The 22 best US national parks to escape the crowds, chosen by experts

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Park visitation is at a record high good for tourism, not so good for peace and quiet. From Acadia to Zion, Bryce Canyon to Yosemite, leading writers and environmentalists share their alternatives to the most popular spots

1 The attraction: Acadia national park, Maine (3.5m annual visits)The alternative: Voyageurs national park, Minnesota (237,000 visits)

Location: Northern Minnesota, on the Canadian borderBest place to stay: Camping near Kabetogama lake, for the incredible quietBest entry point: Start paddling from Ash river visitor center

When you think of stunning waterscapes, places like Acadia national park in Maine and Olympic national park in Washington probably come to mind. Yet Voyageurs national park in Minnesota offers some of the same activities with a fraction of the crowds. Almost half the park is water, with more than 500 islands and 655 miles of undeveloped shoreline. As someone who grew up in the Rockies, lived near the mountains of California and adventured in Alaska, I can tell you that Voyageurs is like no place else.

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  • The northern lights above an island at Voyageurs national park

Start your adventure at either Kabetogama Lake visitor center or Ash river visitor center. Rent a boat, canoe, or kayak and set out for a campsite across the water. From there you can spend the day fishing or cruising around. If youre visiting in July, the wild blueberries and raspberries are ripe for picking and make an excellent addition to your campfire pancakes. There is beauty in taking a break from modern conveniences. When flipped over, the bottom of your canoe provides a great surface to prep your food and perhaps is a better tabletop than a picnic table.

At Voyageurs, you can wrap yourself in quiet that is both comforting and exhilarating. Were not talking complete silence, but rather a silence that gives you space to enjoy the calls of wildlife from miles around. Its one of my most favorite aspects of this park: you can literally go an entire day without hearing any human sounds.Will Shafroth is the president and CEO of the National Park Foundation

2 The attraction: Biscayne national park, Florida (447,000 visits)The alternative: Dry Tortugas national park, Florida (54,000 visits)

Fort

  • Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas

Location: Garden Key and six other small islands, 68 miles west of Key West, FloridaBest place to stay: A rustic campsite (BYO tent, charcoal, water, flashlight, and food in a varmint-proof container) Best sight: Sunrise and star rise over Florida Bay

If you yearn for more solitude than that afforded by Biscayne national park, head to the other end of the Florida Keys coral archipelago: Dry Tortugas national park.

Three centuries after the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Len named the islands Tortugas for the sea turtles they still nest there Fort Jefferson was built from 16m bricks. Construction stretched over 30 years, done largely by enslaved, quarantined or imprisoned laborers. The fort was never finished and never saw combat. It was abandoned by the military, and its grim history ended in 1908, when it became a nature reserve. Like so many of our national parks, this beautiful place was once seared with human misery. Today, nature has restored peace on Garden Key. The countrys only breeding colony of magnificent frigate birds lives here, having moved west when development encroached on their former rookery, closer to Key West.

Garden Key is 40 minutes via seaplane or three hours via ferry from Key West. There isnt much to do here, which is precisely the allure. Watch pelicans and cormorants dive for fish, read books, and revel in absolute inaccessibility. Wander the massive forts bastions, battlements, ramparts, moats and lighthouse. The play of ocean light on the red-brick walls and the contrast with cadmium-green waters will mesmerize. Late each afternoon, the ferry and seaplane spirit away daytrippers and the island belongs to the few campers. Sit on the sand beach or moat wall and watch frigate birds soar, scarlet balloons at their throats, as the sun burns from sky to sea. A thick cloak of stars and silence unfurls over endless water, a sliver of beach, your tent, and nothing else.Wendy Call has been a writer-in-residence at five national parks, co-edited Telling True Stories and is the author of No Word for Welcome

3 The attraction: Bryce Canyon national park, Utah (2.6m visits)The alternative: Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument, Utah (983,000 visits)

Hoodoo

  • Hoodoo garden in the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument

Location: Southern Utah, about 200 miles north-east of Las VegasBest places to camp: Anywhere in the backcountry (with a permit) or at the developed campgrounds near the tiny town of BoulderBest hikes: Explore a classic slot canyon like Zebra, Peek-a-Boo or Spooky

Utah is unrivaled for soul-juddering landscapes untamed scenery that has defined the west in everything from John Fords films to HBOs Westworld. I fell hard for this land of red rock and sculpted geology while just a wide-eyed teen from Jersey, and Ive never tired of exploring it along with the millions who visit Utahs marquee national parks each year. But for an equally unforgettable experience, visit the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument, which was designated 22 years ago by the former president Bill Clinton. The monument includes literally the last lands to be mapped in the continental US, and most of them remain just how the cartographers found them.

(Note: By presidential proclamation, Donald Trump has attempted to split the almost 1.9m-acre monument into three much smaller parts to allow drilling and mining. Thats being challenged in court by the Sierra Club and others, and for now these unspoiled lands remain accessible to the public.)

Zebra

  • Zebra slot canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante

Grand StaircaseEscalante is huge and wild, so stop at one of the visitor centers on the monuments two main paved highways to get oriented. Youll find them in the towns of Kanab and Big Water (Highway 89) and in Escalante and Cannonville (Highway 12). Just driving these highways is astoundingly scenic. In dry weather, most cars can manage the gravel loop known as Hells Backbone between the town of Boulder near the monuments northern border and Escalante, 30 miles to the south, but dont expect to make good time no matter what youre driving. Youll want to stop at every scenic viewpoint to gape anyway.

Hells Backbone might whet your appetite to investigate more of the monuments unpaved byways, such as Hole-in-the-Rock Road, which dates back to the Mormon wagon trains. Its located about five miles south-east of Escalante on Highway 12. Four-wheel drive is recommended for such explorations, but even then be aware that wet weather could turn your track into a quagmire or worse. Hikers and backpackers will want to check out some of the monuments gorgeous slot canyons. Several spectacular ones are accessible from Hole in the Rock Road. Bring paper maps your phone wont help you here.Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club

4 The attraction: Canaveral national seashore, Florida (1.6m visits)The alternative: Cumberland Island national seashore, Georgia (52,000 visits)

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  • A live oak covered with ferns on Cumberland Island, Georgia

Location: About 35 miles north of Jacksonville, FloridaBest place to stay: The amenities at Sea Camp restrooms, cold showers and potable water are welcome after a day hiking in coastal wilderness, though reservations are a mustBest hike: Take Parallel trail from the ferry dock north toward Roller Coaster trail

Cumberland is wild magic, the southernmost and largest in a chain of barrier islands along the Georgia coast. Its forests are dominated by wind-tortured live oaks draped with Spanish moss and greened by resurrection fern, gnomish and ceaselessly amazing. Painted buntings and summer tanagers flash among cabbage palms. Beyond white-sand dunes held in place by sea oat and beach morning glory, the restless Atlantic rises and falls in dramatic tidal fluctuations, ebbing 6ft to 8ft. In summer, loggerhead sea turtles lumber ashore to scoop out enormous nests, from which hatchlings emerge and drift out to sea.

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The 18-mile-long island is accessible only by ferry or private boat, and I advise starting at the mainland town of St Marys. Because Cumberland is long and narrow, hikes will take you toward its wild north end. A walk through the ruins of Dungeness, a mansion constructed in the 19th century, is highly recommended. Summer is almost unbearably hot, so I propose spring or fall, when Pelican Banksis thick with rafts of shorebirds such as ruddy terns and American oystercatchers. You may want to treat yourself to a night or two at private Greyfield Inn, halfway up the island.

It is the profoundly beautiful salt creeks that ever call me back to Cumberland. Below a 20ft bluff overlooking a continent of marsh grasses, a kingfisher dives into Christmas creek. The water, though opaque, is so alive with shrimp and mullet and oysters that it wiggles, thrashes and mutters as it rises and falls with the moon.Janisse Ray has written five books of nature writing, including Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

5 The attraction: Denali national park and preserve, Alaska (643,000 visits)The alternative: Wrangell-St Elias national park and preserve, Alaska (68,000 visits)

Hikers

  • Hikers stand beside a pool on Root glacier

Location: Southern AlaskaBest place to stay: Kennicott Glacier LodgeTop trail: Root glacier trail, a four-mile hike winding beside Root and Kennicott glaciers

Wrangell-St Elias is a vast, remote, and rarely visited wilderness of mountains and ice fields, alpine valleys and glacial rivers. At 13.2m acres, its the nations largest national park and protected wilderness; its also part of the largest protected international wilderness left on the planet. It firmly reminds you of humanitys essential dispensability even as it opens you to your own vastness.

The adventures are unlimited: you can backpack, flightsee, mountain-climb, river-raft, or simply wander trails near the quirky Alaskan town of McCarthy in the heart of the park. Whatever you choose, the experience begins on the drive there. Its a full day through an astonishment of mountains, rivers, and glaciers. Perhaps the most luminous is at the confluence of the Copper and Chitina rivers, where dipnetters clinging to high bluffs fish for red salmon. The Chitina scribes the fault line which gave rise to the parks peaks, some of North Americas highest.

Here your route enters the park, for 60 miles of a narrow, often nasty, summer-only dirt road one to be driven slowly. My first time, sharp rocks blew out two tires. Take it easy; stop at a lake and listen for loons or trumpeter swans. The last leg youll do sans car, walking a footbridge across the roiling Kennicott river.

Spend some time in McCarthy and drop in at the Golden Saloon. Tour the Kennecott copper mine and ghost town. Hike beside Root glacier, marveling at cerulean crevasses marching off to the horizon. Continue as the white-crowned sparrows melody urges you farther upvalley, to views of the Stairway icefall, a magnificent ice formation spilling 6,000ft off Mount Regal. Then, go farther.Marybeth Holleman is the author of several books, including The Heart of the Sound and Among Wolves

6 Another alternative to Denali: Bering Land Bridge national preserve (3,000 visits)

Fall

  • Fall colors at the Serpentine hot springs

Location: North of Nome, AlaskaBest place to stay: In Shishmaref, arrange accommodation through localsBest hike: From Shishmaref, trace climate change along the rapidly eroding Chukchi Sea coast

You may find yourself holding a gun for the first time not far from the Bering Land Bridge natural preserve. You may be with your father, who accoutered himself with a weapon in case you encountered bears, wolverines, or worse. You may not be in search of game, but perspective, as you clamber up the slopes of the mountain called Grand Singatook. You may hope to see the preserve from up high and to glimpse Ugiuvak across the Bering Sea, the island of my mothers childhood and home to my ancestors for countless generations until the the federal government closed the islands school in 1959. You may bear your toddler son on your back and your younger son in the womb. Your father may offer to carry his grandson and encourage you to take his canteen and firearm. You may hold the gun and regret it, and switch back. You may pause to note snow arnica nodding its battered bloom, stray bones and shed antlers, inuksuit. The land is truly sacred, and the mountain a weather-maker. From it, one may begin to comprehend our vast Inuit lands and the stories of survival inscribed within them.

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Reindeer

  • Left, stone structures stand on the rims of ancient volcanos. Right, reindeer on the beach at Ikpek lagoon

Within the preserve you may visit the 100,000-acre Imuruk volcanic fields or Serpentine hot springs (Iyat in Inupiat) amid granite spires. Or you may remain on the life-thrumming coast. On the final night of my 2015 trip, we traveled along the Chukchi Sea coast toward Ikpek lagoon, across eroding strands of fine sand beaches. I was on foot, despite having had hip surgery some weeks before, and suffering through a cough that would later result in a positive TB test. We built a driftwood bonfire and gathered starfish, shells, even plastic trash. The lagoon was still. We saw neither polar bear, nor walrus, nor seal. Neither did we visit whales on their migrations, yet the blue-white churn of the Chukchi Sea seemed to afford me and the dozen Inupiaq children who chose to spend the evening in the company of their visitors a moment to consider the cerements of the sea and our rightful, if imperiled, place on its shores.Joan Naviyuk Kane has authored nine books and raises her sons as a single mother in Alaska

7The attraction: Gettysburg national military park, Pennsylvania (1m visits)The alternative: Manassas national battlefield park, Virginia (606,000 visits)

Henry

  • Henry Hill at the Manassas national battlefield monument

Location: 30 miles west of Washington DC

On Veterans Day last November, I traveled to one of my favorite hidden gems: Manassas national battlefield park. Situated a short drive west from Washington DC, on I-66, the battlefield is located in Manassas, Virginia. Manassas was home to two significant battles in the civil war, including the first battle of Bull Run, and is part of Americas military history. I rode a horse through the battlefield, taking in the sights and sounds of a now-peaceful landscape that once saw intense fighting between fellow countrymen.

As I rode and looked out on Manassas battlefield, I was amazed at how visitors could see the way the terrain shaped the battle and troop movements over 150 years ago. I was also encouraged to see engaged volunteers rebuilding fences and maintaining the park. There were scout groups and school classes learning about the history and nature, families enjoying hikes on the parks more than 45 miles of trails, and senior citizens taking advantage of the more than 20 miles of paved roads for driving tours.

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