How to Visit Popular Wilderness Without Feeling Like You’re in Disneyland

You don’t have to skip spots like Antelope Canyon, Havasupai, and Half Dome. Just do ’em right.


There’s a lot to be said for undiscovered places: secret canyons in southern Utah, wide alpine valleys deep in the North Cascades, a tucked-away surf break. Most of the time, I’m on the hunt for spots like this while I’m out adventuring. After all, there are endless gems hidden in our wildlands, and whenever I find myself hiking with a crowd in a national park or gazing upon something I’ve seen dozens of times on Instagram I feel a little jaded. But there are certain places, well-known and loved, that rightfully hold top spots on the bucket list.

Among them? Havasupai. Antelope Canyon. Half Dome. Delicate Arch. Just because they’ve been “discovered” doesn’t mean there aren’t endless reasons to experience these iconic landscapes. Here’s how to finally check these destinations off the to-do list—and some helpful tips for avoiding feeling like you’re at a theme park.

Havasupai Falls

The blue-green waterfalls, cliff-jumping, and stunning canyons draw hundreds of hikers and campers to Havasupai every week, but that doesn’t mean you should pass it up. You just have to plan accordingly. Meaning, plan very far in advance. You’ll reserve your campsite with the Havasupai tribe, and you should do so as soon as the reservations line for the upcoming season opens (this is typically in early February, they announce the date in advance.) Flexibility with travel dates will help, as will persistence. Be prepared to fork over $85 for your first night, and $25 for any additional nights.

Once you’ve landed your campsite, go prepared and with an open mind. Despite the fact that you’ll hike ten miles to the semi-developed campground, you won’t be the lone group in a remote wilderness. The area can host up to 300 people a night, so consider this trip more like dirtbag spring break and less like lone-wolf desert camping. Bring fixings for an elaborate and easy-to-share backcountry meal, your GoPro, maybe even your ukulele and a little raft. And, of course, as many friends as you can convince to come with you. Summer amplifies both the crowds and the heat, so try and visit in the spring or the fall.

Delicate Arch

Possibly the most iconic of Utah’s stunning rock formations, Delicate Arch can be seen from several vantage points, but a short hike from the highway is the only way to see it up close. You’ll enter Arches National Park, leave your car at Wolfe Ranch trailhead, and follow a well-marked trail though 1.5 miles of desert before reaching the arch. Delicate Arch gets very crowded, but the insane structure, which rises out of a stunning valley, is well worth trekking to—even if your view includes other trekkers. Sunset is super-popular, so consider hiking up early in the morning to catch the sunrise, or hike out mid-day, when desert heat hems the less hardy indoors (just be sure to bring water and sunscreen). You’ll see far fewer fellow travelers and maybe even get a chance to snap a photo of the arch without dozens of people in the frame. Don’t forget to check out the Ute Indian petroglyphs along the trail on your way down.

Antelope Canyon

The otherworldly Antelope Canyon is a familiar sight on Instagram, and it’s allegedly the most photographed canyon in the southwestern United States. For good reason: The canyon, located on Navajo land near Lake Powell, is made of ochre-colored, hypnotically eroded Navajo sandstone. When the angle of the sun is just right shafts of light find their way into the canyon, setting the colors ablaze. You can’t access the protected canyon, which is separated into Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon, except by guided tour. The fragile landscape has a high risk of flash flooding and sees hundreds of visitors every week, and the guided tours make it possible for this stunning space to be open to the public (and provide revenue for the tribe). There are a handful of tour companies to choose from, so pick a guide, book a bit in advance, and enjoy learning a bit of Navajo history with your native guide. Upper Antelope Canyon is home to the photogenic sun-beams (which show up between March 20 and October 7 at mid-day), but Lower Antelope Canyon, which is still stunning, sees fewer crowds.

Half Dome

For those less vertically inclined, this famous rock climb’s summit can be reached by way of a day hike and a handful of cables. As a good friend once told me that for every mile you hike into a popular national park the crowds shrink by half, and the equation holds true for Yosemite. The 14 mile hike is popular, but the length, elevation gain (around 4800 feet), and cable-assisted ascent to the summit keep crowds thinner than at other popular viewpoints and hikes in Yosemite. Yosemite limits the number of hikers to 300 per day, so you’ll have to apply for a permit between March 1 and March 30. You’ll find out if you made the cut in mid-April, and you can increase your chances by opting for some of the less-popular dates—that is, mid-week and at the very tail end of the season.

Photo by ADifferentBrian.

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Showing 9 comments
  • cameron
    Reply

    Great recommendations, but bringing any alcohol onto the Havasupai reservation is illegal. We should respect their laws and traditions while we are visitors. And hopefully readers of Adventure Journal know better than to contribute to pack animal abuse (carry your own gear!).

    • Abbie Barronian
      Reply

      Thanks for the heads-up!

  • Jason M Ceola
    Reply

    Good advice, except the whiskey at Havasupai Falls. Alcohol is forbidden on the reservation and getting caught with it will get you fines and kicked out.

  • Micha
    Reply

    Visiting off-season works as well. We hit Yosemite in December, and the crowds were thin (although a lot of the trails off the Valley floor were closed). It was cold but still awesome!

  • Greg
    Reply

    I went to Havasupai before anyone knew anything about it. I think I was the only car at the rim and I don’t really remember anyone on the trail going down. Just me and the dead cow and horse poop. There is nobody in my (film) photos of the pools. While I’d like to take my bongos and bourbon, it would break my heart to see it trampled.

  • Valerie
    Reply

    I guess Instagram made a lot of landmarks (maybe too) popular. When I visited Antelope Canyon about 20 years ago, there were maybe 10 other tourists. And a lot of people hadn’t heard about this canyon yet, it was still a hidden gem. I love the internet and all, but this is a real downside to it. I prefer to get and give tips though word of mouth.

  • Tree
    Reply

    I’ve been to Delicate Arch with the Dizzyland crowds, but my favorite time was when my buddy Silent Kyle and I hiked to it on a February night. Snow crystal-richocheted the beams of a full moon into no one’s eyes but ours.The silence was absolute. National Parks don’t close at night.

  • Lexi Robertson
    Reply

    Thanks for sharing, I love your tips especially for Yosemite. That’s one of my favorite places to go and I’ve definitely found that by going off the beaten path a little, you can find wilderness all to yourself. I highly recommend the Panoramic trail there which gives beautiful half dome views and a hike with few people. Great story!

  • Lynn
    Reply

    I’m doing Half Dome in October. Be aware that it’s a lottery system, not just a permit application–I didn’t get selected, but my friend did for our group. (I have terrible lottery luck, apparently.) One good way to avoid the crowds (I’m hoping, anyway) is to backpack in the first four miles, so that you can start pre-dawn with a four-mile head start from the rest of the hikers.

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