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Alternatives to 10 of America’s Most Popular National Parks

Some of America’s most wonderful and spectacular places are public lands designated as national parks. National parks have become increasingly popular over the past few decades, with the most popular parks receiving millions of visitors each year. For many people, national parks have become bucket list vacation destinations. While there’s no substitute for visiting America’s most-loved national parks, we’ve come up with a list of national park alternatives worth checking out, especially if you’re looking for less crowded places. Some of these national park alternatives are lesser-visited (but still amazing) national parks!

Yellowstone National Park

Alternatives: Lassen Volcanic National Park, Custer State Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park

If you’re most interested in the hydrothermal features at Yellowstone, you’ll likely be intrigued by Lassen Volcanic National Park, which also has a number of hydrothermal areas. The largest and most popular hydrothermal area in Lassen Volcanic National Park is Bumpass Hell. Other notable hydrothermal areas in the park include Devils Kitchen and Terminal Geyser. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park | Photo credit: Priya Karkare

Custer State Park

Yellowstone is known for its massive bison herd. If wildlife is what you’re looking for, South Dakota’s Custer State Park is a great alternative to Yellowstone National Park. Driving Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park, you’re sure to see some bison and other wildlife. Custer State Park also has a couple other scenic drives and plenty of hiking trails.

Want to explore Yellowstone National Park and Custer State Park? Check out this itinerary

Custer State Park


Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Alternative: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

As one reviewer put is, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park  (CGNHP) has “everything the Smokies has minus the crowds.” From the Pinnacle Overlook at CGNHP, you’ll see Cumberland Gap, a pass in the Cumberland Mountains which are a section of the Appalachian Mountains. This scenic overlook offers a view of three different states—Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. 

Gap Cave is another really neat area of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. In addition to its fascinating geology, the cave also has some intriguing history related to the Civil War. 

Another great thing about Cumberland Gap National Historical Park? It’s pet friendly!

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park | Photo credit: Dale Pete, NPS Natural Resources


Yosemite National Park

Alternative: Wind River Mountains

Wind River Mountains

Yosemite National Park is known for its towering granite rock formations (El Capitan, Half Dome, etc.). Another place with some astounding granite formations is the Wind River Mountain Range. The Wind River Range, located in west-central Wyoming, encompasses 2.25 million acres. This vastness makes for incredible opportunities for backpacking, hiking, and climbing. A few notable places in the Wind Rivers are Cirque of the Towers and Squaretop Mountain. 

The hundreds of miles of trails in the Wind River Mountains make it relatively easy to find places off the beaten path. 

Wind River Mountains | Photo credit: David Rule


Grand Canyon National Park

Alternatives: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Sometimes referred to as ‘Colorado’s Grand Canyon,’ Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park boasts a landscape nearly as dramatic as the Grand Canyon. Although it’s not as deep or wide as the Grand Canyon, looking down into the Black Canyon may be even more breathtaking because of the steepness and narrowness. The narrowest part of the Black Canyon is 40 feet. At its narrowest, the Grand Canyon is 600 feet wide. 

A couple scenic drives and a variety of hiking trails give visitors some stunning views of the canyon. If you’re looking for something a little more adventurous, try exploring the inner canyon

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Located on Navajo tribal lands, Canyon de Chelly National Monument offers incredibly scenic views and rich history and culture. Today, Navajo families still live in the canyons, and the best way to truly experience Canyon de Chelly is to do a tour with a Navajo guide. 

Canyon de Chelly National Monument | Photo credit: Romain Guy – Flickr


Rocky Mountain National Park

Alternative: Sawatch Mountains

Sawatch Mountains

The Sawatch Mountain Range in central Colorado is part of the Rocky Mountains. It includes eight of the twenty highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains. This makes the mountain range especially popular with climbers seeking to conquer 14ers. The Sawatch Range can be explored via a number of hiking trails. The Top of the Rockies Byway is another great way to see the area.  

Sawatch Mountains, near Independence Pass | Photo credit: Sam Dellaporta


Zion National Park

Alternatives: Capitol Reef National Park, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area

Capitol Reef National Park

Of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef National Park is one of the least visited. It usually sees only about a quarter of the number of annual visitors that Zion National Park does. Capitol Reef has stunning red rock formations that are on full display as you drive through the park. To really connect with the park and its past, visit the Fruita Historic District. In addition to hiking and biking, canyoneering and rock climbing are also becoming popular activities in Capitol Reef.

Red Cliffs National Conservation Area

Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (RCNCA) lies just outside St. George, UT. It’s only about an hour away from Zion National Park. The scenery at RCNCA is similar to some  of the scenery in Zion National Park. As the name indicates, visitors will find beautiful views of red rock cliffs. The area has over 100 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and other activities. 

Red Cliffs National Conservation Area | Photo credit: Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management


Acadia National Park

Alternative: Tettegouche State Park

Tettegouche State Park

On the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota, Tettegouche State Park has scenery that rivals that of a national park. Its rocky shoreline dotted with trees resembles the Atlantic shoreline along Acadia National Park. Three waterfalls and four inland lakes lie within Tettegouche State Park, and those are just a few of the many picturesque places in the area. About 12 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail can also be accessed via this state park. 

Tettegouche State Park | Photo credit: Conner Bowe


Grand Teton National Park

Alternative: Sawtooth Mountains

Sawtooth Mountains

Grand Teton National Park is known for the iconic peaks of the Teton Mountain Range. Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain Range also has plenty of rugged peaks. One place in particular in the Sawtooth Mountains that bears a resemblance to Grand Teton National Park is Redfish Lake. This lake is nestled at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains. It’s beautiful setting is similar to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. The Sawtooth Mountains and Sawtooth National Forest provide a huge variety of recreational opportunities including backpacking, kayaking, fishing, and climbing. 

Sawtooth National Forest / Redfish Lake | Photo credit: Nate Lowe, US Forest Service


Glacier National Park

Alternative: North Cascades National Park 

Glacier National Park’s scenery includes turquoise lakes, snowcapped mountain peaks, and, of course, glaciers. Another national park with very similar scenery is North Cascades National Park. And, it happens to be one of the least-visited national parks in the country. North Cascades actually has more glaciers than any U.S. park outside of Alaska, including Glacier National Park. 


Olympic National Park

Alternative: Tongass National Forest

Tongass National Forest

Olympic National Park’s rainforest landscape is among its most notable features. Tongass National Forest in Alaska is the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. It’s also the largest national forest in the United States. The diverse landscape in Tongass National Forest includes scenic coastline, snowcapped mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, and ferns and mosses. There’s plenty of hiking, wildlife watching, kayaking, and other things to do in this vast and beautiful area.




Enrich Your Yellowstone Experience in Dubois, Wyoming

Yellowstone National Park is a destination that belongs on just about everyone’s bucket list. The great thing about the Yellowstone experience (and neighboring Grand Teton National Park) is what awaits after you leave the park. One gem of particular shine is the town of Dubois, Wyoming.

Located just 80 miles from the South Entrance to Yellowstone, Dubois is a great place to spend three days getting to know the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem after checking the park off your bucket list.

This story was created in partnership with Destination Dubois.

Day 1: From the Yellowstone Experience Beyond

As you depart from Yellowstone going south, you’ll be thrilled to see traffic thinning out. Taking a left onto Highway 278/26 at Moran Junction will have you facing an open road with stunning views. Take your time over the next 55 miles, as Togwottee Pass is a Scenic Byway that offers wildlife sightings, breathtaking vistas, and more than a few places to pull over and stretch your legs.

Yellowstone experience road trip: Pinnacles by Bill Sincavage

Watch for the Pinnacles on the scenic byway. Photo: Bill Sincavage

Enrich your Yellowstone Experience in Dubois pin

First stop: Brooks Lake Falls! The Falls Campground, about 30 miles from Moran Junction, is a perfect point to stop and enjoy a crowd-free attraction. Only about a half-mile hike from the campground, you’ll be greeted with a stunning, private view of the waterfall. Enjoy a picnic in the campground before continuing down the scenic byway.

Dubois has the feel of a cowboy town, but you’ll find its history is more than that. Before you reach town, stop at the Tie Hack Memorial to learn about the logging and Scandinavian influences on Dubois’ character.

As you enter town, it’s time for a lesson in pronunciation: You just drove over Togwotee Pass, which is pronounced TOE-guh-tee. Now you’re entering Dubois, which is pronounced DEW-boyce. The story behind the town’s pronunciation is one to take home with you: the community selected a name for itself (Never Sweat or Tibo, depending on the source), but the Wyoming Territory Senator didn’t like the name. He decided instead to name the town after himself. Having no choice in the spelling of their town’s name, the townspeople did have a say on how they say it—and they chose not to do so correctly out of spite!

full moon over main street in Dubois, Wyoing

A full moon over Dubois’ main street. Photo: Bill Sincavage

Learn more about the stories and history of Dubois at the absolutely charming Dubois Museum. It’s located right next door to the National Bighorn Sheep Center, which is dedicated to the largest wintering herd of bighorn sheep in North America. If you visit in the fall or winter, you can take a tour to spot the bighorn rams as they fight to catch the eye of the ewes. Bet you didn’t imagine that the wildlife of your Yellowstone experience would only get better in the neighboring town!

Bighorn Sheep near Dubois, Wyoming as part of the Yellowstone experience

Bighorn sheep near Dubois Photo: Bill Sincavage

After all that learning, you’ll surely be ready to sit down for a meal. Grab a burger and a slice of pie at the Cowboy Cafe, then stroll the wooden sidewalks of town to relax into the pace of quiet Wyoming life. If you’re lucky, local pianist Monte Baker will be tickling the keys on a sidewalk piano to really set the tone for your Dubois afternoon. Be sure to step into the shops on the main street of Rams Horn, as the work of local artists will leave you in awe.

When the time comes for dinner, treat yourself to a special meal at the Lone Buffalo, then settle in for a peaceful night in your own personal cabin at Jakey’s Fork Homestead.

Day 2: Greater Yellowstone Adventures

Enjoy a homemade breakfast provided by your host and listen to her tales about her years living in Dubois. Now that you’re fully rested and fueled up, it’s time for some adventure. First things first: Don’t forget your water and sunscreen!

Start with a morning of fishing with Wind River Canyon Whitewater & Flyfishing. This Native-owned operation is the only guide who can take you fishing on the Wind River Indian Reservation, so it’s a special local business to support. If you head out on your own, Wind River Gear can help you stock up on your fishing gear and tips on the latest hatch.

Sunset over the Dubois Badlands and the Wind River

Sunset over the Wind River near Dubois. Photo: Bill Sincavage

No fishing trip should be rushed, so we recommend making this a full-day trip. However, if you prefer to mix it up, spend the morning fishing then head back into town. Grab a slice at Noon Rock Pizza, then gear up for a bike ride. The Dubois Overlook will be one of the most dramatic starting points you’ve ever seen on a mountain bike ride. With 360-degree views, you can see all of town as well as three types of mountain building processes (volcanic, tectonic, glacial). The fascinating geology of your Yellowstone experience certainly doesn’t end at the park gate.

Sunrise over Dubois, Wyoming, as seen from the Dubois Overlook

View of the sunrise from the Dubois Overlook. Photo: Bill Sincavage

After you’ve taken it all in, it’s time to hit the trail. The Overlook Trail zips around the colorful Dubois rock formations with multiple route options totaling 4.2 miles of trail. The best part? When you’re all wiped out, you’re still in the heart of town and can grab a drink and a snack before you get hangry!

Day 3: Walk Through Time

After another lovely breakfast with your hosts at Jakey’s Fork Homestead, you’re going to fly through history today. You’ll start with ancient history just south of Dubois. The Dubois Museum will help you find the petroglyphs and tell you all about them. Be sure to leave the petroglyphs exactly as you found them. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep in the area, too!

After your historic sight-seeing hike in the Trail Lakes area, hop back on Highway 287 south from town. Less than 10 miles later, you’ll stop at the impressive National Museum of Military Vehicles. Be sure you plan for lots of time to explore, as the grounds—and many of the the artifacts—are massive.

Exterior of National Museum of Military Vehicles as part of the Yellowstone experience

Just think, in 15 minutes you’ll go from learning about very early America to recent American history! On top of that, your Yellowstone experience started with the pre-history of a super volcano! We imagine your future holds a return visit to Dubois, perhaps for an all-inclusive stay with a guest ranch, complete with rodeos and square dancing.

 

Logos of Dubois Yellowstone Experience sponsors




The Best of the Midwest: 7 National Parks You Never Thought to Visit in the Middle of the Country

Many of us have visited, or at least heard of, a lot of the national parks in the Western United States. But the middle of the United States also has some national parks that, although maybe aren’t as well-known, are still most certainly worth visiting. Check out these seven awesome Midwest national parks.

1. Badlands National Park

Location: South Dakota

Photo credit: National Park Service – M. Reed

With a name like Badlands, you’d expect the landscape to be dramatic. And it is. Rugged buttes jut out from the surrounding prairie lands in a way that’s somewhat unexpected and absolutely stunning. During golden hour, the scenery is even more spectacular as the sun’s soft light enhances the color of the buttes, making them even more striking.

Those that only have a short amount of time to visit this park should plan on driving the Badlands Loop Road (SD Hwy 240), which offers excellent views of the Badlands. Ben Reifel Visitor Center is a great stop along the way to learn more about the park’s cultural history, ecology, and paleontology.

If you have more time to explore, check out the hiking trails or bike routes, do some birdwatching and wildlife viewing, or visit the Fossil Prep Lab and watch paleontologists at work.

Badlands National Park is just one of the many things to see in the Black Hills area. Those that have a few days in the area may be interested in this itinerary.

2. Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Location: Ohio

Photo credit: Erik Drost

Located the farthest east of the parks on this list of Midwest national parks, Cuyahoga Valley National Park has plenty of historic charm in addition to its natural beauty. One example of this historic charm is the Stanford House, a house that belonged to James Stanford who was one of the original settlers of the Cuyahoga Valley. Today, visitors are able to book a room and spend the night at this historic house! Historic charm can also be seen in The Inn at Brandywine Falls, another one of the park’s lodging options.

Another piece of history that runs through Cuyahoga National Park is the Towpath Trail, which follows the route of the Ohio & Erie Canal. This canal played a pivotal role in the settlement of several communities and the United States’ industrial development.

The park also has plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation including hiking, mountain biking, kayaking and canoeing, winter sports, and more. Questing, a treasure hunt of sorts, is another popular activity in the park. For a unique experience that’s also a great way to see the park, take a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. This train can also be used as a shuttle to/from hiking and biking adventures in the park!

3. Gateway Arch National Park

Location: Missouri

Photo credit: Sam Valadi

Gateway Arch National Park is unlike most other US national parks because of its urban setting. Formerly called Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, it gained national park designation in February 2018.

Located right in St. Louis, the 630-foot Gateway Arch dominates the city’s skyline. For a unique experience and different perspective, visitors can take a tram ride to the top of the arch. While the visual focal point of this national park may be Gateway Arch, visitors shouldn’t miss the history associated with this landmark. A museum tells the story about the Native Americans, pioneers, and explorers that helped make America what it is today. The Old Courthouse is another place at this national park that visitors can tour and learn more about United States history.

4. Indiana Dunes National Park

Location: Indiana

Photo credit: National Park Service – M. Woodbridge Williams

Nestled up against Lake Michigan lies America’s newest national park, Indiana Dunes National Park. Prior to being designated as a national park in February 2019, it was known as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. As the name indicates, this national park features sand dunes formed and shaped by wind and water depositing sand.

With fifteen miles of beach, Indiana Dunes National Park is great for swimming and beach-going as well as water activities such as kayaking, fishing, and boating. Other outdoor activities include hiking, bird watching, horseback riding, and more.

Within the national park’s boundaries are also some interesting historic buildings including some Century of Progress homes. A home tour of these unique homes is held each year. Indiana Dunes Outdoor Adventure Festival is another event the park hosts.

5. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Location: North DakotaIn the heart of North Dakota’s Badlands lies the state’s only national park, named after Theodore Roosevelt who spent a significant amount of time there prior to becoming President in 1901. Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) has acres of prairie lands along with the more rugged landscape of the Badlands. The Little Missouri River winds through the park as well.

TRNP is home to a variety of wildlife including bison, prairie dogs, wild horses, and more, providing excellent wildlife watching opportunities. Other activities visitors can do in the park include driving the Scenic Loop, hiking, horseback riding, canoeing/kayaking, and camping. You can also explore a few historic places in TRNP, including Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch and Maltese Cross Cabin.

To learn more about things to do near Theodore National Park, click here.

6. Voyageurs National Park

Location: Minnesota

Photo credit: Flickr user Fighting Irish 1977

Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes, so it makes sense that its sole national park includes several lakes and islands. Voyageurs National Park is located way up north, along the US-Canada border.

Because of its lakes and waterways, Voyageurs National Park is an appealing destination for those interested in canoeing, kayaking and boating. To have the best experience at this national park, you’ll likely want to find some way to get on the water, whether it’s with your own watercraft, a rental or by guided tour. Voyageurs is also a popular place for houseboats.

This national park attracts winter enthusiasts as well, with options for cross country skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and other winter activities.

7. Wind Cave National Park

Location: South Dakota

Photo credit: Patrick Boyle

Wind Cave National Park is located in the Black Hills area of South Dakota, and features one of the longest caves in the world. When visiting this national park, you should definitely try to do a cave tour in order to get a closer look at this amazing underground geological formation. Above ground, you’ll find an abundance of prairie lands, with trails for hiking and horseback riding.

Those planning to visit Wind Cave National Park should also plan to make Custer State Park a part of the trip! If you’re planning to make the Black Hills area part of a Yellowstone road trip, check out this itinerary.

Instead of just driving through the middle of the country right by some of these lesser-known national parks, consider making them a destination for your next trip!




Family Trip to Yellowstone Gone Wrong, or Just Right?

I have lived in Wyoming my entire life, besides a year long stint in Idaho. Unfortunately, I can count on one hand the times I have been to Yellowstone National Park. My husband was set to deploy with the military the first week of July, 2019. On June 28th, 2019 I got the harebrained idea that we were going to have one last “Hurrah” and take a family camping trip to Yellowstone.

I called Bridge Bay Campground and managed to secure the last available tent camping spot for the evening. We quickly gathered our supplies and put our two-year-old and four-month-old baby in the car. I know, I know. What the heck were we thinking? As it turns out, this ended up being our most memorable trip to date as a family of four.

family trip to yellowstone

When we arrived at our campground, there was just enough daylight left to set up out tent and get things ready before the kids needed to be in bed. It had been a long and wonderful day. We started pulling things out of the car and I started to silently panic inside as each item from the car was removed… and our air mattress was nowhere to be found. Turns out, my husband had thought I grabbed it when I said I had the mattress PUMP. Darkness was setting in and we decided to just set up what we had and hope for the best.

Oh, it gets better though, when we went to light our fire for the evening, we realized that we had forgotten any sort of lighter or matches. You’d think we’d been raised somewhere other than Wyoming with this level of unpreparedness. (Thank goodness for gas stations and overpriced supplies). We ate dinner and spent about 30 minutes at a little evening theater presentation on the Grey Wolf. We came back and each snuggled in next to a kid. Unbeknownst to either of us, when we had set up our tent, we had put it on slightly uneven ground, and the way we had placed our pillows had us laying in a slight hole that left the blood rushing to our heads all night. Wyoming in June can be a tad chilly, and I can say between the rock in my side, the position of my head, and the fact that I was cold it was the WORST night of sleep I have ever gotten.

bison in yellowstone np

Sometime in the early morning, I heard hooves on the ground near our tent. Mother nature couldn’t wait, and I snuck out to a Bison about 20 feet away from our campground. I cautiously walked to the bathroom facilities, and when I came back I was greeted by one of my top five most beautiful sunrises through the trees… and the screeching of what I thought was an injured animal, but turns out was just my exhausted toddler. We groggily got up and prepared breakfast, then we quickly packed up our campground with our toddler’s screeches as background accompaniment to the peaceful surroundings.

We got in the car and complained and blamed one another for the mattress mishap and the disaster the night before had been. After a few minutes of silence and some gas station coffee, we apologized and promised each other to try to make the best of the day. We went through the whole park and exited through the Cody side. Since we had chosen to go on a weekday, we’d been able to enjoy the park without the large crowds that are common on the weekends, much to my husband’s delight. We booked a hotel in Cody, Wyoming, showered, and fell into an exhausted sleep that only occurs when you’ve had the best day adventuring.

father and daughter in wyoming

Although our daughter is so small, she surprised me months after our trip by asking me, “when will we see the Buffalo again mommy?” and a few weeks later she told me, “my daddy took me to see the waterfall.” She was referring to Yellowstone Falls. Although the trip did not go as planned, it warmed my heart to realize that while we thought we had failed, our little girl saw only the fun, and beautiful moments of the trip. She remembered walking to the waterfall with her dad and waking up to a buffalo just feet away.

My daughter turned three years old in March and her dad hasn’t returned because of COVID-19. We have lots of plans for his homecoming, but number one on the list is a trip to Yellowstone. Maybe I’ll forget to pack something crucial on purpose this time, just so we can have another story to laugh about for the rest of our lives.




Maple Pass Loop: One of the Best North Cascades Hikes

The fact that North Cascades National Park is one of the least visited US national parks is surprising, to say the least. The Cascade Mountains are stunning, and anyone planning a trip to or through Washington should be sure to take time to appreciate this area. A great way to see the beauty of the North Cascades is to take a hike. One of the best North Cascades hikes is Maple Pass Loop. This hike has breathtaking views of snowcapped mountains, lakes, waterfalls, glaciers,  and wildflowers. Plus, it’s a loop, so you get new scenery every step of the way.

Getting There

To access the Maple Pass Loop hike, use the Rainy Pass Trailhead, located just off North Cascades Highway. This is the highway that goes through North Cascades National Park. You should definitely at least drive through the national park, even if you don’t have too much time. One of the places that’s a quick and easy stop on the way through North Cascades National Park is the Diablo Lake Overlook. The lake’s beautiful turquoise water with surrounding mountain peaks make it a wonderful photo op.

From the Diablo Lake Overlook, continue on North Cascades Highway for about 20 more miles and you’ll see signs for Rainy Pass Trailhead. The trailhead is located in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, and has a large parking lot with a few vault toilets and picnic tables.

Hiking Maple Pass Loop

Because the trail is a loop, you have a choice which direction to hike it—clockwise or counterclockwise. For those that prefer a more gradual descent to spare some stress on the joints, doing the hike clockwise is recommended. Some claim hiking the trail counterclockwise offers slightly more dramatic views. But really, the views will be stunning no matter which direction you choose to hike Maple Pass loop.

When doing the hike clockwise, one of the first large clearings you come upon offers a view of Rainy Lake and the winding North Cascades Highway. If you’re up for more adventure, you can take the branch of the trail that leads to Rainy Lake.

The views of Rainy Lake with trickling waterfalls continue as you make your way up the trail. This will help distract you from the workout you’ll likely be getting from the elevation gain during the ascent.

After a while, you’ll reach the series of switchbacks that leads to the trail’s summit. Wildflowers dot the hillside and snowcapped peaks appear closer and closer, motivating you to continue the climb to the top.

Upon reaching the summit at just under 7,000 feet elevation, you’re greeted with incredible views of mountain peaks and glacial features. This is the perfect place to stop for a rest, have a snack, and take plenty of photos.

From there, it’s basically all downhill. Well, at least in terms of elevation. The scenery certainly doesn’t go downhill, as you continue to have gorgeous views of alpine lakes and towering mountains. Watch for a beautiful turquoise lake that’s visible through a clearing (pictured below). This is Lewis Lake with Black Peak behind it. The allure of this little lake is something else. If you can’t resist exploring that area, look for the less-established trails going to Lewis Lake, Wing Lake, and Black Peak. You can access those trails in the Heather Pass area. However, these trails are slightly more difficult to navigate so be prepared.

As you continue on the trail, a little while later you’ll get a great view of another lake, Lake Ann. Wildflowers are also abundant in this area, especially in mid-July. If you have time and energy, the branch trail to Lake Ann is a fun detour.

As you continue on the trail, you’ll go through a more treed area. Then eventually you’ll reach the Rainy Pass Trailhead and parking lot. After finishing, you’ll likely feel a deep sense of satisfaction from experiencing one of the best hikes of your life. This hike just about has it all—mountains, lakes, wildflowers, and glaciers. And, it’s a decent workout, but not unreasonably strenuous. Be sure to add Maple Pass Loop to your list of must-do North Cascades hikes!

Tips & More Things to Know

If you’re planning to hike the Maple Pass Loop, here are a few tips and things to know:

  • Due to the elevation, it’s not uncommon to encounter patches of snow on the trail, even in July. You may want to bring hiking poles or some sort of traction system for your footwear, depending on the time of year you’re doing the hike.
  • To spare your joints while descending, do the hike clockwise.
  • Wear sunscreen⁠—always a good reminder especially at higher elevations!
  • Bring bug spray because there are some places along the trail where bugs will find you pretty quickly if you stop moving.
  • Although bear sightings are not common along Maple Pass Loop, carrying bear spray is a good idea since there are bears in the area.
  • Dogs are allowed on this trail, but should be kept on a leash.

Want to do even more exploring in the North Cascades area? Check out our Cascade Loop itinerary! It even has a few more suggestions for North Cascades hikes.




A Love Affair with Grand Canyon National Park

I moved to Sedona, Arizona in December 2017, having only been once before to visit. On my previous trip, I had spent several days basking in the glory of the Red Rocks and the famous glow of the energy vortexes. It was my 27th birthday. Six months later, when the opportunity to move to Sedona presented itself, I took a leap of faith. I knew Arizona was magic and I wanted to be in it.

My first day off work was Christmas day. I hadn’t made any friends yet, so I drove to Grand Canyon alone. Just past Flagstaff, cell phone reception became a distant memory and the high desert felt like an endless blend of tan and red with the San Francisco peaks looming in the rear view. Windows down, I sang along to “Grand Canyon” by the Wind and the Wave, the cool, dry air on my face. You haven’t lived till you’ve been to the Grand Canyon. I was about to live.

Christine at the canyon

When I arrived at the canyon, I pulled into the main Visitor’s Center parking lot and ran to the closest lookout point. My breath caught in my chest as I gazed into the depths of the canyon. I had never seen something so large, so all consuming. As far as I could see East and West were the branching veins and arteries of the canyon, stretching on in perpetuity.

The park was nearly empty, the canyon was all mine. I stood leaning over the railing at Mather Point with my mouth agape and tears in my eyes. I took a photo with my phone—the kind of photo that would later feel flat and dull. Painters and photographers have spent lifetimes trying to capture the Grand Canyon, but it cannot be taken from Northern Arizona. You can’t experience the canyon from your living room in Minnesota.

Standing at the precipice, there is a sense of grandness. I hate to use the word “grand” to describe the Grand Canyon, but it just is. Not only because of its vastness, but of its magnificence. The complexity is overwhelming and the depths unimaginable.

Only 1% of visitors step below the rim, I couldn’t resist. The warning sign at the Bright Angel Trailhead is a stiff deterrent. Alone, unprepared and largely inexperienced at desert hiking —I allowed myself only a quick jaunt down the tight switchbacks. Just a mile or so. I knew I would be back.

Over the next few months, I felt the pull of the canyon. Every chance I got, I returned. I visited in January with a man I was dating. We held hands as a fierce wind whipped my hair around and a light snow dusted the ground and the inner peaks. I drove back in February alone, and ran down the trail with nothing but a water bottle and the tears of heartbreak on my cheeks. Hikers and tourists watched and whispered as I passed. By March, my job had completely taken over my life and the Grand Canyon became the only place I felt like Christine anymore.

Colorado River

Every time I drove along U.S. Highway 180, I sang those words—sometimes I yelled them at the top of my lungs. You haven’t lived till you’ve been to the Grand Canyon. I hurled my pain into the canyon, I told it my secrets, I let it take those things I couldn’t carry. Every time I visited; I went a little deeper.

In April 2018, I quit my job and left Arizona. My visits to the canyon became less frequent —but I still felt the pull. In May 2019, I guided a hiking trip down Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point—a challenging 12-mile round trip. In July, I visited the North Rim for the first time. It’s a quieter version of the canyon, higher in elevation, a bit less desert-y feeling. The beauty is surreal. But it wasn’t enough.

The ominous signs at every trailhead warn hikers against attempting to reach the river and return to the rim in a day. But I had to. I had to know the deepest part of the canyon. But I couldn’t do it as a hiker—I needed to run. I’d never dreamed of anything so difficult.

running the canyon

In October 2019, I stood in front of the North Kaibab Trailhead sign for a photo at 5 am. My running partner and I emerged from the Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim twelve hours later. I have never felt more alive. In this magical place, I did something I never dreamed of elsewhere. 24 miles of dirt trail passed beneath my feet—the canyon was not an obstacle, but the very thing that sustained me.

Within its walls—I too am grand.

running grand canyon




Yellowstone North Entrance: The Best Town to Stay In

Just an hour drive from the Yellowstone north entrance, Livingston, Montana is something out of an old-fashioned western fairytale. The small town is nestled between four stunning mountain ranges and lies alongside the Yellowstone River. From historic hotels and local beef dinners to world-class fishing and waterfall hikes, Livingston is easily one of the best year-round options for a home base when visiting Yellowstone National Park.

This article was created in partnership with the Livingston Chamber of Commerce and TBID. All photos provided by the Livingston Chamber.

Livingston is a launching point for Yellowstone National Park. Fly into Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport just 30 minutes away, or fly into Billings, an easy 1 hour, 45 minutes away. Many folks like to stay in the park for a few nights to cut down on driving time, which is a great idea. In Yellowstone you’ll get high doses of nature, wildlife, and scenic views. In Livingston you’ll get authenticity, unique experiences, fantastic local (and more budget friendly) lodging, and a whole lot of local charm. Livingston has a stay for every taste.

Livingston MT Pin 

Livingston First, Yellowstone North Entrance Second

Why do we recommend staying in Livingston on your Yellowstone vacation? It’s the best way to get national park advice from true locals. Make friends in Livingston and find out where they like to go in the park. It also has a wide variety of overnight options so your Yellowstone home away from home will be exactly what your vacation style calls for. Furthermore, not only does Livingston provide easy access to the National Park, you’ll find this historic town on the banks on the Yellowstone River is also a year-round destination in its own right.

Day 1: Explore the town

The best way to get over travel fatigue and soreness is to go for a walk. Take a stroll through town and soak up Livingston’s charming Main Street. Try the local cuisine, and find out what events are happening while you’re there. There’s often live music, art auctions, and even weekly fly-tying workshops at the local fly-fishing shop.

Livingston Montana downtown in the winter

Lodging

Something we love about Livingston is the assortment of unique lodging the town has to offer. Book your home away from home in Livingston, as they have a variety of choices, from a charming Western hotel or a family-run motor in to a brand-new place with a pool for the kids and a Jacuzzi for you. You’ll find a stay to suit your tastes in this happening little town.

Day 2: Ride the River

Time for some sports action! What better way to experience the Yellowstone River than to go rafting? Check out the list of outfitters that will take your family out for a day of white water rafting down the river. If you’re not looking to get soaking wet, go out on the river with a fly-fishing guide in search of dinner instead. 

Rafting on the Yellowstone River

Arts & Theatre

During the day, visit the three museums in Livingston. In the evening, experience local theatre any time of year at the Shane Lalani Center for the Arts or the Blue Slipper Theater

Shane Lalani Center for the Arts theatre

In the summer, you’ll also find live bands all over town—you’ll have lots to choose from, especially Thursday through Saturday nights.

If you’re looking for a more Western form of entertainment, you’ll find it at the Livingston rodeo or in the form of art by renowned artists who call Livingston home. Between shows, sets, and meals, browse the 18 art galleries in town to see local art inspired by the beauty of Livingston.

Day 3: Hiking and Fishing

Before continuing down to the Yellowstone north entrance, make the most of your third day by getting up early and grabbing breakfast at one of may spots, such as the Northern Pacific Beanery or Pinky’s Cafe. Any dining option in Livingston will offer you home-cooked, classic American breakfasts. Make sure you fuel up, because there is no shortage of outdoor recreation surrounding Livingston. With over 1 million acres of public land right outside your hotel door, you can take a biking trail all the way from the center of town down Paradise Valley, soaking up all the views of the surrounding mountain ranges. Test your fitness and hike up to the top of Livingston Peak, enjoying beautiful wildflowers on the way, or take a more relaxed hour-long hike to the Pine Creek Falls. You can choose to fly-fish on the Yellowstone river or golf  the only course in the country that sits right next to the Yellowstone River.

Woman hiking with beautiful views in Livingston Montana

Music & Hot Springs

On your way south, we highly recommend seeing a show at the Montana Music Ranch or the Old Saloon. There’s nothing like live music in a gorgeous red barn, in the middle of a field with exceptional mountain views—except maybe live music at a quirky, themed saloon with an outdoor stage.  If your hotel doesn’t have a pool, make a stop at Chico Hot Springs or Yellowstone Hot Springs. It will be a peaceful moment to soak up your Livingston experience. 

Once you drive into the Yellowstone north entrance and spend some time immersed in nature and wilderness, you’ll be glad you spent those few days around such charming people, culture, and easy-living in Livingston, Montana. 

Yellowstone River and the Mountains

 




6 Things To Do When Visiting Yellowstone in Winter

Visiting Yellowstone in winter can be an experience of a lifetime. This national park wows any time of the year, but during the winter, it really is something special. Sparse crowds, snow-blanketed landscapes, and incredible wildlife sightings make winter one of the best times to visit Yellowstone National Park.
However, some extra planning is required to visit Yellowstone in winter. Due to many of the park’s roads being closed, the logistics of a winter visit are slightly more complex than for a summer visit. Check out this list of things to do when visiting Yellowstone in winter along with some other recommendations and helpful tips.

1. Take a Snowcoach or Snowmobile Tour

First of all, who wouldn’t want to take a ride in a vehicle that looks as cool as a snowcoach. These vehicles are able to drive on many of the park roads that are closed to the public in the winter, making it an ideal way (and often the only way) to see some of the park’s popular destinations like Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Old Faithful, and West Thumb Geyser Basin. Guided snowmobile tours are another great option for seeing Yellowstone in winter. To book a snowmobile or snowcoach tour, check the list of authorized snowcoach and snowmobile tour operators.
Also, if you are interested in going snowmobiling in Yellowstone without a guide, you’ll need to go through the Non-commercially Guided Snowmobile Access Program.

Photo credit: National Park Service – Jacob W. Frank

2. Watch Wildlife

Yellowstone National Park is known for its wildlife. Bison, wolves, and bears roam the land. One of the most entertaining wildlife watching opportunities, especially in the winter, is river otters. Take a look at these river otters who are clearly living their best winter life.

A few of the places that you may see these adorable otters in Yellowstone are on the banks of the Lamar River, Madison River, Yellowstone River, Soda Butte Creek and Lewis River.
One of the most well-known places to see wildlife in Yellowstone National Park is Lamar Valley. No matter the season, it’s likely that you’ll spot some wildlife in this area. During the winter, bison, wolves, coyotes, and deer are often seen in this area. Other wildlife sightings in and near Yellowstone National Park during the winter include elk, foxes, bighorn sheep, and maybe even a cougar or a moose.

Photo credit: National Park Service – Jacob W. Frank

3. Snap Stunning Photos

This probably seems like a given these days, but seriously, plan to take loads of photos. If you own a camera that’s not your phone, bring it. If you know someone that owns a digital/DSLR camera, consider asking them if you can borrow it for this trip. When you visit Yellowstone in winter, you may have the chance to get a once-in-a-lifetime photo. Whether it’s a river otter sliding down a snow bank, a geyser steaming in crisp winter air, or a breathtakingly beautiful scene with a frozen waterfall, you’ll want to be prepared to capture it in the best quality possible. It’s no wonder why so many photographers offer photo tours in Yellowstone.

Photo credit: National Park Service – Jacob W. Frank

4. Snowshoe, Cross Country Ski & Hike Snow-covered Trails

Yellowstone National Park is the perfect place to do some of your favorite winter activities. Enjoy the peaceful surroundings and take to the trails with skis, snowshoes, or some warm boots. Some of the best areas in Yellowstone for these activities include Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful Geyser Basin, Tower, and Northeast. It’s always a good idea to check trail info and conditions before heading out. If you’re interested in renting equipment, there are a few places in the park that offer rentals of skis, snowshoes, and more.

Photo credit: National Park Service – Jacob W. Frank

5. Soak in the River

On a chilly winter day, soaking in warm water feels incredible. In Yellowstone National Park, there are a couple places where you can safely and legally take a dip in the water. The best option in the winter is the Boiling River. Where the warmer Boiling River meets the cooler Gardner River, a pool of warm water forms. You can expect pockets of both cold water and warm water so it may take a while to find the perfect spot where the water temperature is just right. Make sure you bring a towel and warm clothes to put on after since it’s about a half-mile walk back to the parking area. Be sure to heed all rules and warnings for swimming and soaking, and do not try to swim in any areas other than the designated swimming/soaking areas.

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6. Stay in a Yurt

The Yellowstone Expeditions Yurt Camp is an amazing experience for those seeking a unique lodging opportunity, a little extra adventure, or a basecamp for backcountry skiing. The camp, located approximately a half-mile from Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, has yurts and yurtlets (smaller heated huts) as well as a dining room yurt and a sauna. Staying at a yurt camp during winter in Yellowstone is definitely a memorable experience!

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Notes, Tips & Other Helpful Info

Here are a few things to consider when visiting Yellowstone in the winter.

  • Be aware that only one entrance is open
    During the winter, only the north entrance (near Gardiner, MT) of Yellowstone National Park is open to public vehicles. Some snowmobile and snowcoach tours use other entrances, but if you are planning to enter the park with your own vehicle, you must use the north entrance.
  • Give yourself enough time
    Because many roads inside the park are closed to the public during the winter, it takes a little more time to get around the park. With that in mind, don’t expect to be able to visit all areas of the park in just one day. Give yourself at least a couple of days so you can make the most out of your visit.
  • Research available tours and excursions
    One of the only ways to see certain parts of Yellowstone during the winter is to book a tour or excursion. This may be a little outside the comfort zone for those that tend to prefer exploring independently, but it’s often worth it.
  • Bring appropriate gear
    This may seem like common sense, but it is important. If you plan to do any sightseeing outside, bring a warm jacket, gloves, hat, snow boots, ski pants or other insulated pants, and wool socks. Yaktrax or crampons, snowshoes, and hiking poles may also be helpful for exploring.

Areas Near Yellowstone to Explore

Looking for other places near Yellowstone to explore? Check out these suggestions!

Now, get started planning your winter Yellowstone trip and make all your winter wonderland dreams come true!




Avoid the Crowds: Utah National Parks in the Winter

My first time experiencing the Utah national parks was in February⁠—the middle of winter. I have to say, the next time I go back to Moab, I’m planning for winter again. From the crowd-less parks and low hotel rates, to the snow-capped arches and cozy cafes, it just seems like the best time to visit.

This story was created in partnership with Discover Moab. All photos by Tobey Schmidt.

Sure, Moab can be cold in the winter, but it can also be very sunny. Temperatures were above freezing during our visit, and there was snow in higher elevations, but the sun was out every day. Plan the perfect winter trip by skiing the slopes in Salt Lake City before heading south to experience the parks in Moab.

Collage of Utah National Parks

Enjoy Solitude in Utah National Parks + State Parks

My partner and I sat completely alone underneath Delicate Arch at sunset. “Wow, I bet you never get to see this without people,” I said aloud.

Arches National Park

While it was unusual to have Delicate Arch to ourselves, apparently that’s not an uncommon occurrence during the colder months. ‘Why wouldn’t people want to come here in the winter?’ we asked ourselves. Glistening snow was dusted on the tops of the red, sandstone arches and the breeze kept us cool as we hiked uphill.

arches national park delicate arch in utah in winter

The best part about being alone in Arches was that I could really hone in my photography without having to worry about there being 30 random people in my shot.

Lucas looking up at Double Arch

Deadhorse Point State Park

Known for its incredible overlook of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park, Deadhorse Point State Park is a great spot to hit at sunrise. Hard to motivate that early in the morning? We stopped by Love Muffin Cafe for some coffee and homemade muffins to enjoy on the 40-minute drive. Muffins or not, it was so worth it to be out there as the sun rose over the canyon, reflecting off the river below.

Looking out over Deadhorse Point State Park at sunrise on a trip to Utah national parks in winter

Canyonlands National Park

After enjoying the sunrise, we drove just down the road to Canyonlands National Park. The park is split into three districts, and the closest to Moab is called Island in the Sky. We planned to hike, but the weather was nice enough that we could have even ridden bikes on the trails if we wanted.

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, in winter

Since it was my first time in the park, I really wanted to photograph the famous Mesa Arch. It’s a quick loop hike that visits a spectacular arch on the edge of cliff. The bottom of the arch was glowing orange from the sun’s illumination. Looking through the arch we had views of the canyon and the snowy La Sal Mountains in the distance. We saw many arches on this trip, but Mesa Arch might have been my favorite.

Rappel into Slot Canyons

Many people don’t realize how many activities there are to do in the wintertime in Moab—it’s not all sightseeing and hiking. Looking for something more adventurous, we booked a full-day excursion with Moab Canyon Tours. Our guide, Zach, took us to Irish Canyons where we went up through one canyon, and down into another.

Irish Canyons with Moab Canyon Tours

Going up the first canyon required lots of scrambling moves using body tension. If Zach ever felt it was risky, he could give us a belay using a rope so that we wouldn’t fall. Going down the second canyon was even more fun. We rappelled three times, each time going deeper into the canyon. One rappel began by crawling into a hole and then descending another 30 feet, where we ended up in the most beautiful slot canyon I’ve ever seen. This tour was definitely a highlight of our trip.

Two pictures of Lucas in the slot canyons

Rock-Crawl in a Jeep & Visit Dinosaur Tracks

I’ve been off-roading in a Jeep only a handful of times, but this experience with Big Iron Tour Co. was something else! Owner of Big Iron Tours, Mike, took us on some dubious routes along steep, rocky ridges. I didn’t know the capabilities of the 4-wheeled rock-crawler until I watched Mike easily maneuver the Jeep over what I thought looked like vertical rock face.

Jeep crawling over rocks in Moab

Mike took us into a hidden cave where he taught us about the pictographs on the rock and what he thought the Native American had used the cave for. We also went to the sites of dinosaur tracks and fossils. I had no idea there was that much history so close to town. We (literally) rode into the sunset and watched the moon rise over the La Sal Mountains, all while Mike kept us entertained with his stories.

Big Iron Tour Co. Jeeps in Moab

Dine + Stay

Sometimes I get worried during travel that I won’t be able to find good food. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy cheap burgers and fries every once in a while, but it’s not what I want for dinner every night. Luckily the food scene in Moab is so rich, that I didn’t need to worry. From gourmet steakhouses to authentic Thai food, they have got it all. To top it off, there’s even a health-foods store with an impressive produce section, and a hot-food bar for quicker, healthy meals.

A collage of food options in Moab

As I mentioned, hotel rates are typically much cheaper in the winter than during Moab’s peak season. We stayed at the new Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection by Hilton, where the rates were less than half of their normal price. Plus, g-l-a-m-o-r-o-u-s! It was nice coming back after a long day in the dirt to a clean room with an on-site hot tub.

Hoodoo by Hilton Hotel Moab, Utah

We are advocates of sustainable travel, and I know that Discover Moab is too, which is why they’d like everyone to learn how to do Moab Like a Local. Now bundle up and go enjoy those crowd-less Utah national parks! When you’re finished with Moab, head further south and experience Zion National Park classic hikes, “winter style.”

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Zion National Park Winter: Cold Weather Adventures

Interested in Zion National Park winter time activities? Well, there’s actually more to do than you’d think. Two of the most popular hikes in Zion⁠—Angel’s Landing and the Narrows⁠—are typically hike-able all winter long. Plus, the park is WAY less crowded, rates are cheaper, and the snow adds another dimension of beauty.

Collage of photos from Zion in the winter

Hike

Make sure to check for trail closures before you go out on any hikes. You can check with any park ranger or at the visitor’s center.

The Narrows

As you may know, “the Narrows” hike was given its name because it’s the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, even requiring hikers to walk in the Virgin River for most of the hike. When we visited in early February the air temperature was 34°F (2°C) and the water temperature was 40°(4°C). Burrrr! With the proper gear, however, you wouldn’t even know it was so cold.

Blue water in the Narrows of the Virgin River

The Gear

The day before our hike we stopped into Zion Outfitters where we rented a dry suit, neoprene socks, and boots to keep our bodies dry and our feet warm. Since it’s a drysuit, not a wetsuit, we could wear warm layers underneath. We also made sure to wear hats, gloves, and bring food to help keep us warm. In total, we were hiking in the cold water for about three hours. It wasn’t until the last half-hour that our feet started to feel cold, but it was never too bad.

Wading through cold water in the Narrows

The Advantage

The entire hike we only saw two other parties of people. I’ve never hiked the Narrows in the summer, but I’m pretty sure that’s unheard of. It was amazing to have so much solitude in the canyon, and definitely made it easier to photograph. Another benefit of going in the winter was seeing the pristine icicles hang down from the caves and rocks above us.

Two pictures from the Narrows in Zion National Park winter

Angel’s Landing

Zion National Park winter weather is not always consistent year after year, so it’s hard to know when it could dump snow and when it could be sunny and almost warm. If you get a day of sun, even partly sunny, we suggest hiking Angel’s Landing. The hike is 5-miles total, but very steep. We hiked it in freezing temperatures and I was still wearing a t-shirt and sweating!

hiking up to Angel's Landing in Zion

If the hike is predicted to have snow or ice at the top, head over to Zion Adventure Company in Springdale to rent a pair of micro-spikes for better traction. This hike has very steep drop-offs at the top, so take it seriously and be careful. Children and people who don’t like heights should not complete the end of the hike.

Hiking Angel's Landing in Zion National Park.

Photograph

As we mentioned, the white snow on the red rock definitely adds another dimension of beauty to Zion, making it a great time to photograph the park. Also, we found it easier to photograph Zion in the winter rather than the summer, because we could drive our personal vehicles throughout the park. Normally visitors must ride on the shuttle, which typically runs from mid-February through November, and part of the December holidays. It’s a bit quicker getting around with your camera gear in your own car.

Zion National Park winter with snow

Relax and Unwind

A great part about experiencing Zion National Park winter time is that the rates of hotels and amenities are cheaper than they are during their busy season. Stay in the town of Springdale, relax in luxurious hot tubs with park views, and enjoy local restaurants without lines of people.

picture of Desert Pearl Inn Zion

Check out our full Southern Utah itinerary here. Zion, plus five other national parks.