National Parks Off the Beaten Path

This year marks the 100th anniversary of what novelist and environmentalist Wallace Stegner called “the best idea we ever had,” the founding of the National Park Service.

Lots of people just head for the big high-profile parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Zion, or visit the parks that happen to be along their travel route. These “Greatest Hits” parks attract carloads by the millions, but many parks can be visited in absolute solitude.

Often, smaller and more remote parks that are hundreds of miles off the beaten path boast a powerful but little-known story about America’s heritage. Here are four of our favorites:

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Peak and Manzanita Lake near the Northwesr Entrance Station. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Peak and Manzanita Lake near the Northwesr Entrance Station. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen is one of the most unusual places in California, yet is relatively little visited, partly because it is a long distance from most other famous natural attractions and major population centers in the state. Also, access is restricted due to the heavy snowfall that this area receives—the park is fully open for only three to four months of the year though is at least partially accessible in any month.

The main park road provides north-south access through Lassen. The road links Highway 89 from the Southwest Entrance Station near Highway 36 north past Bumpass Hell, Helen Lake, and the staging area for Lassen Peak. The park road continues along Summit Lake and past Chaos Crags en route to the Manzanita Lake Entrance Station near Highway 44.

Coronado National Memorial, Arizona

Situated in oak woodlands on the southern edge of the Huachuca Mountains, the 4,750-acre park offers a visitors center, Coronado Cave, hiking trails, and a scenic drive that culminates at Coronado Pass overlook. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated in oak woodlands on the southern edge of the Huachuca Mountains, the 4,750-acre park offers a visitors center, Coronado Cave, hiking trails, and a scenic drive that culminates at Coronado Pass overlook. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southeastern Arizona is an incredible blend of mountains and grasslands and desert, hot and cold, and Coronado National Memorial is a great place to learn about it.

Situated in oak woodlands on the southern edge of the Huachuca Mountains, the 4,750-acre park offers a visitors center, Coronado Cave, hiking trails, and a scenic drive that culminates at Coronado Pass overlook (elevation 6,575 feet) with breathtaking views of the San Pedro Valley to the southeast and the San Raphael Valley to the west. From there visitors can hike another ¾ mile to Coronado Peak at 6,864 feet.

The breathtaking nature area commemorates the exploratory voyage of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, which took place from 1540 to 1542.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Owachomo is the smallest and thinnest of the three natural bridges here and is commonly thought to be the oldest. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Owachomo is the smallest and thinnest of the three natural bridges here and is commonly thought to be the oldest. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument covers a relatively small area. It is rather remote and not close to other parks or major population centers, and as a result is not heavily visited.

Since natural bridges are formed by running water, they are much rarer than arches, which result from a variety of other erosion forces. Natural bridges tend to be found within canyons, sometimes quite hidden, whereas arches are usually high and exposed. The area also has some scattered Indian cliff dwellings, pictographs, and scenic white sandstone canyons.

A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges with Hopi Indian names—Sipapu (the place of emergence), Kachina (dancer), and Owachomu (rock mounds). Moderate hiking trails, some with metal stairs or wooden ladders, provide closer access to each bridge.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

La Ventana Natural Arch, the largest of New Mexico’s accessible natural arches, is visible from the parking lot. Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Ventana Natural Arch, the largest of New Mexico’s accessible natural arches, is visible from the parking lot. Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the high-desert country between lands belonging to the Zuni, Ramah Navajo, Laguna, and Acoma nations, El Malpais National Monument offers unlimited adventure. Known as “the badlands” in Spanish, El Malpais was used by early Spanish map makers to describe areas of volcanic terrain. El Malpais preserves an ancient volcanic landscape and a history of human habitation.

There is much to see. You’ll find expansive lava flows, cinder cones, complex lava-tube cave system more than 17 miles long, fragile ice caves, as well as sandstone bluffs and mesas, easily viewed from Sandstone Bluff’s Overlook. Inhabited for 10,000 years, the area also contains historical and archaeological sites. Finally, don’t miss La Ventana Natural Arch, the largest in New Mexico.

Please Note: This is part of an on-going series on America’s National Parks Centennial

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

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