8 Secret Hikes in National Parks

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Hand-picked by the people who know them the best

Our National Park System manages more than 80 million acres of sparkling waterfalls, virgin stands of old growth, sweeping mountain ranges, rugged stretches of sand and rock, and miles and miles of trail. And hikers like you, from around the world, want to see it all. This is why our parks see 307 million visits annually and why at points it can feel something like Disneyland, which for comparison has had 650 million visitors total since it opened in 1955.

Maybe you’ve gotten stuck behind a stalled tour bus on Skyline Drive, witnessed tourists trying to pet wild bison at Yellowstone, or been turned away from no-vacancy at Camp 4. But finding solitude and enjoying a trail all to yourself is not impossible. It’s just a matter of knowing where to go.

With these eight epic hikes, hand-picked by experts who know them best, you can beat the crowds and see the national parks as they were meant to be experienced: wild and free.

Mono Pass Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

If you like to see a little bit of everything on the trail, the Mono Pass is your hike. The nine-mile trek travels through a variety of habitats, including meadows and forested areas, crosses some small streams, and leads to high, deep blue alpine lakes, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. (Wildlife enthusiasts, keep an eye out for bighorn sheep!) The pass area is also the site of an old silver mining settlement, a touch of history complete with ruins of cabins from the 1860s. “I love getting up above the tree line in the Sierra, and this trail has it all,” says National Park Service Chief of Interpretation Kris Fister. Hit this trail in the winter, its most remote season, when Tioga Pass Road closes, limiting access to the trailhead.

Grinnell Glacier Overlook, Glacier National Park, Montana

As the first woman to hold speed records for unsupported thru-hikes of both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, Heather “Anish” Anderson has seen her fair share of hikes. Her favorite is the short mile-long path that leads to the overlook of Grinnell Glacier, which sees fewer people because of its steep incline. With high-country views of Glacier National Park along the Continental Divide and panoramas of the Many Glacier Valley, this may be one of the most Insta-worthy hikes in the park. “When I hiked this route, I saw mountain goats, grizzly bears, and a wolverine, in addition to the stunning scenery,” says Anderson.

 

North Vista Trail, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado

To escape the crowds in southern Colorado, head to the north rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison, which is more remote than the easy-to-access southern rim. There, you’ll find a seven-mile round trip hike to the top of 8,563-foot Green Mountain, the highest peak in the national park. “While not a towering mountain, it offers almost aerial views of the canyon,” says Bruce Caughey, co-author of two Colorado guidebooks. On a clear day, some of the most beautiful mountain ranges and features in Colorado can be spotted from the top, including the San Juans, West Elks, and Grand Mesa.

Buckeye Trail—Cuyahoga Valley Section, Cuyahoga National Park, Ohio

The Buckeye Trail covers more than 1,400 miles, circling Ohio, but the 40 miles that run through Cuyahoga National Park offer some of the most picturesque in the state. Cross streams and trek hilly singletracks as you follow the trail in and out of the Valley. This is the perfect spot for leaf peeping in the fall. It’s not an easy hike and is set away from busier areas of the park, which means it stays quiet during any season. “You can hike for miles without seeing anyone,” says NPS park ranger Pamela Machuga. “It’s the trail I go to when I want to get lost in the woods.”

Cape Final, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

On the eastern tip of the Grand Canyon’s Walhalla Plateau is Cape Final, one of the park’s most dramatic vistas and the selling point for embarking on this four-mile hike. As you walk along the rocky path, check out views of Vishnu Temple and Jupiter Temple peaks and the eastern Grand Canyon. The best part, according to guidebook author James Kaiser, is if you can sign up for the lone Cape Final camping permit that the Grand Canyon’s backcountry office grants each night. “If you’re lucky enough to snag the permit, you’ll have Cape Final all to yourself at night,” says Kaiser.

Farming Terrace Trail, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

This short, historical trail in Mesa Verde is a small window into the lives of Ancestral Pueblo farmers. Follow the hike past a series of dams and associated stepped farming terraces, installed to decrease water runoff. You’ll also see plenty of lizards and hummingbirds along the way. Most visitors head to Mesa Verde to check out the cliff dwellings, so trails like the Long House Tour tend to see the most traffic. But the educational factor, in a park that preserves at least 5,000 archeological sites, is what makes this hike a favorite for NPS Management Support Specialist and Public Information Officer Cristy Brown. “It’s a great way to get a sense of the daily activities of the Ancestral Pueblo people as farmers — away from the cliff dwellings,” she says.

Cadillac Mountain Point-to-Point, Acadia National Park, Maine

While Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain is a hella popular spot for visitors, there are several ways to reach the top, not involving a car. The best, according to hiking guidebook writer Carey Michael Kish, is to combine two trails: the Cadillac North Ridge Trail and Cadillac South Ridge Trail. Brace yourself for lots of pink granite, pines, and nearly continuous ocean and mountain views in every direction. “It’s often crowded at the top,” says Kish. “But away from the actual summit, the mountain is a hiker’s dream of good trail, great views, and surprising solitude.” Start this one before dawn to avoid the more popular North Ridge Trail during high-traffic times later in the day and reach the summit of Cadillac Mountain before sunrise. As one of the farthest eastern points in the continental U.S., you’ll be the first in the country to catch it.

Squaw Flat Loop A from Big Spring Canyon to Squaw, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Talk about off the map! The Squaw Flat Loop A, from Big Spring Canyon to Squaw Canyon in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, loops along, below, above, and between two stunning canyons for seven miles. Follow cairns to navigate rock domes and take in some killer views of Canyonland’s iconic needle formations. “I tend to love anything that the parks service describes as ‘may make people with a fear of heights uncomfortable,’” says Katie Boué of community and social marketing for the Outdoor Industry Association. What you can expect not to see on the trail: other people.