I enjoy your photos and stories tremendously. My wife and I travel the last two weeks of August every summer, and, unfortunately, so do a lot of other people. We like long dayhikes, viewing wildlife and, most of all, quietly enjoying amazing natural surroundings. We often find the national parks way too crowded. It’s pretty easy to lose most of the crowds by hitting the trail, but as soon as you’re done hiking you are often faced with crowds, lines, and traffic.
Last year we spent our summer vacation in the Sawtooth Mountains and loved it. So many great hikes in a ridiculously beautiful, but not crowded area (by the way, Goat Lake was our favorite hike of the trip). Can you recommend any areas similar to Stanley, Idaho, and the Sawtooth Mountains—a quiet area with all the natural beauty of a national park? I know you speak fondly of the Wind River Range. Is there a centrally located small town that would make a good base for a vacation in the area? Anywhere else you can recommend?
Thanks for writing and for your kind words about The Big Outside.
The truth is, there are places around the country that have the natural beauty of national parks, but without the name recognition and crowds that accompany national park status. Late August also happens to be the best time of year for hiking in the mountains, so places that might not be crowded a month earlier or two weeks later could see their peak visitation period. If it’s at all possible for you to take your trip after Labor Day, that’s a great time to hit even popular national parks. I try to take a wilderness trip in September every year (besides a few during the summer).
But I’ll suggest some favorite, lesser-known dayhiking destinations that have a small, gateway town nearby.
1. Wind River Range
The Wind River Range is quite spectacular, but also quite remote, generally involving long, winding roads to trailheads and miles of hiking to reach the best scenery. But I’m familiar with three areas where you can get into some spectacular backcountry on long dayhikes, although these trailheads are very spread out, so you’d have some driving to do.
The most accessible option is the Elkhart Park Trailhead, at 9,350 feet on the west side of the Wind River Range, about a 15-mile drive from Pinedale on a good road. It accesses alpine lakes and views of 13,000-foot peaks along the Continental Divide. Seneca Lake, a gorgeous spot, is about six miles out the Pole Creek Trail (12 miles round-trip). If you’re ambitious enough to dayhike 18 miles or more, you can create a loop on the Pole Creek and Highline trails.
My story about taking a 27-mile dayhike across the southern Winds has photos from the Bears Ears Trail and the Cirque of the Towers, both very nice. The latter is the most popular spot in the southern Winds, so there are hikers, climbers, backpackers, and fishermen there in summer, but it’s not national park-scale crowds. But the Big Sandy Opening trailhead is about a 45-mile drive from Pinedale, much of that on dirt roads, and it’s about a 15-mile round-trip hike to the Cirque. Similarly, the Dickinson Park trailhead for the Bears Ears Trail, on the east side of the Winds, is about a two-hour drive from Lander, much of it slow and potentially rough and difficult to follow without good directions. Still, Pinedale and Lander are both pretty quiet base camps on the edge of five-star wilderness.
2. Western and Southern Tetons
If you do go to Pinedale, you could combine that with a trip to the Tetons and avoid the crush of people in Jackson. Check out my story “Ask Me: 8 Big Dayhikes in the Tetons,” which includes Table Mountain, an 11-mile, 4,000-foot dayhike from little Driggs, Idaho, on the west side of the Tetons. If you really loathe the idea of spending even a night in Jackson, my advice would be to base in Driggs, and after hiking Table Mountain, take one of the dayhikes in the Tetons from the Jackson Hole side, then drive straight down to Pinedale for the night. Static Peak Divide and Avalanche Canyon in the Tetons both have great views, and far fewer hikers go to those areas than to the heart of the Tetons in Cascade, Paintbrush, and Garnet canyons.
3. Eastern Sierra
California’s Eastern Sierra have long been a favorite hiking destination for me, in part because it’s considerably less crowded than Yosemite or the west side of the Sierra, but also because you access the high country much more quickly than from the west side. See my story about backpacking in the John Muir Wilderness; from North Lake Trailhead, the hike to Lamarck Lakes and Lamarck Col (lead photo at top of story) is very scenic, and the col gives you a view down into remote, lakes-filled Darwin Canyon; there’s actually a user trail to the col and down into Darwin Canyon, although it’s not shown on maps. Mosquito Flat is a more popular trailhead, but a nice hike. Bishop is a nice little town for a base.
4. Glacier Peak Wilderness and Leavenworth
The North Cascades region of Washington, basically north of US 2, has been one of my favorite mountain ranges for years because it’s so incredibly stunning, but also because it’s so much less busy than other areas. I love the little town of Leavenworth, east of Stevens Pass on US 2, which is a very convenient base for dayhikes in the glorious Enchantments Lakes basin as well as the Glacier Peak Wilderness north of US 2. If you’re fit for long dayhikes, the traverse of the Enchantments, about 18 miles and more than 4,000 feet from Colchuck Lake trailhead to Snow Lakes trailhead—including a rugged hump over Aasgard Pass—is one of the best you’ll do. It’s popular with backpackers, but the national forest limits the number of backcountry permits; and if you’re attempting a long dayhike across the Enchantments, you’ll be hiking earlier and later than most backpackers.
You can get a sense of the Glacier Peak Wilderness from my story “Wild Heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness: Backpacking the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop.” From the Phelps Creek Trailhead, Spider Meadow is a nice hike (strong dayhikers could make an out-and-back all the way to Spider Gap), as is Carne Mountain, which doesn’t see many hikers and offers a sweeping view of the wilderness and Glacier Peak.
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5. Lake Chelan and Stehekin
Farther north, the tiny, wilderness town of Stehekin, WA, is only reached via ferry across Lake Chelan from the town of Chelan. Stehekin has lodging and provides a base camp for some stunning, if challenging, dayhikes to areas like Purple Pass and McGregor Mountain. There’s no easy hiking from there, though, except for the trail along Lake Chelan.
6. North Cascades National Park
Drive around to the other side of the North Cascades, to tiny Marblemount, WA, and you have a quiet base camp for dayhikes to Cascade Pass, one of the gems of the North Cascades (and popular, but start early), and several other outstanding dayhikes in the area, like the Heather Pass-Maple Pass loop. See my story “Exploring the ‘American Alps:’ The North Cascades.”
7. Capitol Reef National Park
Lastly, although the Southwest is typically a bit too warm for hiking in summer, Capitol Reef National Park is high enough in elevation to often have moderate temperatures by late August, with highs in the 80s and mornings in the 60s. And despite having scenery that compares with southern Utah’s more famous parks—Zion, Bryce, and Arches—Capitol Reef sees a fraction of the visitors, probably because of the minimal infrastructure and visitor services. From lodging 20 minutes away in Torrey, UT, you can knock off a number of really nice dayhikes, several of which I suggest in the Make It Happen section of this story (scroll down to near the bottom).
I hope that’s helpful. Good luck. I’d be curious to hear where you decide to visit.
Thanks so much, Michael! A lot of great info. I will let you know what we decide. There is so much beautiful stuff to see out there!!
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