Every national park has its must-see areas. For Yosemite, it’s Yosemite Valley and Half Dome. For Yellowstone, it’s Old Faithful.
But if you’ve “been there and done that,” what else can you add to the trip to get a broader park experience? (Or at least claim bragging rights over others who’ve made a whirlwind tour but haven’t explored in depth.)
I compiled a list of the most popular national parks based on visitation. I limited it to NPS areas that have the “National Park” title. There are busier NPS areas that have been excluded because of this distinction, such as parkways, and recreation areas near urban areas. (Sorry, Blue Ridge Parkway, I still love you.)
I’m a retired park ranger, and, fortunately, work has taken me to many of the most popular national parks. For this list, if I haven’t been there myself and needed a recommendation, I called co-workers who lived and worked in the park in question — including a couple of superintendents.
Also, I tried to pick lesser-known areas that don’t require an exceptional effort to access.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
On the must-see list of America’s most visited national park, is the winding Cades Cove loop drive. It’s a magnificently serene green valley dotted with historic structures from the early 1800s — the heart and soul of the Smokies. The observation tower at Clingman’s Dome also has to be on the must-see list.
But once you’ve been there and done that, to broaden your visit, consider a trip to Cosby.
The Cosby area has everything you’d expect from a park experience, with fewer people. There’s a campground, a picnic area, and a choice of hiking trails from easy — to really, really strenuous.
My other alternative may not be for everyone, but if you’re a boater, it’s for you: Fontana Lake. Rent a boat or bring your own. There’s fishing, water play, of course, or just use the lake to access remote areas of the park.
A lot of people will visit the Smokies, but not a lot of them will do it by boat.
2. Yellowstone National Park
So you’ve seen Old Faithful, walked the boardwalks through thermal features, driven both rims of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. What next?
Let’s try a lake. Not the popular Yellowstone Lake, or even Shoshone Lake, which is somewhat off the beaten path.
My ultimate recommendation for a lesser-known area is to take the hike to Trout Lake.
To get there, you need to head to the lesser-traveled northeast area of the park.
The Trout Lake trail is a 1.2-mile lollipop loop, with a climb of only 150 feet through patches of Douglas fir and meadows. It should take you about 1 or 2 hours. Most of the climb is at the beginning, so don’t let it discourage you. This isn’t a sidewalk-like trail; there are lots of rocks and roots, so watch your step.
The water is crystal clear, and wildlife, including otters, is abundant. It’s a great hike for a sunny day.
It’s Yellowstone. There could be bears. So follow park guidance for hiking in bear country. You may see some other people if you’re on the trail midday, but if you’re early, the lake just might be all yours.
It’s a gorgeous, little-visited lake with easy access in a lesser-visited area of the park.
Yes, there are lots and lots of places you can go to get further away from it all, but most of them will require more effort. Trout Lake makes solitude in Yellowstone achievable without the need for a backpack.
3. Zion National Park
If you go to Zion, Zion Canyon is the place to see. There are some trademark hikes: Angels Landing and The Narrows. But if you’re looking for a Zion experience that most others won’t have, make a trip to the Kolob Canyons section of the park off Interstate 15.
In Kolob Canyons, the Taylor Creek trail is one of the simplest and less traveled trails in the park. It’s in a valley with trees, so there’s shade in summer. It’s in the lowest area of the park, so it’s good hiking in most of winter. You hike up the trail next to and crossing the small creek. You turn around and hike back down, so you’re not going to get lost. What is required is good footwear and the ability to step on rocks to cross the shallow creek. I took our four-year-old on this trail several times.
A highlight of the hike is the Larson Cabin built in 1930 and later the subject of a homestead dispute with the new national park. It looks quite disheveled, but believe it or not, it has had a bit of restoration work done by the park service.
It’s 5 miles round trip, so figure 4-5 hours.
4. Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon Village on the bustling South Rim is the place most visitors go to get their Grand Canyon ticket punched. There are visitor centers, museums, lodges, gift shops, and (I almost forgot) spectacular views of the canyon itself. South Rim visitors wanting to see a bit more will traditionally make the drive to Desert View, but that’s not lesser-known enough.
Neither is the North Rim. It’s at a higher elevation so it’s cooler (but closed in winter), and because it’s a bit more remote, it’s also less crowded. But that’s too easy a pick.
If you’re really out to do the unconventional, take a trip on the West Rim drive, aka, Hermit Road. First, there are no private vehicles allowed, and that’s why it makes the list. If you brought your bike, this is the place to enjoy it. No bike? No problem. There’s a free shuttle bus. Along the drive, you can stop at a number of vistas and viewpoints. The end of the line is Hermit’s Rest, with restrooms, snack bar, and a gift shop.
Pro Tip: To make your trip about as exclusive as it gets. Take a trip back in time. Reserve the Hull Cabin, a mile outside the park in a stand of ponderosa pines in the Kaibab National Forest.
The Hull Cabin was built in 1889. It’s the oldest surviving cabin on the South Rim, a former sheep ranch, and former ranger station. It’s primitive, so read about the very limited amenities before you book.
The cabin only sleeps up to six, is only available by reservation on recreation.gov, and only available in summer, and usually only on weekends. All these “onlys” mean that relatively few people on this planet will ever experience a night in the Hull Cabin.
5. Olympic National Park
Must-see areas of Olympic include incredible views from Hurricane Ridge, the deep, dark, verdant Hoh rainforest, and pristine Lake Crescent.
But where can you go to set your trip apart? Lake Ozette. It’s on the north end of the coastal strip of the park, a portion of the park that is itself set apart from the large blob you’ll see on the map. Most visitors won’t make it to the coast, but most of those that do will visit Rialto Beach and Mora. When you tell the ranger at Hurricane Ridge that you just came from Lake Ozette, he or she will know you’re serious about your Olympic visit.
There’s hiking around the lake, there’s hiking on the beach, there’s canoeing — but only if you’re experienced.
This is a fairly remote corner of the park in a place known for cool weather and storms, so you need to read the park’s safety messages, including food storage requirements for camping, cold water warnings for kayaking, and tide warnings for beach hiking. COVID has closed some trails in and around the Ozette Indian Reservation (subject to change, so check before you go and always respect closures.
6. Yosemite National Park
To repeat myself, Yosemite Valley is the primary destination of visitors to the park. The Tioga Pass road is less visited, and I’d recommend it if you’ve never seen Yosemite’s high country.
However, if you really want to do something that most Yosemite visitors will never do, visit Badger Pass in winter, and either take a snowshoe hike or go skiing.
Yes, there’s a ski area in Yosemite: Badger Pass.
Badger Pass was promoted as a site for the 1932 winter Olympics (it lost out to Lake Placid, NY) and offers downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snow tubing, snowshoeing, and equipment rentals for those in need. If you’re not into winter driving, bus transportation is available from Yosemite Valley.
If you’re not experienced in snowshoe travel, that’s fine. Only go as far as you want, turn around, and take the early bus back. If you’re in excellent aerobic shape and have cross-country skied or snowshoed before, then make the 7-mile round trip to Dewey Point for an overview of Yosemite Valley. If that’s not you, just go a quarter-mile and turn back, sit in the lodge, enjoy some cocoa, and savor a Yosemite experience that few others will know.
Check out these other ranger insider tips about our national parks: