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Can You Still Get Off the Beaten Path in National Parks?


The Squaw Flat Campground is located within the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. NPS photo by Neal Herbert.

How much have the national parks changed since you were a kid? Have they changed? When you return to a park that you haven't been to in decades, is it like returning to an old friend, or visiting someplace totally alien?

I raise that question in light of an email I received the other day. Essentially, the reader wanted to know, is it possible to experience the national parks in the same fashion as he did as a youngster 50-some years ago?

In my youth, the family (us 7 kids, Mom and Dad) would all pile in the ole Ford van and spend 4-6 weeks camping our way around the western US and its National Parks. We could go from one park to the next and be sure to find a very good camp site. It was a cheap vacation, but the most fun I have had to this day. I ended up becoming a geologist due in most part to these vacations.

Today, from what I see of National Park pictures/videos it appears that this type of vacation is lost. Most parks look more like New York City than anything I remembered. Do you have any suggestions as to how I could recapture those fun times by once again taking a long camping trip to the parks or wherever?

The question certainly resonated with me, for there are quite a few places I've found that, upon returning years later, have lost their feel, the magic they once held. I wouldn't necessarily say that about national parks, though. Sure, there are some that can be incredibly crowded depending on the season. But if you have flexibility in your schedule and patience with dirt roads, I think there are more than a few places one can go in the National Park System to experience much of what the reader is in search of.

In Utah, for example, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks, along with Cedar Breaks National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and lands administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as well as the U.S. Forest Service, offer endless opportunities for turning back the clock and melding into the landscape.

The Squaw Flat Campground in the Needles District of Canyonlands is one of the most gorgeous settings in the Southwest, with sites set amid towering boulders and rock outcrops and breathtaking redrock scenery in all directions. True, there are only 26 sites, and those are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis, but if you get there early enough to land a site, you're in heaven.

With the campground as a base camp, you can roam through old cowboy camps (take the Cave Spring Trail, it's not to be missed, as it also includes climbing two wooden ladders to get you up above ground-level for some great views and, in rainy season, perhaps a water-filled pothole or two), down into Chesler Park or Elephant Canyon on paths that weave through gigantic rock gardens, or on any number of shorter, or longer, hikes.

Arches also has a campground, Devils Garden, but it's the only one in the park and with just 52 sites, can fill early in the day. Options abound outside the park, though.

Utah's Dead Horse Point State Park, located between Arches and Canyonlands' Island in the Sky District, often is overlooked by national park travelers. With a great view of the Colorado River's goosenecks 2,000 feet below, this state park with its 21 campsites is a great alternative if you want to avoid the crowds.

There also are many BLM campsites down along the Colorado River, which parallels Highway 128 northeast of Moab.

Capitol Reef, despite its national park designation, is relatively lightly traveled. There is just one developed campground, the 71-site Fruita Campground. One of its pluses is the nearby orchard, which, if you arrive in season, will provide you with plenty of apples, peaches, pears, even apricots, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

More ambitious travelers can head off to the Cathedral Valley or Cedar Mesa campgrounds to really flee the crowds. True, these are primitive sites without running water or flush toilets, but the solitude can be intoxicating.

Traveling from Arches to Capitol Reef, or vice versa, leads you through one of the most magnificent non-National Park System settings in the Southwest, the San Rafael Swell. Back in the 1930s there was a push to make this area a national park, but, sadly, it failed.

Today the Swell is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Within its reefs of rock are countless areas to find solitude, whether you opt to park your rig and car camp or head off on foot. The Wedge Overlook is one of the better BLM-maintained campgrounds, and it offers a stellar view of both the "Little Grand Canyon" and the night sky.

Spend any amount of time in the Swell and you're sure to come across some of the incredible rock art panels it holds, such as the one at Buckhorn Wash.

Now, at Bryce Canyon you'll have a little trouble finding solitude in the developed campgrounds simply due to the nature of the park, with most of its easily accessible terrain on a tongue of land that juts out above the Paunsaugunt Plateau. But some solitude and gorgeous scenery can be found just north of the park up on the Aquarius Plateau that would be a welcome extension to Bryce Canyon.

Another fine option is to head just west of the park to Red Canyon Campground in the Dixie National Forest. Camping here is akin to pitching your tent or parking your rig below Bryce's colorful ramparts.

From Bryce Canyon it's less than half-a-day's drive to either Cedar Breaks National Monument or Zion National Park. True, camping at 10,000 feet in the 28-site Point Supreme Campground in Cedar Breaks can be cold, even in August, but you will be a bit off the beaten path and won't have to worry about crowds, even if the campground is full. The Breaks' ruddy maw, which exposes the colorful guts of the Markagunt Plateau, and the bent and wind-tortured bristlecone pines make this an interesting corner of Utah to visit.

As for Zion, camping can be overwhelming if you choose either the Watchman or South campgrounds, as they hold 162 and 127 sites, respectively. If you're adventurous, the Lava Point Campground holds only six sites, no water, and no flush toilets, but the only way you'll be closer to solitude is by hefting a pack and heading down the trail.

These are just a handful of spots where you can find experienced that seemingly were placed in a time capsule a half-century ago. Others can be found nearby in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, and Natural Bridges National Monument.

And this is just in one state, Utah. With a little effort and patience, you can find many similar adventures elsewhere in the National Park System.

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In almost any decent-sized national park area, once you are a half mile off the road, you are virtually alone. This does not include, of course, highly popular trails like Vernal Falls or Shoshone Lake, but choose wisely and you will have all the solitude you want.

Rick Smith

The country is large and it is quite easy to get to places that are quiet and isolated. You don't need to seek out national parks exclusively because there are state forests, state parks and a myriad of other lands (in the West you can't beat BLM properties) that offer the solitude and open space that many are searching for.

It doesn't matter if you're looking in the pine barrens of New Jersey or the Appalachian highlands of Alabama, the live oak forests of Florida, the sand hills of Nebraska or the thick hardwoods of New Hampshire. There is a lot of territory out there to enjoy.

My favorite place for sheer size and the immensity of quiet is Yellowstone. A few minutes from the road and the natural world is your oyster.

And for NPS sites, it's hard to beat smaller, out-of-the-way national monuments like Sunset Crater, Wupatki, and my favorite, Lava Beds. These places are relatively empty even during summer months, and if you go in the off season, prepare for extreme solitude. On many occasions, I've driven the twenty-some miles through Lava Beds without seeing another vehicle on the road.

There's lots of solitude waiting for those willing to venture beyond the asphalt and away from visitor complexes.

For Canyonlands/Arches, in the summer I highly recommend camping up in the La Sal mountains in Manti-La Sal NF, and day-tripping into Arches (& Fisher Tower). The Squaw Flats campground in Canyonlands (Needles district) requires arrival well before noon to obtain a campsite, especially one of the isolated sites where you won't hear your neighbors' generators. Both have wonderful dark sky at night for stargazing.

In the southern Sierra, as an uncrowded alternative to Sequoia, try Mountain Home State Forest (not state park). Even the first weekend in August the campgrounds (classic overbuilt picnic tables, fire rings, pit toilets, and water every few sites) were half full, although the Tulare county park campground at Balch Park (with flush toilets & showers) was full. Biologically interesting: sequoias in mixed stands with giant cedars & sugar pines (well over 6' diameter), as opposed to sequoias in groves in filled in meadows nearly everywhere else.

"How much have the national parks changed since you were a kid? Have they changed?"
May 2008 I had the pleasure of accompanying a family to Angel Arch.
The father was a ten year old when his dad took a 4x4 tour up to Angel Arch. This father returned to bring his own sons (young teenagers) to experience a journey he recalls fondly from his own youth-hood.
Angel Arch is in the Needles District Of Canyonlands, ten miles up the Salt Creek from Peek-a-boo.
Peek-a-boo is the last vehicle access and requires a permit to enable passage through a locked gate.
Once open to 4 wheeling; Salt Creek closed in 1998 to protect the perennial stream coursing there.
The family undertook a bare bones back pack overnight trip to fulfill the father's nostalgic longing.

This park visitor got something different. And it falls far from the inspiring writer's comment, "Most parks look more like New York City than anything I remembered".

Michele Hill
Facility and Events Promoter
Moab Area Travel Council

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