9 Incredible Hidden Locations in U.S. National Parks Where You Can Avoid the Crowds
Thanks to their massive size, these national parks are home to mesmerizing corners and corridors that most travelers never get the chance to explore.
We spoke to former National Geographic travel photographer Jonathan Irish, who visited every national park in the U.S. last year with his partner, Stephanie Payne, to find the top hidden gems in popular parts around the states.
“Our goal was to celebrate what these parks mean for us, so it was important for us to dig into every park and not just hit the main points, but to get to the heart of the park and find the places that most people don’t get to,” Irish told Travel + Leisure of their trip.
From hikes that lead into craters to campsites in the Everglades that sit right in the water, here are some of their top finds.
The Kolob Canyons in Zion National Park
Those in search of a quieter section of Utah's Zion National Park, where they can explore more than 20 miles worth of hiking trails while taking in views of the soaring Navajo sandstone peaks, should head to the Kolob Canyons section of the park.
Here, you'll find majestic peaks, cliff walls that soar as high as 2,000 feet, and the opportunity to hike through the breathtaking desert terrain in tranquility.
Visitors must exit the main area of the park and drive further down the road to enter this district, which is why most people don’t venture here, according to Irish, but he says they should.
The location is home to one of the pair’s favorite hikes, the Subway hike, which weaves you through a trail that follows the Virgin River, taking you through boulders and incredible canyons before reaching the Subway—a sandstone that has been carved over the years to resemble a long subway tunnel.
The hike requires a permit and can be challenging, but it’s worth it to get to the fascinating site, all while taking in views of soaring plateaus and colorful sandstone formations.
The Sliding Sands Trail at Haleakala National Park
One of the most famous sites at Hawaiia’s Haleakala National Park is catching the sunrise on top of the Haleakala volcano— so much so in fact, that visitors are now required to get reservations for the event.
For Irish, the true magic isn’t what takes place on top of the volcano, but what happens when you descend into it.
“It blew my mind to see that everyone leaves just after the sunrise and goes back to the beach, because one of the reasons why it’s so beautiful to watch the sunrise from there is you can look down into the crater and see all of these old cinder cones and incredible formations left there from the old volcano,” Irish said.
That’s why he suggests taking the Sliding Sands Trail, which winds down to the crater floor, letting you explore its surreal landscape.
“It’s like walking on Mars,” Irish said of the setting. “You get a mile down there and there’s strangely no one around, and I think that’s what makes this one of the best trails.”
The Needles District in Canyonlands National Park
Thanks to a series of flowing rivers, Utah's Canyonlands National Park is split into different districts, each with their own offerings.
Most travelers tend to spend time at the Island in the Sky district, since it's the easiest to visit in a short amount of time, but if you're willing to venture some 60 miles south from there, you'll be on your way to the Needles district, which Irish describes as an otherworldly landscape.
"As soon as you get off the trail, you're suddenly transported to this different world, surrounded by these pink sandstorm formations," Irish said of the location.
But the needle formations themselves aren't the only impressive sight you'll see.
"The same thing that formed these needles, which is water erosion over the years, has also carved out these valleys and slots that make the hike more challenging, but with that comes the beauty of having this trail to yourself and wandering through this incredible scenery," Irish added.
One of their favorite locations within the district is the Chesler Park Loop, where the needles are particularly well formed, and a hike lets you descend into a giant slot canyon you can walk the bottom of.
Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park, also located in Utah, is home to geological formations like cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges that extend for close to 100 miles.
To see some of its most impressive—and rarely captured—formations, head to Cathedral Valley, north of the park’s main area that is accessed by driving some 57 miles on a dirt road.
Though conditions can be tricky on the road in spring and summer when it rains, the journey will feel well worth it once you reach the softly-colored hills in varying shades of brown, red, purple, green, and gray.
The formations, created during the Jurassic times, produce astonishing shapes that blend with their surroundings to create quite a view.
“You look up to see a pink sky and look down to see these formations jutting out, like sharks swimming underneath the sand, and it just looks like all of these fins going into the distance,” Irish said. “It’s the highlight and why you go out there, and it’s a view most people don’t get to see.”
Visitors can also camp in the area, and since the park has been designated a Gold Tier “International Dark Sky Park” by the International Dark-Sky Association, you are guaranteed prime stargazing.
Camping on a Chickee in the Mangrove Trees in Everglades National Park
To truly get away from it all and explore Florida’s Everglades National Park the traditional way, head to the park’s backcountry camp sites where you’ll find chickees, elevated camping platforms that sit right in the water.
As you canoe or kayak through the trails, you’ll see everything from crabs and frogs to a variety of birds, and even dolphins in the horizon.
You’ll need a permit and a reservation well in advance, according to Irish, but once you do, you’ll get to tour the park and its sites on water, stopping along the way to your own man-made miniature island surrounded by mangrove trees.
The park will give you GPS coordinates, but Irish recommends bringing your own for safety, and since some of the chickees have enough space for two campsites, you can meet fellow travelers along the way.
The Schoodic Peninsula in Acadia National Park
There’s plenty of historic territory to wander through in Maine’s Acadia National Park as you explore its granite peaks and rugged coastline.
To see the same stunning rock scenery that’s in the park without the crowds, head to the Schoodic Peninsula, where you can explore miles of scenery by foot, bike, or car.
You’ll get spectacular views of Mount Desert Island and even a lighthouse that sparkles at night, a gem that Irish says most people don’t realize is there to begin with.
Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park
In the springtime, visitors can see two of North America’s tallest waterfalls come plummeting down over thousand-foot granite cliffs, while the early spring produces trails bursting with flowers and wildlife, along with high-country lakes and streams to explore.
According to the National Park Service, John Muir referred to the site as “a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite” in 1870, which is one of the reasons Irish is so drawn to it.
"It's an amazing place because it looks like a miniature Yosemite valley with waterfalls," Irish said. “Yosemite is one of the busies parks, so this is one of those locations where you can get into Yosemite and hardly see anyone out there, which is rare."
Today, the area is also home to a somewhat contentious 117-billion-gallon reservoir that supplies drinking water to San Francisco residents and stands as the largest single body of water in Yosemite.
Bright Angel Campground in Grand Canyon National Park
Thanks to its immense popularity, the main canyon area of Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park can pack in anywhere from 1 to 2 million people per day, according to Irish.
That’s why he prefers heading down to the Bright Angel Campground, where crowds slowly start to disappear as you make your way further down the trail.
The hike down is extensive, and Irish recommends you don’t try to do it all in one day, as you may tire yourself and have trouble getting back up.
But once you do reach the campground, you’ll be rewarded with a setting only a few hearty souls who make the trek get to witness.
“It’s another world to Grand Canyon where you can get up close to the Colorado River, which created the canyon that you’re in, so it’s a special moment,” Irish told Travel + Leisure.
The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park
The Racetrack, which sits in a remote valley between the Cotton and Last Chance Ranges, is home to a world of mystery, most famously the phenomenon of its strange moving rocks.
The area in Death Valley National Park is home to rocks that form long trails of sand behind them, making them seem as if they have been moving along the sand mysteriously throughout the years.
A research project suggests the weaving trails, some of which are as long as 1,500 feet, are the result of a combination of rain creating slippery conditions and wind pushing the rocks from above.
This has made the area increasingly famous, but it’s still not as crowded thanks to the difficulty of getting there. Only a Jeep or a four-by-four can handle the dry lakebed's rough terrain.