Secrets of the National Park Service

Readers and staff speak out on surprising favorites.


In keeping with our theme of The Parks You Don’t Know, we asked readers and staff about some of the little-known discoveries they’ve made within the national park system. Here is a sampling.

Chuck Haney

Most of its 2 million annual visitors become acquainted with Glacier National Park by driving Going-to-the-Sun Road, the cliff-hugging main thoroughfare. But what many don’t know is that in the spring, the road is only open to cyclists, pedestrians and other non-motorized traffic. Cyclists can inch their way around hairpin turns toward Logan Pass, before running into snow yet to be cleared. The refreshingly intimate and uncrowded glimpse of the park’s main corridor is harder to replicate in the car-choked months from July to October. Just be sure to test your brakes before the ride back down. 
—Bryce Gray, HCN intern

It’s cold in January as 2016 gets underway, and we’re hiking bundled up on snowy trails in Arches National Park. As we explore the twisted red rock, losing and finding our way as we cross ice-hard streams, we see boot tracks, but not a soul. It’s just us, surrounded by the park’s bizarre beauty. It feels magical. So try visiting a park like Arches, which gets little snowfall, in the dead of winter. Enjoy the quiet punctuated only by the squawks of a raven, and avoid a long queue of generally impatient people, all waiting under a hot sun to pay their way into the park.
—Betsy Marston, HCN Writers on the Range editor

Jean Day

About five years ago, I visited Death Valley National Park in February with a friend. Threatening dark clouds meant that we had popular Mosaic Canyon mostly to ourselves, especially after a cold shower began. As the rain continued, we drove to Badwater Basin, where the usual low, salty pools had spread into a shallow ephemeral lake, reflecting distant Telescope Peak. Along Artists’ Drive, we hiked into a canyon; the soaked soils, slippery underfoot, revealed colors even more vivid than usual, shades of red, green, yellow and purple. Rain brought out the best in the park, even as it kept other tourists mostly indoors.
—Jodi Peterson, HCN senior editor

North Cascades is one of the greatest Western national parks. And yet it’s often overlooked. Why? Probably because it is mainly wilderness and backcountry. Yet it reminds me of Glacier National Park, only with more glaciers, mountain goats and a lot fewer people. Yes, there are grizzlies, but far too few of them to be a concern while hiking.
—Robert Wattez, reader

Ruins in Chaco Canyon
Katherine Darrow

I’ve bumped along the terrible road to Chaco Canyon, hoping there was something worth seeing at the end. Imagine my surprise at the wonders of this ancient city. I’ve floated the Kenai Fjords, surprised as huge sea glaciers calved before my eyes and a whale breached the ocean surface time and time again. And I’ve hiked to Delicate Arch, surprised I could still enjoy the view when it was too hot to breathe, or hike. The greatest surprise as I travel the West? That we have had the wisdom to set aside these lands to continually surprise generations to come. May it always be so.
—Rosann Fillmore, reader

One of my favorite hikes is the one to Delicate Arch at Arches National Park, which often has a steady stream of tourists heading to the top. A lot of them look like maybe they don’t get out hiking very much. At the end of the trail, you can’t see the arch until you come around a rock wall and suddenly there is this huge, impossible rock formation sitting on the edge of a cliff with a magnificent vista all around it. When people come around the corner and see the arch, they get a look of absolute awe on their faces. It feels like a pilgrimage.
—Amy Brunvand, reader

John Krzesinski./CC Flickr

There are lots of great, unexpected things in national parks. Death Valley: Getting out to the Racetrack, and a few years later, seeing the “mystery” of the stones solved. Redwoods: A burl that looked just like Richard Nixon. Grand Teton: A bull moose swimming the Snake, surrounded by pelicans. Yosemite: Learning about the “moonbow” at the base of Yosemite Falls during April and May full moons, and getting photos of it.
—Steve Snyder, reader

I once traveled through Yellowstone National Park in the early spring, with my sister and her daughter. My niece was 7 or 8 at the time, and I bought her a little laminated field guide for the flora and fauna. The roads had just been cleared, and there was a ton of snow still on the ground. Bison walked past the cars with heavy breath in the cold, and, when we stopped at the side of the road, we saw some kind of canine pulling an elk carcass out of a frozen lake. My niece looked down at her identification sheet and  said, in a matter-of-fact way: “I think that’s a gray wolf.” It was. The wolf is now her favorite animal.
—Brian Calvert, HCN managing editor

In my not-quite-teen years, I traveled with my father and sister from Colorado to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. My parents were newly divorced and traveling with just one of them seemed awkward. Plus, since we already lived in the country’s most alluring state, I wasn’t sure why we needed to journey so far for yet more mountain beauty. But at the overlook of Crater Lake, I choked up and felt a surprising sense of belonging. Maybe it was knowing that my family was still my family, even if it wasn’t the same, and maybe it was the understanding that the great outdoors is a place I’ll always be able to find myself.
—Gretchen King, HCN community engagement

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