How to National Park It … Minus the Masses

Oct 28, 2020
By: Melinda Rhodes

How to National Park It … Minus the Masses

Visit these places in and around Utah’s Mighty Five to escape the crowds.

Too people-y.

If you’ve ever been to Arches, Bryce, or Zion National Park and uttered these words to yourself, you’re not alone. We have too. But here’s a little secret: There are still ways to enjoy our national parks and the surrounding areas sans crowds. That’s right. No busloads of lookie-loos pushing past you on the trail, holding their iPads and brand new DSLRs precariously over the edge trying to get a better view. No selfie-sticks hitting you in the head as the unaware suddenly whirl around to get an Insta-worthy shot. Sure, you’ll probably still see a few other people wherever you go, but you’ll also be surrounded by pure, unadulterated panoramas.

Arc(hes) de Triomphe

During peak months (April, May, September, and October), as many as 2,000 people hike to Delicate Arch each day. The parking lot overfloweth. Park rangers ticketeth illegally parked cars. Those traversing the trail look like ants in a line, following pheromones to a sandstone smorgasbord. But you don’t have to fall in step with others to see Utah’s most recognizable arch in person. Consider visiting Arches National Park during the off-season (December through March) when there are fewer people.

If you absolutely, positively MUST go during peak months, get up before dawn and drive into the park while it’s still dark. Chances are there won’t be more than a handful of cars when you arrive in the parking lot. Strap on a headlamp and hit the trail. Once you’re at the top, sit and watch the sunrise. The early morning vibe is serene yet energetic. Take your obligatory picture (without strangers ruining it!) and head back down the trail.

If you have a been-there-done-that attitude about Delicate Arch, there are plenty of other arches to be seen. Tower Arch is secluded in the northwest end of the Arches National Park. But there are also hundreds of arches found outside of the park’s boundaries ― Utah has the most arches per capita of anywhere in the world. Go where the locals go and check out one of these arches (or natural bridges) instead.

If you have an ATV or 4WD vehicle, there’s a fun 26-mile loop in the Behind the Rocks area south of Moab that goes past two aptly named arches: Balcony and Picture Frame. Stop at the latter and walk up the slick rock to get a better view of the square intrados.

Bryce, Bryce, Baby

Who’s better than Yoda? Baby Yoda. What’s better than Bryce Canyon National Park? Baby Bryce … errr, Cedar Breaks National Monument if you wanna use its formal name. Cedar Breaks might be smaller than its counterpart park, but this altitudinous amphitheater is 1,000(ish) feet taller. It has similar views in rich hues. Saffron sandstone. Hoodoos out the wazoo. Forested borders and prismatic wildflowers. And a Dark Sky designation. Yet, it doesn’t have vast amounts of visitors. Roughly 900,000 people visit Cedar Breaks each year, compared to Bryce’s 2.7 million. Red Canyon is another smaller-yet-spectacular surrogate, located on Highway 12 just west of Bryce Canyon. Deep green pinyon pines contrast beautifully against the red rock cliffs and hoodoos. Visit any time of year — it has trails for hiking, biking, ATVing, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing — but expects fewer folks in the winter months.

De-Zion Thyself

With 4.5 million visitors in 2019, Zion National Park ranks fourth on the National Park Service’s list of most popular parks. The Kolob Canyons district of Zion, however, only sees about 85,000 visitors each year. And to preserve the crimson cliffs and cascading falls, group sizes are limited to a maximum of 12 members on all but one of the hiking trails in Kolob Canyons. You’ll find solitude on both the Taylor Creek Trail and the La Verkin Creek Trail. Arches along the way are an added bonus.

Wanna walk through a watery slot canyon but don’t wanna squeeze through The Narrows with the rest of the world? Check out one of these aquatic alternatives (weather permitting) outside of Zion National Park.

  • Willis Creek Slot Canyon | Grand Staircase-Escalante | 3 miles
  • Professor Creek and Mary Jane Canyon | Near Moab | 7.6 miles
  • Coyote Gulch | Grand-Staircase Escalante | 11.5 miles
  • Buckskin Gulch | near Kanab | 21 miles

For some people, the appeal of Zion is more about its proximity to St. George than anything else. If you find yourself with an open afternoon while in town for that soccer/softball/pickleball tournament, head 11 miles northwest and sequester in Snow Canyon State Park. Its landscape swirls red and white sandstone with black lava flows and variegated desert vegetation. Hike, bike, or climb your way through its colorful depths. A guided horseback ride is also a great way to experience solitude in Snow Canyon, as group sizes are usually limited to single digits.

Capitol Reef the Rewards

Speaking of hooved animals … llama say, “namaste.” Capitol Reef National Park is already a relatively peaceful place to visit, welcoming about 75% fewer people than Zion each year. But if you really want to get

away from everyone, consider going on a multi-day llama trek along an alpine ridge overlooking Capitol Reef and Grand-Staircase Escalante. You will be rewarded with breathtaking views, cooler summer temps, and the solitude you seek. Another option? Forego the 71-site Fruita Campground in favor of a primitive campground inside the park. The Cathedral Valley Campground has just six sites, while the Cedar Mesa Campground has five. About an hour outside of the park, Calf Creek Campground has 13 sites and a trail that leads to a waterfall plunging 130 feet into a pool below. Two words: desert oasis.

Canyonlands Cliff Notes

A female hiker and her toddler son enjoy a view of the snowcapped La Sal Mountains from the White Rim Overlook trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

With just over 700,000 visitors each year, Canyonlands National Park is Utah’s least visited. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less spectacular — especially if you’ve got a tricked out truck, Jeep, or another 4WD vehicle capable of conquering the backcountry roads that lead to some of the most remote corners of the park. There are paint-scraping narrows. A turn so tight you have to navigate it in reverse. And views for days. Not sure if your gas guzzler has the gusto to make it? Take a guided tour instead. You’ll have more time to ooh and aah at the scenery. Plus, the pros know where all the hidden passages and secret canyons are. Translation: You’ll be all alone. If you prefer pavement to bravement, take the Dead Horse Point Scenic Drive. Even the smallest sedans can handle this trip through the state park of the same name. And it offers vertiginous views of Canyonlands’ Maze and Needles districts without actually entering the national park. While you’re there, spend the night in a yurt. The five Moenkopi Yurts have access to the Intrepid Mountain Biking Trail system via a private spur. Wake up, watch the sunrise, then listen to the sweet sound of your knobby 29ers braapping along before others have even entered the park.

Plan Your Escape

Whether you’re introverted or extroverted, everyone needs some quiet time in nature. Plan your trip to any of Utah’s Mighty Five during the off-season or visit the alternative locations mentioned here. You can also browse the rest of Utah.com to find more opportunities for outdoor enjoyment.

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