Beyond The National Parks: Public Lands To Visit—Without The Crowds

Aug 22, 2022

Traffic jams. Bear jams, bison jams, waterfall jams. At some of America’s best-known national parks, hourslong waits to get in are followed by crushing crowds of sightseers, overrun facilities and roads choked with vehicles. Not exactly a wondrous experience of nature.

But lovers of natural beauty and outdoor recreation need not despair. Away from the most popular national parks—places like Yellowstone and Yosemite—there are vast tracts of public land, from mountains to shorelines, with plenty to offer and a bit of solitude. The U.S. Forest Service oversees about 195 million acres of forests and grasslands. The Bureau of Land Management manages more than 245 million acres of land. And the National Park Service administers 85 million acres of protected sites—most of which attract far fewer visitors than the top spots.

“There are so many precious places Americans aren’t even aware of, ” says Jim Pattiz, co-founder of More Than Just Parks, a film company and informational website about the nation’s federally managed parks, forests, monuments and other public lands. “Some may require a slightly more do-it-yourself mind-set, but the bottom line is you don’t have to go to a national park to see incredible landscapes.”

For planning purposes, the National Forest Foundation provides an extremely helpful overview of national forests as destinations, and the Public Lands Initiative is a great one-stop shop for maps, information and planning tips. Rules for vehicle use and other activities are easily found online for each site, along with fees and other information, and a phone call to the agency that manages the site can resolve any questions. And it’s often possible to hire guides or outfitter services to handle any logistics at your chosen destination.

For starters, here’s a sampling of lesser-known natural getaways. Most are far outside the spheres of tour groups and commercial marketing, which makes for blissfully uncrowded, invigorating and rewarding experiences. One thing to keep in mind: Visitors should always leave any site as they found it.

On the Midwest waterfront 

Jaw-dropping shorelines might not come to mind when most people think of the Midwest, but they’re out there. Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Lake Superior offers sandy beaches and dunes, turquoise waters and rocky islands, without the crowds that flock to places like Acadia National Park in Maine or the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida and Mississippi. For more of an adventure there’s the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. Hire a guide and glide through a vast network of pristine freshwater lakes. Watch for moose, bears and wolves—northern Minnesota is one of the last strongholds of gray wolves in the contiguous 48 states—and camp in birdsong-filled forests for an otherworldly experience far from the 21st century.

Utah’s hidden treasures 

Southern Utah’s awe-inspiring, richly colored rock formations and rugged, open spaces extend far beyond its most famous parks and into plentiful national forests and preserved monuments. The nearly 1.87-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is named for the series of eroded plateaus that step down across the landscape from Bryce Canyon to Grand Canyon National Park. Hidden in rocky passages and chasms are fossils and the rock art known as petroglyphs, cliff dwellings and artifacts from ancient Native Americans. Visitors can camp and hike or ride horses on trails.

Southwestern desert 

Between the resort towns of Flagstaff and Sedona in Arizona is the Coconino National Forest, an enchanting array of Southwestern desert beauty in a landscape sacred to several Native American tribes. Here, red-dirt trails wind through ponderosa pines, and wildflowers in spring, up to aspen stands. Classic Southwestern rock pinnacles dot the landscape. The Mogollon Rim runs through the forest, marking the southern end of the Colorado Plateau, providing dramatic views, with drops of as much as 2,000 feet in places.

Read the full article from The Wall Street Journal here

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