Half Dome might be on the postcards, but Yosemite's best-kept secrets are on the other side of the park. Every year, millions of people gravitate to a few marquee wilderness attractions, choking up parking lots, snatching up campsites, and leaving equally spectacular spots largely untouched. "To get the wilderness experience, you have to dig deeper," says Kathy Kupper, a spokesperson for the National Park Service. That means discovering the less-traveled park entrances and looking regionally – maybe rafting the Colorado River through Utah's red rocks instead of the Grand Canyon – for great trips without the hassles.
Great Smoky Mountains Lookout
About half of the 9 million people who visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year trek a half-mile from their cars to the observation deck on the summit of Clingmans Dome, the park's highest peak, at 6,643 feet. But rangers on the Tennessee side of the park have their own favorite lookout, one that takes more effort to reach but offers greater solitude, as well: the octagonal fire tower on the 4,928-foot summit of Mount Cammerer.
From the Cosby Campground, it's a six-mile hike up the steep hillside where Depression-era moonshiners once set up shop (the exhaust from their stills was concealed by the fog that gives the range its name). At Cosby Creek, just deep enough to soak your feet, the path joins up with the Appalachian Trail and requires scaling a grassy ridge. Two miles later, expect to rock-scramble as the trail narrows toward the summit. The tower, built by park officials in 1937 using the surrounding sandstone, overlooks steep ridges, green valleys, and endless rows of mountains on all sides. "It's a strenuous hike, but a remarkable one," says Nick Yarnell, a 35-year-old backcountry ranger. "You will be sweating and working hard to get there. But being alone on the mountain is just amazing."
Stay: Elk Springs Resort offers luxury cabin rentals 10 minutes from the park. elkspringsresort.com
Do: Sample some classic hooch at the Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine distillery in Gatlinburg. olesmoky.com
Credit: Kirkendal / Spring Photographers