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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

My Favorite "secret" Park Spots

By Mark Wagner Lone Star Geyser via Wikimedia Commons
Having worked and played in nearly 200 parks, I've found a number of places and spots that are off the beaten path.  Places that are open to the public, but perhaps hidden gems. These spots provide unique opportunities for adventure, firsthand encounters with history, stunning scenery, wildlife interactions, opportunities for tranquility and much, much more. Here is my insider list of  the top "hidden" national park spots.

1. National Mall ~ Signers of the Constitution
Alright its probably hard to believe that anything can be hidden on the national mall.  The national park sites like the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and Vietnam Memorial welcome millions of visitors every year. I get it. There are roughly 20 national park sites on America's iconic front yard. But a little visited spot is to be found on the island in the middle of Constitution Gardens Pond. It's the understated memorial to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Most people miss this spot, as the shuffle back and forth between more popular sites like the Vietnam and World War II memorials. One can access the island from a small bridge found on the northern shore of the pond.  From the island one can learn about the 56 brave men who started America on its path to independence, while enjoying iconic views of the Washington Monument minus the crowds.

2. North Cascades ~ Stehekin
Stehekin is a secret spot, hidden in plain site. At the far end of the glacier carved Lake Chelan. Stehekin is a community of roughly 50 to 75 people in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. To access the town, one must ride a boat, take a plane or hike.  There is no road access. Some have called Stehekin "the most remote place in the continental United States." Stehekin has a general store, gift shop, restaurant, visitor center, hotel, and even a bakery. It's a recharging station for many hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail and a jumping off point for the North Cascades National Park. Don't miss Stehekin, but be prepared. It's not something seen in a couple hours.  If one wants to truly experience this hidden gem, plan to spend several days.

3. Wrangell St. Elias ~ Kennecott
This is the second of the places you really have to want to see to get there.  McCarthy is at the end of a 60 mile dirt road, heavily potholed and cratered. Some of likened the travel to McCarthy to that of driving on the moon. It's not for the faint of heart, or those susceptible to motion sickness. However, for those willing to take the risk, the reward is worth it. At the far end of the road (there is no gas along the way so come prepared), is the Kennecott mining district. Like Stehekin, Kennecott is a little, yet vibrant community, tucked away within millions of acres of pristine wilderness. In Kennecott, one can tour the Park Service visitor center, enjoy a cup of tea, and access the trail head for a fairly easy hike to Root glacier.

4. Glacier ~ Polebridge
This is the third you really have to want to go there spot on my list. Polebridge is the smallest of the three park tucked away communities. It's accessed by starting in Glacier's Apgar village on the west side of the park. Travel along the Camas road until it come to a T intersection with the outside North Fork Road. Take a right and drive next dozen miles of the alternating paved and dirt road until you hit Polebridge. Like Stehekin and Kennecott, Polebridge has a few amenities like a general store, restaurant, and hotel. But that's about it. Like Kennecott there is no gas at the end of the road and it's the least developed of the three communities. Polebridge is a great place to look for wildlife including wolves and grizzly bears, oh yeah and the pizza at the Northern Lights Saloon is fantastic!

5. Yellowstone ~ Lone Star Geyser
Lone Star Geyser is for those who want a opportunity to see a unique and fairly dramatic/regular geyser without the crowds of those say at Old Faithful. Lone Star Geyser can be found fittingly enough at the end of the Lone Star Geyser trail. The trail head is 3 1/2 miles south of Old Faithful on the Grand Loop road. Heading toward the West Thumb geyser basin, the trailhead is just past the parking for the Kepler Cascades. The trail is a five mile easy round trip. Pack water and a snack, and check with the rangers at Old Faithful for eruption times.

Okay, that's it. These are my top hidden national park gems.  Would love to hear yours.  Leave us a comment on your favorite out of the way national park spots.

Sean Smith is a former Yellowstone Ranger, and an award winning conservationist, TEDx speaker, and author. He writes national park thrillers from his home in the shadow of Mount Rainier National Park. To learn more about his thrillers click here or follow him on twitter: @parkthrillers