Best national parks: Avoid the crowds
Why it’s awesome: It’s Utah’s second-largest national park, with slot canyons, arches, cliffs, and 31 miles of well-marked trails—yet only one-fifth the number of Zion’s visitors. Throw in ancient petroglyphs, a river running through a lush valley of 2,000 fruit trees, crazy geology like the 100-mile-long Waterpocket Fold, and the knockout 8-mile Scenic Drive (sans traffic).
Trail to yourself: It’s a steep 2 miles up the Golden Throne Trail, but the views will do their mightiest to distract you.
OMG moment: Walking the Hickman Bridge Trail, a 133-foot-long natural stone bridge, with the Fremont River rushing nearby.
Where to pitch a tent: With a free wilderness permit from the visitor center, you can pitch a tent in the backcountry. Or choose one of the 71 shaded sites along the river at Fruita Campground ($10).
Where to book a room: Head to the funky town of Torrey, 10 miles away, for budget motels, or to the luxe Lodge at Red River Ranch in Teasdale (from $160; redriverranch.com).
Why it’s awesome: Two peaks soar more than 9,000 feet, plus there are 312 glaciers and nearly 400 miles of hiking trails.
Trail to yourself: Worth every one of its 5.2 uphill miles, gaining 5,095 feet in elevation, Sourdough Mountain Trail is a backcountry trek to a fire watchtower that presides over 360° of awe.
OMG moment: Seeing peregrine falcons swoop, from your perch on the 389-foot-high Diablo Dam.
Where to pitch a tent: At Colonial Creek Campground ($12), you can skip stones on Diablo Lake, just outside your tent.
Where to book a room: The new lakeside Base Camp (from $95/person; ncascades.org), at the North Cascades Institute’s environmental learning center, offers gourmet organic fare and nature programs.
Where to pitch a tent: In a subalpine spruce forest, 61 sites at Marble Canyon Campground (from $22 U.S.) are a five-minute drive from the trailhead.
Where to book a room: Your best bet for bed, bath—and hot tub—is in Banff. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (from $408 U.S.; fairmont.com) is the luxe—and large—option. Kootenay Park Lodge log cabins (from $132 U.S.; kootenayparklodge.com) are an intimate, affordable alternative, as is the Banff Boutique Inn (from $205 U.S.; banffboutiqueinn.com).
Why it’s awesome: California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have giant trees, but this park has ancient ones—like 4,000-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pines. And you can drive most of the way up 13,065-foot Wheeler Peak for extraterrestrial views of northeastern Nevada and Utah.
Trail to yourself: Lexington Arch Trail zigzags 3.4 miles to an amazing six-story limestone arch.
OMG moment: The bristlecone pines, especially when they glow in the morning sun on their namesake trail.
Where to pitch a tent: At 10,000 feet, you’ll feel the altitude, but the vistas at Wheeler Peak Campground ($12) are worth a minor headache.
Where to book a room: The options are slim in the gateway town of Baker. Whispering Elms Motel (from $57; greatbasinmotel.com) is adequate. Rustic Hidden Canyon Ranch B&B (from $139; 775/234-7172) lies on 380 acres outside the park.