When planning a national park trip, many travelers envision rafting down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon or hiking up Half Dome in Yosemite. But until you try booking lodging and activities for these popular parks, you may not realize how many other people had the same idea.
If you’re willing to try something different—and want a less harried national park experience—try visiting one of the nations’ many lesser known but equally captivating parks.
Mesa Verde National Park, named for its soaring green-topped mesas, gives visitors the chance to experience the natural beauty of the Southwest and the remnants of an ancient native culture, the Anasazi, who built stone villages and spectacular cliff dwellings here more than 700 years ago. The park holds claim to one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Site designations in the U.S., and has been called the “Number One Historic Monument in the World” by Conde Nast Traveler.
- Located off Highway 160 in southwestern Colorado, the park is a 35-mile drive from Durango, a lively college town that serves as a good base for exploration if you’re not staying in the park.
- The entrance fee is $10 per car and good for a seven-day admission. The park is open year-round, but many facilities and programs (including cliff dwelling tours) shut down during the winter months.
- Although the park is in the desert, it still experiences dramatic seasonal shifts. Summer is hot with highs in the 90s and frequent thunderstorms, spring and fall are mild, and winter is cold and snowy.
- For detailed information about fees, activities, and more, visit the official Mesa Verde website.
What to do
Touring at least one of the Anasazi cliff dwellings is a must. There are more than 600 cliff dwellings in the park, most of which are unexcavated, but several large sites with elaborate ruins built into the canyon alcoves can be visited on an official tour. Tours for three of the most popular dwellings—Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House—require tickets, which can be purchased at the visitor’s center for $2.75 per person.
To help protect the park’s fragile ruins, hiking is limited to a few established trails. Several short hikes, including the 2.8-mile Petroglyph Loop Trail and the 2.1-mile Spruce Canyon Loop Trail on Chapin Mesa, allow visitors to view petroglyphs, explore canyons, and take a closer look at some of the archeological sites.
Where to stay
The outside concessionaire ARAMARK operates the only lodgings inside the park, including the 150-room Far View Lodge and the 435-site Morefield Campground. The Lodge is open April 28 to October 23, and charges $105 to $126 per night for a room. The Metate Room, an award winning full-service restaurant, is on site. Morefield Campground, which has a full-service cafe with an all-you-can eat pancake breakfast every day, is open mid-May to mid-October. Campsites cost $20 per night.
Booking in advance is helpful, but ARAMARK reps say that lodging almost never sells out, so it’s possible to get a room or campsite the same day you arrive, even in the summer. Visit ARAMARK’s website for more information, or call 800-449-2288.
Located in southeastern Utah, Canyonlands encompasses high mesas and buttes, burnt red sandstone pinnacles and arches, and a myriad of canyons and deep gorges cut by the Green and Colorado Rivers. The rivers divide Canyonlands into three distinct land regions, each possessing unique topography and character: The Island of the Sky is a high plateau land in the northeast set on sandstone cliffs; south of the Island is The Needles, an area known for its colorful sandstone spires; to the west is the most rugged and isolated part of the park, The Maze.
- The most accessible region is The Island of the Sky, a 32-mile drive from Moab, UT, via highways 191 and 313. The entrance for The Needles is further south, about a 75-mile drive from Moab using highways 191 and 211. Access to The Maze is limited to dirt roads on the far western side of the park, and all driving within this area requires a high-clearance 4WD vehicle.
- The entrance fee is $10 per car and is good for a seven-day admission. The park is open year-round; visitor centers are closed on Christmas Day.
- Canyonlands’ climate is extreme and highly variable—temperatures may fluctuate as much as 40 degrees in a single day. Highs over 100 degrees and violent rainstorms are not uncommon in the summer. Winters are cold, but snowfall is usually light. Spring and fall are milder and therefore more popular times to visit. For any trip, visitors should layer their clothing, bring plenty of water, and ask about potential hazardous weather at a ranger station before heading out into the park.
- For detailed information about fees, activities, and more, visit the official Canyonlands website.
What to do
The possibilities for outdoor activities are extensive in Canyonlands. There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails, with good options for day hikes in both The Islands of the Sky and The Needles. To really dig into the park’s remote nooks and crannies, especially in The Maze, plan on a multi-day backpacking trip. Note that permits are required for all overnight backcountry trips.
Mountain biking, rock climbing, white-water rafting, and 4WD touring are other possibilities that require more specialized gear and technical skills. Visit the Canyonlands website for information about the rules governing these activities within the park and links to outfitters who can help you set up a trip.
Where to stay
The Willow Flat campground in The Island of the Sky offers 12 campsites on a first-come, first-serve basis for $5 per night. In The Needles, campers can stay at the 26-site Squaw Flat for $10 per night, also on a first-come, first-serve basis. Both campgrounds tend to fill up every day between late March and June and early September to mid-October, so it’s a good idea to arrive early in order to get a site. Visit the Canyonlands website to learn more.
There are also three campsites in The Needles for groups of 11 or more that may be reserved in advance. Rates are $3 per person per day.
In the backcountry, hikers with 14-day overnight permits may stay in walk-in sites or make their own campsites. Rates for permits start at $15 and vary depending upon the size of your group, the area you’re visiting, and the activity you’re participating in (e.g., 4WD permits cost more than backpacking permits). Permits are limited and subject to numerous regulations, so plan your trip carefully and make a reservation well in advance. Walk-up permits may be available at visitors’ centers the day before or the day of your trip.
If you prefer to sleep indoors, look for cheap lodging in nearby Moab, a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts visiting Cayonlands and Arches National Park. The popular Lazy Lizard Hostel offers dorm beds from $9 per night.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
One of the newest national parks, Black Canyon of the Gunnison changed from a national monument to a national park in 1999. Cut by the Gunnison River, the Black Canyon’s combination of narrowness and sheer vertical drop (as much as 2,700 feet) are unmatched by any other canyon in North America.
Still new to most national park junkies, the Black Canyon is passed over by many, receiving only about 200,000 visitors per year (compared to the Grand Canyon’s 4.3 million). But their loss is your gain, as you get to experience a park unfettered by snack bars and traffic.
- The Black Canyon is located 250 miles southwest of Denver. The south rim entrance is a 15-mile drive from Montrose, CO, via highways 50 and 347, while the north rim entrance is 11 miles south of Crawford, CO, via Highway 92 and North Rim Road (closed in the winter).
- The entrance fee is $8 per car and good for a seven-day admission. The park is open year-round; visitor centers are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
- The weather varies greatly by season, time of day, and elevation, with temperatures ranging from 30 to 100 degrees in the summer and -10 to 40 degrees in the winter. Precipitation is light overall, but brief thunderstorms do occur in the summer. Be sure to dress in layers.
- For detailed information about fees, activities, and more, visit the official Black Canyon of the Gunnison website.
What to do
Hikes along the north or south rim provide visitors with vertigo-inducing views into the canyon and panoramic vistas of the nearby San Juan Mountains. On the south rim, the one-mile Rim Rock Nature Trail gives easy access to the scenery. On the north rim, the strenuous seven-mile North Vista Trail rewards hardy hikers with some of the best inner-canyon views and an almost aerial perspective of the park. Technical rock climbing is also popular on the north rim. Hiking inside the canyon is extremely difficult and only recommended for those in top physical condition.
Where to stay
Campsites on both the north and south rims start at $10 per night. The south rim has 88 sites, some open year-round, that can be booked in advance through ReserveUSA.com. Five days’ advance booking is required. On the north rim there are 13 sites offered on a first-come, first-serve basis from mid-May to mid-October. Go to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison website for more details.
Outside the park, Gunnison, CO, home to Western State College (where students can major in “Recreation” and get course credit for skiing), is a fun, outdoorsy town to use as a base. Check out VisitGunnison.com for information about area accommodations
The parks mentioned here are only a few of nearly 400 sites operated by the National Park Service, with more than enough hidden gems to fill a lifetime of travels. Find a park that’s new to you and plan your next trip by visiting the National Park Service website.