National Parks have been getting a bad reputation of lateÂ— too crowded, too expensive and under-staffed among the complaints. But the fact that parks have become victims of their own success doesn't mean they're no longer worth visiting. The truth is, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon are still wonderful destinations, just better appreciated when the hordes of car-campers have made their way home after Labor Day. For those seeking solitude and adventure from June through September GORP has some other suggestions. Try the lesser-known jewelsÂ— Parks LiteÂ— where you can find all of the natural wonders of big-name preserves without the hassles. For summertime enjoyment we've selected five of our favorites:
North Cascades National Park
684,000 acres (634,614 wilderness)
394,387 annual visits
Highlights: North Cascades has been designated a "Wilderness Park" by the Park ServiceÂ— a distinction which summarizes exactly why this vast preserve near Washington's northern border is a haven for those seeking mind-clearing solitude. While the number of visitors to North Cascades and its adjoining Recreation Areas is small by national park standards, the number who actually venture into the backcountry units (which comprise over 93 percent of the park) is infinitesimal (about 27,000). Factor this lack of human intrusion with the abundance of quality terrain, and it's easy to see why North Cascades has been a closely guarded secret since it was established in 1968.
Attractions: Often referred to as "America's Alps," North Cascades is home to 318 glaciers, 248 lakes, hundreds of waterfalls and extensive old-growth forests. Alpine meadows are carpeted with glacier lilies, paintbrush, lupine, and scores of other wildflowers from early July through August. The highest peaks are Goode and Shuksan Mountains (9,200 and 9,131 feet respectively), but there are plenty of other vantages for sprawling vistas of surrounding countryside. The Skagit River, which runs pearl-green with glacial runoff through the park's interior, is Washington's second largest (and come October it hosts one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in the Lower 48).
Activities: Hiking is the most popular means for exploring the park interior, and with 386 miles of trails there is no lack of routes within. For those seeking an overview of North Cascades, the North Cascades Scenic Highway (Route 20) winds through some of the regions most spectacular scenery. There are also great opportunities for backcountry fishing within the park.
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Glacier Bay National Park
3.3 million acres (2.6 million wilderness)
320,000 annual visits
Highlights: One word: Glaciers. The park includes some 16 tidewater glaciers, the largest concentration in the world, and the spectacle of these icy monoliths calving into remote backwaters is itself justification for the long trip to Glacier Bay. Of the 320,000 visitors each year, over 80 percent witness these sights from the deck of a cruise ship. Leave behind of the Love Boats and you're bound to find ample seclusion and plenty of opportunities to appreciate glaciers, icebergs and abundant Alaskan wildlife.
Attractions: Grand Pacific Glacier is the largest in the park, Johns Hopkins is the most active as far as volume of ice it calves (it is seldom possible to get closer than about two miles). Snowcapped Fairweather Range supplies ice to all the glaciers in the region, and Mount Fairweather, the range's tallest peak, stands at 15,320 feet. Humpback whales are a regular sight around Glacier Bay, as are orcas, bears, eagles, tufted puffins and Stellar sea lions.
Activities: Sea kayaking is the preferred mode of travel in Glacier BayÂ— a diligent paddler could spend weeks poking around the numerous island, inlets and bays that comprise the park. Those who set off from Bartlett Cove Visitors Center can wind their way north through the Beardslee Islands into the east arm of Glacier Bay. Paddlers who choose to go further afield can shuttle to three different locations on the park concession boat: Geikie Inlet runs west from the lower part of the bay; Tlingit Point marks the separation between the east and west arms of the bay; and Skidmore Cut drop-off affords access to Glaciers in the West Arm.
Crater Lake National Park
500,000 annual visits
Highlights: While few would argue that the primary reason for visiting Crater Lake is to witness the emerald waters of the namesake calderaÂ— the six-mile-wide lake formed after the collapse of an ancient volcanoÂ— there are plenty of reasons to stick around once you've completed the 33-mile rim drive. First among these is the fact that less than one percent of all visitors to this National Park ever venture into the backcountry, a paltry number considering how much there is to see. Then there's the short summer seasonÂ— only about three months from eary July to late September Â— which accelerate the natural process and makes for some outstanding wildflower and wildlife viewing. The bottom line is that if you're willing to stretch your legs and can time you trip appropriately, Crater Lake won't disappoint.
Attractions: Due to its high altitude and incredible snow-pack (over 500 inches a year) the summer growing season at Crater Lake is very short. What this means for summer visitors is wildflowersÂ— lots of wildflowersÂ— in the stretch from mid-July to early August. If you're lucky enough to visit during this time, look for scarlet paintbrush, blue stickseed, cascade aster, spreading phlox, Anderson lupine and scores of other budding beauties from the full range of the color spectrum.
Activities: Better bring your hiking boots. Crater Lake has 70 miles of maintained trails and 70 more that were once logging roads. A section of the Pacific Crest Trail runs through the park, and for outstanding views trek to the Watchman Fire Tower, a 3/4-mile hike to 8,000 feet. Boating on the lake is another popular pursuit, though the Park shuttle to Wizard Island will be out of service for the 1998 summer season.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
70,447 acres (29,912 wilderness)
450,000 annual visits
Highlights: Though the badlands of South Dakota receive far more traffic, Theodore Roosevelt offers all the geologic drama of its southern cousin and some intriguing historical context as well. Young Teddy Roosevelt came to these parched lands in the 1880s to hunt buffalo and try his luck at cattle ranching. After experiencing the struggle of life on the prairie, Roosevelt later wrote: "I would not have been President, had it not been for my experience in North Dakota." The park is comprised of two units, North and South, and those seeking escape from the stream of visitors along Interstate 94 would do best to drive the extra 45 miles to the North Unit.
Attractions: Aside from the stunning landscapes, which might be best exemplified at the River Bend Outlook on the edge of the Little Missouri's deep valley, wildlife is the biggest draw at Theodore Roosevelt. Bison roam the grassy plains with elk, deer and wild horses, and prairie dogs stand at attention in their "towns" as humans approach. The remains of Roosevelt's old Elkhorn Ranch comprise another interesting siteÂ— though merely a jumble of foundation stone amid cottonwoods they give a sense of the frontier life experienced by the former President.
Activities: Scenic driving is the easiest way to familiarize yourself with the parkÂ— there is a 36-mile loop road in the South Unit and a 14-mile road to the north. Hiking is a sure bet for leaving behid the crowds: The Petrified Forest Loop is a two-day excursion into the backcountry that passes exposed stumps from centuries ago.
Voyageurs National Park
250,000 annual visits
Highlights: Water and its various inland incarnations are what make Voyageurs such an attractive summer destination. The park is comprised of four main lakes, 30 smaller lakes, about 900 islands, and rolling hills interspersed between bogs, beaver ponds and swamps along the Minnesota/Ontario border. Named for the French-Canadian canoe-men who traveled these waters in birch-bark canoes, the region offers a rich tradition for contemporary paddlers hoping to explore pure Midwestern wilderness.
Attractions: Abundant orchids and water lilies are a welcome sight during mid-summer visits. And if Voyageurs whets your appetite for paddling adventure, you can always end your visit at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which is adjacent to the east.
Activities: Boating is about the only means for exploring the 55- by ten-mile region bounded by the park, which is one reason why visitation remains consistently low. For those with canoe or sea kayak, a suggested route to seclusion is north from the Ash River Visitor Center across Kabetogama Lake to the Lost Bay trailhead. If you leave your boat you can then hike 4.5 miles to Cruiser Lake, or continue north to the Anderson Bay overlook on Rainey Lake. Fishing is also a big draw in the parkÂ— thousands of miles of forested shoreline will provide the backdrop as you hone your skills catching walleye, bass, and northern pike. Canoes (and houseboats) can be rented from outfitters in Ash River.
Story by Kit Cody. Produced by GORP.com, a partner of CBS.com.