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How to really get away: find solitude in these alternatives to national parks

They rarely make Instagram, but vast national monuments offer spectacular beauty and wilderness adventure.

By Andrew Collins

Well into the pandemic, many people are seeking solitude in nature. What could be lovelier, after months of isolation at home, than setting out along a rugged conifer-shaded trail, breathing in the fresh alpine air, and listening to a chorus of songbirds? 

There’s just one catch: if everybody’s getting outside, it’s hard to find a spot all to yourself. That’s true even at many of the 419 destinations in the U.S. National Park System, which continues to grapple with how to manage growing crowds.

Even before this year, many of the country’s most famous parks, such as Zion and the Grand Canyon, restricted access to busy areas by requiring visitors to use free shuttle buses. On summer weekends, finding a parking space at the top trailheads in Yellowstone or the Great Smoky Mountains has proved nearly impossible. Once you actually reach an overlook with a breathtaking view — think Yosemite’s El Capitan or Oregon’s Crater Lake — securing a patch of solitude to contemplate the panorama can require jockeying nimbly amid clamoring crowds and jousting selfie sticks.

This year, national park attendance is down due to the pandemic. Many parks have drastically reduced access. So the problem of trying to visit them remains the same as before: too much demand.

“The landscapes of these newer monuments are more nuanced. They’re not the same shiny treasures from the early years of the national park system.”

Shannon Browne, former executive director of Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument

But the wilderness areas that the federal government has more recently added to its portfolio — mostly as national monuments — tend to be farther off the beaten path and less hyped than the natural wonders immortalized in Ansel Adams prints or Thomas Moran paintings. 

“The landscapes of these newer monuments are more nuanced — they’re not the same kinds of shiny treasures that were designated during the early years of the national park system,” says public lands advocate Shannon Browne, the former executive director of Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. “Our idea of conservation is changing, as we recognize that land is worth protecting for a tremendous range of important reasons, from geology and biodiversity to culture and history.”

One reason for this trend is that U.S. presidents can designate national monuments, while creating and funding a national park takes an act of Congress. Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have used the 1906 Antiquities Act to confer national monument status on areas of “historic or scientific interest,” including wilderness lands such as Devils Tower in Wyoming and Muir Woods in California. Since 1996, when President Bill Clinton revived the use of the law to protect large tracts of land, presidents have designated nearly 40 federal wilderness areas as national monuments.

Within them, opportunities for awesome hiking, climbing, camping, boating, and wildlife-viewing abound. In southeastern Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, the ancient indigenous cliff dwellings of River House Ruin and soaring red rock spires of the Valley of the Gods glow luminously in the dawn and dusk sunlight. In California, the undulating wildflower meadows of Carrizo Plain and Berryessa Snow Mountain national monuments erupt with brilliant profusions of poppies, Indian paintbrush, and goldfields, especially after a fresh rain.

Visitors to the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos, New Mexico, might spy bighorn sheep, river otters, and golden eagles while bouncing and bobbing over whitewater rapids through a majestic 800-foot-deep gorge. In central Colorado’s Browns Canyon National Monument, untrammeled trails meander beneath sheer glacially carved granite walls and over conifer-shaded ridges inhabited by black bears and bobcats. Northern Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument includes some of New England’s least developed backcountry, an unspoiled place to kayak and hike.

While the new national monuments have given visitors millions of uncrowded natural acres to explore, they’ve presented some logistical challenges. The Antiquities Act contains no provisions for funding and managing national monuments. Many belong to the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Lands program, rather than the better-funded National Park Service. So they tend to lack national parks’ glitzy websites, state-of-the-art visitor centers, rustic-chic lodges and restaurants, and well-maintained roads and trails. They employ few full-time staffers, and their modest visitor centers are often open only seasonally or on weekends.

To fill the gap, dozens of nonprofit “friends-of” organizations have emerged. “These newer federal lands receive less funding and rely heavily on Friends groups to get things done, such as doing interpretive work, publishing visitor information, and educating the public,” says Browne, who’s also a former ranger at Oregon Caves National Monument. She says the nonprofits have organized trail cleanup days, weed-pull events, fund-raisers, and artist-in-residence programs. “These organizations make it possible for people like you and me to continue the job,” Browne says, “of balancing conservation with increasing awareness about these amazing places.”

To plan a visit to a national monument, it’s best to consult both the government website and the “friends-of” website. Arriving prepared — with proper gear, sufficient food and water, and paper maps (since cell service may be nonexistent) — are the keys to safely enjoying a visit.

There will always be a thirst for touring the nation’s iconic parks — for hiking in the shadows of Washington’s leviathan Mt. Rainier or scampering among the hoodoos and natural red-rock bridges of Arches National Park. But travelers who’ve viewed New Mexico’s otherworldly White Sands Basin from a rocky, high-desert promontory in Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument, or slithered through a narrow, winding slot canyon in northern Arizona’s Vermilion Cliffs National Monument — without having to navigate throngs of people — may never again think the same way about a national parks vacation.

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Andrew Collins is a writer based in Mexico City.


Top photo: The full moon sets behind Hunt Mountain in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument near Patten, Maine. Photo by Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press


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