Absolutely Best National Parks to Escape the Insanely Crazy Crowds

They rarely make Instagram but vast national monuments offer spectacular beauty and wilderness adventure

Well into the pandemic, many people are seeking solitude in nature. What could be lovelier, after months of isolation at home, than setting out along a rugged conifer-shaded trail, breathing in the fresh alpine air, and listening to a chorus of songbirds? 

There’s just one catch: if everybody’s getting outside, it’s hard to find a spot all to yourself. That’s true even at many of the 419 destinations in the U.S. National Park System which continues to grapple with how to manage growing crowds.

Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even before this year many of the country’s most famous parks such as Zion and the Grand Canyon restricted access to busy areas by requiring visitors to use free shuttle buses. On summer weekends finding a parking space at the top trailheads in Shenandoah or the Great Smoky Mountains is nearly impossible. Once you actually reach an overlook with a breathtaking view—think Great Smoky Mountain’s Clingmans Dome or Joshua Tree’s Jumbo Rocks—securing a patch of solitude to contemplate the panorama can require jockeying nimbly amid clamoring crowds and jousting selfie sticks.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This year, national park attendance was down due to the pandemic. Many parks drastically reduced access. But, the problem of trying to visit them remains the same as before: too much demand.

But the wilderness areas that the federal government added to its portfolio over the years mostly as national monuments tend to be farther off the beaten path and less hyped than the natural wonders immortalized in Ansel Adams prints. 

Santa Rosa an San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscapes of these newer monuments are not the same kinds of shiny treasures that were designated during the early years of the national park system. The park system now recognizes that land is worth protecting for a wide range of reasons from geology and biodiversity to culture and history.

Bears Ears National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One reason for this trend is that U.S. presidents can designate national monuments while creating and funding a national park requires an act of Congress. Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have used the 1906 Antiquities Act to confer national monument status on areas of “historic or scientific interest” including wilderness lands such as Sonoran Desert in Arizona and Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains in California. Since 1996, when President Bill Clinton revived the use of the law to protect large tracts of land, presidents have designated nearly 40 federal wilderness areas as national monuments.

Valley of the Gods, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Within them, opportunities for awesome hiking, climbing, camping, boating, and wildlife-viewing abound. In southeastern Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, the ancient indigenous cliff dwellings of River House Ruin and soaring red rock spires of the Valley of the Gods glow luminously in the dawn and dusk sunlight. In California, the undulating wildflower meadows of Carrizo Plain and Berryessa Snow Mountain national monuments erupt with brilliant profusions of poppies, Indian paintbrush, and goldfields, especially after a fresh rain.

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks near Las Cruces, New Mexico might spy bighorn sheep and golden eagles. Northern Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument includes some of New England’s least developed backcountry, an unspoiled place to kayak and hike.

El Morro National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the new national monuments have given visitors millions of uncrowded natural acres to explore, they’ve presented some logistical challenges. The Antiquities Act contains no provisions for funding and managing national monuments. Many belong to the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Lands program rather than the better-funded National Park Service. So they tend to lack national parks’ websites, state-of-the-art visitor centers, rustic-chic lodges and restaurants, and well-maintained roads and trails. They employ few full-time staffers, and their modest visitor centers are often open only seasonally or on weekends.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To fill the gap, dozens of nonprofit “friends-of” organizations have emerged. These newer federal lands receive less funding and rely heavily on Friends groups to get things done such as interpretive work, publishing visitor information, and educating the public. The nonprofits have organized trail cleanup days, seasonal events, and fund raisers.

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To plan a visit to a national monument, it’s best to consult both the park’s website and the “friends-of” website. Arriving prepared with proper gear, sufficient food and water, and paper maps (since cell service may be nonexistent) are the keys to safely enjoying your visit.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There will always be a thirst for touring the nation’s iconic parks—for hiking in the canyons of Zion or scampering among the natural arches and pinnacles of Arches National Park. But travelers who’ve hiked New Mexico’s otherworldly Malpais National Monument or driven National Scenic Byway 12 through southeastern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without having to navigate throngs of people may never again think the same way about visiting America’s iconic national parks.

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

— John Muir