itching to get out but want to avoid crowds, you may want to check out some of the lesser-known hidden gems found inside some of America's most popular National Parks and Forests.
1. Cathedral Valley In Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
You will find Capitol Reef National Park in red-rock country in the south-central portion of Utah. It’s considered a hidden gem itself with cliffs, canyons, domes, and rock bridges galore. But, within it is another gem, Cathedral Valley.
Located in the northern part of the park, Cathedral Valley is popular for hiking and night sky photography. The area is extremely rugged and remote, but you should have no problem navigating the roads. That said, vehicles with high clearance are recommended. Utah.com describes the area's remote scenic backcountry as having “amazingly beautiful sandstone monoliths, many resembling cathedrals. Many of the valley's structures have interesting, highly descriptive names: Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Moon, The Walls of Jericho, among others.”
2. Silent Heroes Of The Cold War National Memorial In Humboldt-Toiyable National Forest, Nevada
Yes, this monument should be top secret, but it’s not. Yet, it does pay tribute to thousands of individuals who worked covertly for the United States government during the Cold War. According to the Forest Service’s page on the memorial, “Many of these paid the ultimate price with their very lives, including 14 people on a fatal United States Air Force (USAF) flight that crashed on Charleston Peak in 1955.” That plane was supposed to land at Area 51.
The memorial is located at the site where wreckage of the flight was first found, scattered across the mountain. The memorial is now a part of the Spring Mountains Visitors Gateway campus and is located about 40 miles from downtown Las Vegas.
3. Welch Springs Hospital Ruins, Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri
From the looks of it, one might think there is a ghost story tied to this spot located between Cedargrove and Ackers, Missouri, on the Upper Current River. But, really it’s just a story about location, location, location. According to the National Park Service, an Illinois doctor purchased the Welch Springs property in 1913. He believed the spring water had healing powers and the pollution-free air from a nearby cave could be a health benefit for those suffering from asthma, emphysema, and tuberculosis. In essence, he built a spa. But, sadly, the location was so remote that people with these conditions could not reach it.
When the doctor died in 1940, his family did not want to keep the hospital open, so it just sat and fell into ruin. The ruins remain difficult to reach and are best visited by canoe. Note that wading or swimming in the spring is not advised for two reasons: 1) Metal scraps from the hospital continue to be found in the spring and 2) The spring’s delicate ecosystem can be disrupted by swimming and wading.
4. The Schoodic Peninsula, Acadia National Park, Maine
The Schoodic Peninsula is the only part of Acadia National Park that is located on the mainland. The National Park Service describes the landscape as “boasting granite headlands that bear erosional scars from storm waves and flood tides.”
While Acadia is among the most popular parks in the nation, the southern tip of the peninsula is the least visited portion of the park. The six-mile drive along Schoodic Loop Road is sure to wow you with beautiful glimpses of Cadillac Mountain and Mount Desert Island. The area is also very popular for cyclists due to few people and flat roads. Look for Arey Cove Road to access the peninsula. It will lead to Schoodic Point. RVs are welcome.
5. Needles District, Canyonlands, Utah
Boasting one of the most otherworldly landscapes in the U.S., the reason this area is less traveled is simply distance. To reach the Needles District, you need to travel 60 miles south to reach the southeast corner of the Canyonlands.
“The Needles is named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area,” according to the National Park Service. The area makes for good hiking, both day and overnight, and features spectacular scenery at places called Tower Ruin, Confluence Overlook, Elephant Hill, the Joint Trail, and Chesler Park.
Because of the distance visitors must travel and the ruggedness of the area, it is not recommended for anyone with physical limitations that make walking or hiking a challenge.
6. Pikes Peak Summit House, Pike National Forest, Colorado
Come for the views, stay for the donuts. Pikes Peak is located 14,115 feet above sea level, and is one of the most visited national forests in Colorado. But, make sure you visit the Summit House, which features a restaurant, gift shop, and the aforementioned donuts.
According to Atlas Obscura, because of the height of the peak and the lower air pressure, water boils at a much lower temperature here. This means food must be cooked differently, and apparently, back in 1916, it was decided that fried donuts were uniquely suited to be served up this close to the clouds. “It is also said that the pastries don’t taste the same if they are not eaten there on the summit,” so make sure you consume them on the mountain.
7. Havasupai Falls, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The reason these hidden falls are visited so rarely is no accident. The stunning turquoise-colored waterfalls are guarded by the Havasupai tribe, to whom the land belongs. According to Atlas Obscura, the Havasupai are the only tribe affiliated with the Grand Canyon area that still lives deep within the canyon.
To see the falls, travelers need to acquire a special camping permit, which is only awarded to a small number of applicants. And, if you get one, be ready to pay for the helicopter ride, horse ride, or mule ride to get there. If not, you’re hiking 20 miles round trip, as there is no easy way in.
But once you’re there, oh, the rewards are plentiful. The falls are 100 feet high, and visitors are welcome to attempt cliff dives. All told, there are four more waterfalls nearby, each as beautiful as the next.
For more national park inspiration:
- The Top Five National Parks You Must Visit, According To RVers
- Three National Parks Set Records For Visitors In October
- Consider investing in a National Parks Season Pass before you hit the road.