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Friday, July 16, 2021

The Road Less Traveled

National parks are crammed full as Americans emerge from the pandemic raring to travel. Avoid the crowds in lesser-known places that offer scenic beauty and quiet.

Spending time sitting in your car with the motor idling as you wait in a long, long line isn’t anyone’s idea of enjoying the great outdoors. Yet more and more Americans are doing just that as a massive wave of post-COVID vacationers are bearing down on popular parks that can’t handle the overload. 

On a recent Thursday, Libby Preslock pulled up at Arches National Park in southern Utah only to read signs that said it was full and to try again in five hours. “Anywhere you go, there’s going to be a line,” she said after traveling down to nearby Canyonlands park, where the wait to get in was only half an hour. Arches had 194,000 visitors in April, up 15% from 2019. Other popular national parks are seeing similar or greater increases. 

This Land is Your Land

Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-managed lands offer camping experiences ranging from developed RV campgrounds to throwing a bivy sack down in the backcountry. Some campgrounds include facilities like restrooms and running water, others may have nothing but a fire ring. Most campgrounds charge a fee, but dispersed camping on these public lands is free. Be a good citizen by checking out rules and regulations before you go. 

Dispersed camping is legal camping in undeveloped campsites, and it’s allowed, with certain limits, in our National Forests. You won’t find any amenities except clean air and solitude, but it won’t cost a thing. Learn more about free camping in National Forests

What’s an outdoorsy person to do?

Hit the Road, Jack. In the U.S., we are blessed with a lot of gorgeous, undeveloped land. When the parks fill up, it’s time to turn our attention to more out-of-the-way places for recreation. Try AllTrails, a site (and handy phone app) where hikers rate public trails and write about the conditions of the road to get there, whether or not you can camp at the trailhead, if the trail is well-marked, and other handy information. 

Knowing how crowded Moab, Utah has become, a friend and I used AllTrails recently to plan a trip to a remote area outside of Delta, Utah. We navigated a four-wheel-drive road and camped at the trailhead for Notch Peak. The next morning, we headed out past ancient bristlecone pine and ponderosas on a trip to the peak. 

Nearing the summit, we were astonished to have a pair of F-35 stealth jets shoot by in extremely close proximity, apparently on a training run out of nearby Wendover Air Force Base. After that awe-inspiring experience, we continued up to admire a 365-degree view of the ancient lake bed below. The northwest face of the mountain holds the record for the second-highest vertical drop in the U.S. after Yosemite’s El Capitan. We hiked down to pass another night at the trailhead, which we had all to ourselves once again with a starry sky spread out above us.

You may think our adventure was a bit too strenuous for your brand of outdoor fun — but we discovered other activities that will bring us back in fall. Delta is home to the Topaz Museum, and you can dig for the gem at several local spots. Or perhaps you’d prefer to hunt for your own trilobite fossil, also offered nearby. You can check out the Great Stone Face geologic formation,  head to Fort Deseret State Park, poke around in The Bug House rock shop, or play a round at the Sunset View golf course. Rainy day? Duck into the Great Basin Museum for historical context. RV parking is available nearby at Antelope Valley RV Park.

It’s a lot of fun to pull up a map of an area you’d like to visit, then randomly select a spot and search the internet for trails and things to do in the area. Try searching “Best things to do in (name of town)” and see what comes up. TripAdvisor can be a good source of local activities. 

No matter where you live, or where you want to go, now is a good time to get a little bit out of your comfort zone and blaze your own trail. After all, it’s an American tradition. Summon your pioneer spirit and get off the beaten path for a unique experience.