Don’t Overlook the Hidden Gems
Yosemite. Glacier. Zion.
Odds are, even if you only have a passing knowledge of the National Park System, there are a handful of big name parks you’re familiar with – even if it’s just from seeing them on the backs of quarters.
If you consider yourself a hiker or backpacker, you probably have a broader awareness of our parks but I’d be willing to bet you also default to a short list of your favorites … and with more than 400 units in the Park System, I’m also willing to bet there’s a few you’re overlooking.
While I began my love affair with parks by searching out those high-profile trails with the infinitely Instagrammable vistas (this was pre-Instagram, so we just described them as “picturesque”), it was often the less-showy units that allowed me to have a quieter, more personal interaction with the Park System. So while I loved staring at Half Dome from Glacier Point and soaking in the absurd expanse of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim, a weekday trip to Pinnacles National Monument (now called Pinnacles National Park) let me hike through flower-filled meadows and watch condors soar through strange rock formations without having to wait for other hikers to quiet down. While cars were lined up to enter Arches National Park, I spent a full day hiking in Canyonlands National Park without passing a single other hiker.
When I was selected for the 2015 Find Your Park Expedition, I was excited to travel to Great Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde, but I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from either. I’d seen sand dunes in Death Valley and cliff dwellings at Canyon de Chelly before. Neither park seemed to have an extensive trail network, and they both seemed a little on the small side.
Boy, was I wrong.
The very first thing I did after arriving at Great Sand Dunes (after gawking at just how huge those things are) was start plotting a way to climb up them. Although there are no established trails in the dunes for obvious reasons, it is possible to feel like you’re on an entirely different planet by trekking toward the dunes for just ten minutes. Our group managed to climb to one of the taller dunes as the sun rose one morning, beginning our hike in the parking area under the faint light of distant stars and ending it watching our home star paint the landscape in its particular shades of pink and orange.
Speaking with rangers at the park, we learned that the entire surrounding landscape is responsible for these unusually tall dunes – and how the research that led to that knowledge was also partially responsible for the park’s expansion from its original boundaries into a full-fledged national park and preserve. The Great Sand Dunes isn’t just the sand; it’s also portions of the nearby rift valley, the unexpected watershed of Medano Creek, and the towering, pine-covered Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A park that I had long considered a quick day-stop on the way to something more substantial actually has trails through epic mountain passes and near cascading waterfalls … meaning I will definitely be coming back.
Perhaps even more surprising was the trip to Mesa Verde National Park. This park is known primarily for its archeology and human history and not its hiking, but what was surprising to me were the quality and ruggedness of the short trails that did exist – rough-and-tumble CCC-era classics that scrambled up cliff walls, squeezed through boulders, and opened up expansive million-dollar views of the Colorado Plateau. Also encouraging was a conversation with Park Superintendent Cliff Spencer, who has already opened up some of the park to winter activities like snowshoeing and is investigating re-opening some of the parks historic trails, many of which were simply closed due to budgetary shortfalls.
So the next time you're planning a big outdoor trip to one of those better-known parks, be sure to take a look at the road map to make sure you’re not missing any hidden gems along the way – especially if you think you already know what’s there.
Need more inspiration? The National Park Foundation has a helpful list of often-overlooked parks called The Places Nobody Knows.
Casey Schreiner participated in the National Park Foundation’s 2015 Find Your Park Expedition. He is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Hiker, California’s most-read hiking blog. You can follow Casey’s adventures and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.