Picture, if you will, Sequoia National Park on a modern-day Fourth of July. Granite ablaze with summer sunshine? Check. Black bears frolicking through pine-fringed meadows? Check. Trees so wondrously large you could (at one ridiculous point in time) barrel a truck right through ‘em? Check.
Oh, and don’t forget the overstuffed campgrounds, tourist hordes, and endless snarl of traffic snaking up the Generals Highway. Check, check, check.
Apart from my hiking buddies, the lone sign of human visitation was a small register notebook tucked in the rocks.
It might seem difficult to sniff out even a sliver of personal space, much less solitude, in our busiest national parks—but it’s absolutely possible. In fact, one of my all-time favorite visits to Sequoia coincided with the July Fourth holiday, and I didn’t see a soul besides my hiking buddies for the better part of three days. Instead of battling it out for space on the shuttle bus, we shouldered our packs and ventured deep into the backcountry, camping on a remote, boulder-strewn ridge complete with front row seats to watch nature’s fireworks play out across the Great Western Divide. Goodbye crowds, hello peace and quiet.
Now, I’m grateful that more people than ever seem to be seeking connection to the natural world—and I’m as much a sucker for popular attractions and diorama-filled visitor centers as the next parkgoer. But I also can’t help but think that we all could use a little more opportunity for alone time out there. Not only is it good for the soul (well, for me, anyways), but it’s good for the land, too, distilling our presence to reduce impact on plants, animals, and the very ground itself.
Want to find your own bit of quiet in the national parks? Here are a few tips.
Hike in the Dark
Feeling restless one night during a weeklong climbing trip in Yosemite, I stole away from our busy campground to go for a walk. Following the curve of the Merced River toward Ahwahnee Meadow, I marveled at how the water shimmered in the moonlight—and at how absolutely quiet it was, an almost eerie contrast to the buzz that filled the valley earlier that day.
On the opposite end of the park the following summer, I rose before dawn one morning to taste that same solitude in Tuolumne Meadows before the day’s cacophony began. Slipping on a headlamp, I wandered into the dark, following the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, and stood witness as sunrise slowly bathed the forest in a warm, welcoming glow. I made it back to camp just in time for coffee.
Getting up early—or staying up late—is one of those things that you can do pretty much anywhere, without any sort of special skills or know-how. Just set your alarm a little bit earlier—or keep yourself awake a little bit longer—and know that the sacrifice of sleep brings big rewards.
I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a trail lambasted as much as the one that leads to Mount Whitney. It’s boring. It’s overrated. It’s soooo crowded. Luckily, I’m pretty immune to haterade when it comes to the outdoors, so I hiked it anyways. As it turns out, the route was downright lovely, decorated with all kinds of alpine lakes and pristine meadows and towering granite.
But then again, maybe that’s because my friends and I pretty much had the trail—and the actual summit—all to ourselves, since we hiked up on a Tuesday morning. If you have a bucket list trip in mind, you’re much more likely to snag some solitude (not to mention a permit) if you sneak out while everyone else sits at the office delivering TPS reports. Yes, you’ll probably need to sacrifice some days off, but the tradeoff is, say, having the tippy topmost point in the continental U.S. all to yourself.
Learn to Love Every Season
There’s no denying the timeless joy of playing outside in the summer months, squeezing every last drip of fun during those long hours between sunrise and sunset. But as much as you love that magical stretch between Memorial Day and Labor Day, so, too, does everyone else.
Instead, I prefer carving out playtime on the season’s fringes, those months when there’s still a chill in the air and night comes on a little more quickly than you’d like. This is how I’ve rolled solo in the iconic shadow of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, snagged prime real estate at Rae Lakes in Kings Canyon National Park, and enjoyed the length of Zion’s namesake canyon without encountering a single hiker.
Of course, you have to be a little more self-sufficient during these seasons, when weather is unpredictable and park infrastructure closes shop—but those very same things are what stop most folks from hitting the trail. As long as you’re prepared with appropriate gear, basic wilderness medical skills, and the know-how to handle whatever the weather might throw your way, it’s a brilliant way to get some incredible places all to yourself.
One year, I spent Memorial Day at Yosemite—and saw two whole people the entire weekend. This is not because I spent the entire time blindfolded or zipped into my tent; it’s because I spent it backpacking the Pohono Trail, a point-to-point route that carves a path high above the Valley with stunning birds-eye views of the wonders below…with exactly zero of the crowds you’ll find down there. Did I need to apply for permits? Yup. And was it a pain to coordinate logistics between the distant trailheads? Mmm hmm. But was it worth it? Hell yeah.
Popular trails are popular for a reason. But, um, “unpopular” trails were also created for a reason. Sure, the lakes and peaks and vistas you’ll encounter along the way might be slightly less brag-worthy than, say, hauling yourself up Half Dome or snapping an Insta-worthy selfie at Crater Lake—but are they bad? Definitely not. Sure, you might not get permits to your bucket list spot, but you’re headed outside and that’s something to get stoked about. My advice is to unfold a map, look for the most popular locations…then focus on anything but those spots. You’re bound to be pleasantly surprised…and maybe even alone.
Venture (Far) Off the Beaten Path
My favorite method of all? Cracking open a map and ignoring the trails completely, focusing instead on places that aren’t marked as must-see territory, but rather, simply exist. Unknown (to me, at least). Unmarked. Seldom seen. Of course, if you choose this experience, you’ll need to be well-versed in cross-country travel: reading a topo map, using a compass, route finding, and choosing a path that minimizes your impact on the land. But wooo boy—(responsible) off-trail travel begets sheer magic in the solitude department.
On a recent trip in Joshua Tree National Park, I spent a morning navigating through gullies and up rocky ridgelines to stand on a remote summit named for Minerva Hoyt, a conservationist who was instrumental in vouching for the park’s eventual creation. The views up there were pretty sweet, even moreso thanks to the effort it took to earn them. Apart from my hiking buddies, the lone sign of human visitation was a small register notebook tucked in the rocks. When I flipped it open, I was surprised to see a familiar name—Steve Casimiro, founder and editor of this here publication. He’d been there just two days before, and along with his signature, had scrawled the AJ tagline: “The deeper you get, the deeper you get.” And I smiled, knowing that especially at that moment, he was exactly right.
Photos by Shawnté Salabert