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Your National Forests: Secluded Retreats Outside of the National Parks

National Forests
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Let me start by saying that I love, love, love the national parks. They are breathtakingly beautiful and chock-full of opportunities to get outdoors in some of the most dramatic settings on earth. What I don’t love are the traffic jams, the crowds, and the general chaos that often goes along with a national park visit. Sure there are ways to bypass these issues, but sometimes you just have to hit up the Grand Canyon during the school vacation season. I’m not exactly going to advocate for skipping a visit to these national treasures, but I do want to suggest some alternatives for those days when you just need a break from the throngs of people and cars waiting in long lines to catch a glimpse of a lonely moose meandering across a field.

Please, dear reader, follow this advice if you can, and explore your national parks with every bit of your heart and soul. BUT, when the going gets rough and the crowds are just too much, here’s your alternative — awesome mountains, forests, canyons, campgrounds, vistas, and wildlife that are every bit as amazing as the national parks that we know and love.

Instead of Yosemite, Check out the Sierra National Forest

Just south of Yosemite is a vast wilderness covering approximately 1.3 million acres between 900 and 13,986 feet in elevation. This slice of heaven is characterized by the alpine landscape of the High Sierras – meadows blazing with wildflowers, breathtaking scenic vistas, and cold, clear rivers, streams, and lakes. There are over a thousand miles of trails, groves of giant sequoias to explore, and even an abundance of secluded hot springs. Ready to delve into this treasure? Grab a camera, and follow me.

How to get there: If you’re daytripping or weekending from Yosemite, leave by the south gate on highway 41 and make your way south and east through the mountains.

Highlights

Scenic Vista Byway – This 100 – mile drive meanders through some of the most scenic landscapes in California. The whole route takes about five hours to complete, and there are plenty of stops along the way for hiking, picnicking, and camping. The small and secluded Sweetwater Campground is a favorite — surrounded by running water that is as refreshing as it is beautiful. Be sure to stop at the Mile High Overlook for a dizzying view of the surrounding mountains. To plan your journey on the Scenic Vista Byway, check out the map.

Avoid the National Park Crowds with These Nearby Hidden Gems

High Sierra Pond by au_ears on Flickr.

Mono Hot Springs – Mono Hot Springs is not exactly getting away from it all, but you will find awesome primitive camping, a full-service resort, incredible hiking opportunities, and yes, hot springs. There’s a nice mix of developed and rustic pools. Some are super hot, others are just warm. Be prepared for some nudity or just get naked and embrace this awesome experience.

Nelder Grove – This sweet grove of giant sequoias sees very little traffic during the week. There are 1006 giant sequoias, a primitive campground, and an interpretive trail that meanders along a creek and through the forest. It’s majestic and serene and the towering giants make you feel incredibly tiny and insignificant.

Instead of Yellowstone, visit Shoshone National Forest

This spectacular wilderness was set aside in 1891 as the country’s first national forest. Just east of Yellowstone, you’ll find 2.4 million acres of snow-capped peaks, sagebrush flats, sprawling meadows, and expansive forests.

How to get there: Leave Yellowstone by the north east gate and head east on route 212. Take route 296 toward the town of Cody.

Highlights

Chief Joseph Highway – Route 296 is the Chief Joseph Highway. It follows the route of the Nez Perce Indians and Chief Joseph as they fled from the US Cavalry in 1877. The 46-mile route is spectacular (keep your eyes on the road). Head through at sunset and be sure to make use of the pull-offs, specifically Dead Indian Summit, so you can drink your fill of this beautiful world we live in. You’ll find patches of snow up here, even in the summer. Nothing beats a little snowball action in June to make you feel young again!

Avoid the National Park Crowds with these Nearby Hidden Gems

View west from Dead Indian Summit by Nicholas Ng on Flickr

Cody – Named after “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the town of Cody embraces the wild west in a big way. You’ll find modern (if a bit touristy) dining and shopping opportunities, a myriad of nightlife venues, and several museums documenting everything from the life of Buffalo Bill Cody, wildlife, guns, and World War II, to art and murals of the western landscape. Western-themed lodges, ranches, cabins, and motels are plentiful in Cody, just be sure to reserve ahead of time in the summer.

Camping: If you’re looking to pitch your tent outside of Yellowstone for a night, a weekend, or even a week, Shoshone National Forest has you covered. Dead Indian Campground on route 296 is tiny and doesn’t see much use. The nearby trailhead will take you all the way up to Dead Indian Summit if you’re up for the challenge. Beartooth Lake Campground on route 212 is a bit busier in the summer, perhaps because of its proximity to several beautiful mountain lakes and the incredible Beartooth Pass (10,947 feet).

Instead of Smoky Mountains National Park, visit Nantahala National Forest

Cherokee for “land of the noonday sun,” Nantahala National Forest encompasses 531,158 acres in western North Carolina, just south of Smoky Mountain National Park. The park itself sees more than 6 million visitors each year, and yes, the surrounding national forest does get some of that overflow. The incredible Blue Ridge Parkway winds through Nantahala National Forest. It’s an amazing drive, especially in the fall, but like the nearby national park, it’s characterized by amazing scenery and traffic jams during the busy season. You can have the same taste of awe-inspiring wilderness without the crowds simply by sticking to the far western corner of the national park and the national forest. Here’s the scoop.

How to Get There: From the western edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, head south on route 129. When the road splits in Topton, travel west to the town of Murphy, then east on route 64. This is a beautiful drive through the mountains without the throngs of people. You can thank me later.

Highlights

Santeetlah Lake  – With a full-time population of just 67 as of the 2010 census, Santeetlah  Lake offers plenty of opportunities for solitude, reflection, and recreation. The 2,800-acre lake is an oasis for water babies, anglers, paddlers, and floaters. Highlights of this paradise include the Cheoah Point Campground, with campsites overlooking the massive lake, and the Wauchecha Bald Trail, which offers up breathtaking scenic vistas and connects you to the world-famous Appalachian Trail. The trail is rated as strenuous, and the path is shared by hikers and mountain bikers.

Avoid the National Park Crowds with these Nearby Hidden Gems

Lake Santeelah HDR by Manish Vohra on Flickr

Standing Indian Mountain and Campground – According to Cherokee mythology, Standing Indian Mountain is the remains of a warrior who turned to stone because he failed to remain at his post. In the Cherokee language, it is called Yunwitsule-nunyi, which means “where the man stood.” At 5,499 feet, the summit of Standing Indian Mountain offers a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape. The trail to the summit is part of the Appalachian Trail System. During April and May the trail, shelters, and campgrounds become populated with northbound thru-hikers. A minor inconvenience for those seeking solitude, but thru-hikers are generally an amazing bunch of folks, and we’ve always found it a pleasure to spend time with them when we can. Standing Indian Campground is located on the headwaters of Nantahala River. It’s an awesome spot for casting a line or cooling off on a sweltering summer day.

Gorges State Park – This spectacular and underutilized park is located on the North Carolina-South Carolina border. It is characterized by plunging waterfalls, gorges that cut deep into the earth’s crust, sheer rock walls, and rare wildlife. Primitive camping is available, along with rugged (definitely not casual) hiking. Horses and mountain bikes are permitted on certain trails. Bring your camera for this one, folks — you just never know what secrets you’ll uncover here.

I think I’ve rambled on long enough for one post. I have many, many more parks and highlights to discuss, but I’ll save them for another day. We are planning to head back to some of these areas this summer, so I’d love to hear your own recommendations for connecting with the natural world while avoiding the crowds.

If you found this post helpful, please share it with others on Pinterest or your favorite social media. I’d really appreciate it!

These incredible national forests can be found right outside the boundaries of the most popular national parks.

25 Comments

  1. Alisha

    GREAT places that you have posted in lieu of national parks! I do not like big crowds at all so these places sound like gems.

    • I feel the same, Alisha. I am always torn between wanting everyone to experience the national parks because they’re so awesome, and then wanting to get away from all those people. Now, we spend a few days in the nps and then a few days recharging in the national forests.

  2. Great job and wonderful pic…I have been to Yellow Stone Park with my parents and their RV….Seen old Faithful so much more but not as much as you and your family have seen. Would love to go back but because of no $$ coming in and not married it is hard to do stuff like that. So it is great to see what you have been doing.

    Do read your blogs in here but not always post comments as my computer isn’t working to well.

    • Thanks for your comment, Christine. It’s hard for us to find the money to travel as well. We always do everything on the cheap, which means we can see more, we just have to eat lots of peanut butter and jelly and sleep in tents. 🙂 I travel alone quite a bit too, but it’s much more fun with my family…

  3. I will be saving this treasure trove of information, aka, this post, for our future trips to the USA. Avoiding traffic is always high on priority when we visit, so your tips will come in handy. Thank you Tara.

    • Thank you so much, Arti. It’s great to see you here. If you are ever in the little state of Vermont, please look me up. I’ll show you the sites and take you hiking!

  4. Great tips! I love national parks.

  5. These are absolutely stunning. I am not a fan of crowds so this would work great for me

  6. Saving this for later! My husband and I want to camp for a week before he has his first deployment!

  7. A great post – I used to live in the Central Valley and would often head to Sequoia National Park as well as Kings Canyon – it’s so peaceful and a great trip away from the city.

    When in LA, I highly recommend hiking through Angeles National Forest, the section in Azusa – lovely little area that makes you forget you’re in the sprawling metropolis!

    • Thanks so much for the tip, Christabel. My goal is to explore more of our national forests this year.

  8. I used this to update my personal Google Map where I track everything from National Parks to free campgrounds. I am always looking for the Road Less Traveled.

    Thanks for sharing!!

  9. Amazing!! My sister is heading off on a road trip later this month so I’ve forwarded this to her. I loveeeee that pond! Stunning 🙂
    Laura @ Grassroots Nomad recently posted…Visas for Russia and China: Booking the Trans-SiberianMy Profile

  10. Those are some great tips. I went to Yosemite once in the summer and it was like a snake of traffic moving its way through the park. Luckily we found a spot to get away from the crowds, but I would only return during the off-peak times now or check out the suggestions that you made.

    • Maria,
      I can’t wait to go back to Yosemite in the off season. It’s such a beautiful place!

  11. Such great suggestions! The long lines for a moose glimpse are indeed avoidable with planning like yours!

  12. So much nature, I’ve fallen in love! haha. The National Parks are a must for me and I really want to see them. But it’s nice to know that there are quieter options for beautiful nature in the surrounding area as well, for when this introvert gets surrounded by too many people haha. Great post! 🙂

  13. This is great! I absolutely hate crowds and there’s nothing worse than a crowded hike! The more I look at these posts, the more I think I need to get a car so I can visit all these places.
    Cori recently posted…A remote workers guide to Yorkville, ManhattanMy Profile

  14. Oh yes, these places are going on my list! I’m a real nature-lover, so I really enjoy these forests and national parks. However, I’m not a big fan of crowded places, so this article was very interesting for me! Thank you for sharing :-).

  15. I’m with you here Tara – I love going to the national parks but they can be absolutely aggravating during the peak seasons. We don’t have children so it’s easier for us to go during the off-season, but I do appreciate the suggestions for less crowded parks. You should really be a national parks spokesperson – you live it everyday!
    Hung Thai recently posted…I’m too sexy for fall foliage in LeavenworthMy Profile

    • Awww- thanks, Hung! I think if I really wanted to be a national parks spokesperson I’d have to move out west. Mmmmm…

  16. This is an amazing post! I was just talking to a friend today, who went to Yosemite, and although the views were amazing he was disappointed at all the chaos from the loads of tourist buses. I have never thought to visit National Forests. Thank you so much giving me something new to explore 🙂
    Candy recently posted…Visit to Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, FloridaMy Profile

    • You’re welcome, Candy! You could probably explore the national forests forever and never run out of amazing spots!

  17. This is a GREAT tip! Not only National Forests, but also State Parks. Nantahala is such a gorgeous area, as is Pisgah National Forest – close to the same area. There’s just so much beauty out there to see!
    Paige Wunder recently posted…Ultimate Road Trip GuideMy Profile

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