This may be an unpopular opinion, but you can keep your national parks.
Sure, each park offers its own wonders. Yellowstone National Park has many attractions — natural beauty in the form of mountains, lakes and geysers; active wildlife and, of course, access to trails and recreation. Other national parks offer their own unique attributes — that is why they earned the distinction and protection of a national park.
But, the distinction of a national park comes with challenges, too. According to National Geographic, Great Smoky Mountains National Park drew more than 11.4 million visitors in 2018. In comparison, Grand Canyon recorded 6.4 million visitors, Yellowstone had 4.1 million and Acadia National Park counted 3.54 million.
When you aim to escape into the quiet solitude of the outdoors, the last thing you want is to have thousands of other people surrounding you.
Many who have visited Yellowstone National Park (and other parks) have bemoaned the hoards of tourists all seeking the best photograph, the best view and to share that “experience” with the world on social media.
Recently, on a trip to Acadia National Park, some of the trails were so crowded that we bailed. Walking along a seaside trail is no longer enjoyable when you’re bumping elbows like you’re on a big city sidewalk.
Likely social media has contributed to the influx of visitors to national parks and other outdoor destinations. Selfie sticks and cellphone pictures proved abundant. In fact, in 2018, Leave No Trace released new social media guidelines advising against outdoor visitors geotagging specific locations due to the impact such posts may cause. They aren’t saying you shouldn’t share photos and cannot tell folks about where you’ve been, but don’t do it for likes and keep the sharing to your “actual” friends rather than blasting it online.
Please don’t assume this means that I believe there shouldn’t be national parks. Of course I support national parks. The lands in our country with that distinction should absolutely be protected, accessible and celebrated.
Not all national parks feel like a crowded metropolis with great views, either. Trips to Bryce Canyon National Park and Arches National Park in the off-season have allowed for plenty of elbow room. Many, many other parks offer similar serenity.
But, next time you’re out and about exploring our country, stop in to a national forest. They offer more solitude and beauty than you likely imagine. They operate differently, certainly. National forests have a mandate for supporting multiple uses — ranging from timber, recreation, agriculture and more.
But, because they are sometimes less traveled, you could wander the trails and never encounter another human soul. Ahhh, peace.
The U.S. Forest Service — which is part of the Department of Agriculture — manages 154 national forests. The DOI even points out that forests often border national parks, providing a buffer and perhaps a trail less traveled.
After an uncountable number of adventures in the Bighorn National Forest (and other forests) I cannot compare the experiences in our own backyard to any other. There’s one trail, in fact, on which I’ve never seen another human. You just cannot top that. If you seek solitude, seek out a national forest.