09 Jul 11 Alternatives to Crowded Outdoor Instagram Spots
We’ve all been there—you’re huddled onto the crowded summit of a popular peak, at the base of that iconic waterfall, or crammed into a tiny pullout along that scenic road through a well-known national park, and everyone is snapping the same photo. You followed the masses and found yourself a beautiful vista. Well done. Now wouldn’t you like a little solitude to go with the view? It’s time to get off the beaten path. Here’s where to go.
Where the Crowds Are: Congress Avenue Bat Bridge
Over a million Mexican free-tailed bats live under the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin, and all summer long, the creatures flock from the bridge around sunset in search of food. It’s quite a sight. But you won’t be alone—hundreds of people gather there, in kayaks on Lady Bird Lake or on the grassy hill alongside the bridge.
Go Here Instead: Old Tunnel State Park
Eighty miles west of Austin is Old Tunnel State Park, home to three million of the same bat species found under the famous bridge. You can watch from two different observation areas while state-park staff give presentations on summer evenings. Get there early to be one of 70 people to score a spot in the lower, close-up viewing area (entry costs $5).
If you’re set on seeing the bats in Austin, do it from the lake: Live Love Paddle hosts kayak bat tours. Or stay at the Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt (from $199), across the lake, and watch the bats leaving the bridge from the hotel’s rooftop pool deck.
Where the Crowds Are: Gum Wall at Pike Place Market
You have to know where it is, tucked into a hidden alley downtown underneath Pike Place Market, but once you’re there, you and hordes of other spectators will get a look at one of the weirdest public art installations ever—a 50-foot-long wall spackled with other people’s chewed-up gum.
Go Here Instead: Olympic Sculpture Park
If outdoor art is what you’re after, skip staring at spit-covered bubble gum and head to the waterfront Olympic Sculpture Park. With nine acres, it’s downtown’s largest green space, and it’s filled with massive works of art. The Seattle Art Museum leads hourlong tours, or you can explore on your own. Plus, the park is free, open from sunrise to sunset, and easy to find. There’s also a waterfront path that cuts through the grounds, a great option for running or biking.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Where the Crowds Are: Going-to-the-Sun Road
There may be no more scenic route in America than the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road. It crosses the Continental Divide through the park, with views of glaciers, waterfalls, mountain goats, and snowcapped peaks. But midsummer you’ll be on the clogged roadway with a lineup of tour buses, RVs, and motorcycles.
Go Here Instead: Camas Road
For a panoramic drive through Glacier National Park without the crowds, veer toward Camas Road from West Glacier. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it curves around Huckleberry Mountain (stop for a hike to Huckleberry Lookout), then leaves the park on the dirt North Fork Road toward the off-the-grid community of Polebridge, 13 miles away, following the banks of the North Fork of the Flathead River. The Polebridge Mercantile and Bakery is worth a visit for huckleberry bear claws.
Where the Crowds Are: Sunrise at Haleakala National Park
So many people want to watch the sunrise from the top of the volcano in Haleakala National Park that the park service started requiring reservations to drive up at dawn. It’s a beautiful way to start your day—if you don’t mind a bunch of other cars and Instagrammers alongside you.
Go Here Instead: Wilderness Cabins at Haleakala Crater
The National Park Service maintains three rustic backcountry cabins on the Haleakala Crater, accessibly only via trail. You’ll start at 10,023 feet above sea level, atop the volcano, and hike down into the crater, to 7,000 feet, covering roughly four miles to reach the closest of the three cabins or nine miles to the farthest one. You’ll need a reservation (from $75 a night), but that’ll guarantee you a bunk in a cabin with minimal crowds.
San Francisco, California
Where the Crowds Are: The Golden Gate Bridge
On a visit to San Francisco, it’s pretty much mandatory that you walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, an iconic 1.7-mile span that connects the city with Marin County, to the north. But you won’t have the place to yourself. In fact, ten million people visit the bridge every year
Go Here Instead: Marshall’s Beach
Located within Golden Gate National Park, sandy Marshall’s Beach is adjacent to the bridge on the San Francisco side, so you can still snap a photo of it shrouded in morning fog—without the mobs of people. To reach the beach, hike a half-mile along the Batteries to Bluffs Trail, where you can spot dolphins as you descend to the ocean.
Where the Crowds Are: Mendenhall Glacier
When massive cruise ships roll into Alaska’s capital city, many passengers disembark and board tour buses bound for Mendenhall Glacier, the only glacier in the state that can be reached via road. We’re not talking about just a few people—around one million cruise-ship passengers visit Juneau each summer, and the glacier sees around 500,000 visitors annually. (Most stick to the visitor center, so you can take a walk and avoid the crowds.)
Go Here Instead: Mount Roberts
Juneau is surrounded by mountains covered in lush, green trees and hiking trails that see minimal traffic. Ride the Mount Roberts Tramway ($35 for a round-trip ticket), which departs from downtown and soars through a rainforest to an elevation of 1,800 feet; from here, if you hike a half-mile, you can have a view of the Chilkat Mountains to yourself. Or skip the tram entirely and hike the 4.5-mile trail that climbs nearly 4,000 vertical feet up the mountain.
Niagara Falls, New York
Where the Crowds Are: Niagara Falls State Park
The oldest state park in America, Niagara Falls State Park is home to such wonders as American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Horseshoe Falls. It’s also a predictably popular sightseeing spot, especially in the summer, when busloads of tourists show up to gawk at the nearly 3,160 tons of water flowing over the falls every second.
Go Here Instead: Taughannock Falls State Park
Located 150 miles east of Niagara Falls, near Ithaca, 750-acre Taughannock Falls State Park has one standout feature: a 215-foot waterfall that’s nearly 50 feet taller than Niagara Falls. Hike the Gorge Trail along Taughannock Creek, which is less than a mile to the base of the falls, or the North Rim Trail for a bird’s-eye view. If you’re set on seeing Niagara Falls, head to the lesser known viewpoint within the park: Luna Island, accessible via a pedestrian bridge with great panoramas of American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.
Where the Crowds Are: Maroon Bells
Called the most photographed peaks in Colorado, the 14,000-foot Maroon Bells, ten miles west of Aspen, are stunning. Due to midsummer crowds, there’s now a public bus you have to ride midday to reach Maroon Lake (or you can bike there). Most people hike the one-mile round-trip Maroon Lake Scenic Trail, which skirts the lake at the base of the peaks.
Go Here Instead: Castle Creek Road
For a breathtaking ride to majestic vistas, drive or bike the 13-mile, paved Castle Creek Road, which passes the historic Toklat Lodge and Ashcroft ghost town. The Pine Creek Cookhouse is well worth a stop for lunch or dinner on your way, and you’ll have stellar views of Star Peak and other pinnacles in the Elk Mountain Range.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Where the Crowds Are: Cadillac Mountain
You can drive to the top of 1,533-foot Cadillac Mountain, the highest point in Acadia National Park. You’ll score a picture-perfect view of the sunrise as well as all of Frenchman Bay and Mount Desert Island from there, along with a bunch of other people. Some 400 cars a day drive to the summit with the same idea in mind and battle for limited parking spots.
Go Here Instead: Sargent Mountain
The second-tallest mountain on Mount Desert Island, 1,373-foot Sargent Mountain sees way fewer people and still has amazing views. No roads lead to the summit here, however; you’ll have to hike up either the North or South Ridge Trails or the more difficult Grandgent Trail. Or hire a rock-climbing guide from the Atlantic Climbing School, and they’ll lead you to sheer faces within the park without a soul in sight.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Where the Crowds Are: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
This national conservation area, just 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip and run by the Bureau of Land Management, features a gorgeous 13-mile drive through sandstone bluffs and is home to numerous hiking trails. But the place gets visited by some two million people a year.
Go Here Instead: Spring Mountain Ranch State Park
You’ll get similar views at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, five miles south of the Red Rock Canyon visitor center, but with a fraction of the people. Once a working ranch, this 520-acre park has hiking trails, guided outdoor yoga on a grassy meadow, and an old blacksmith shop and cabin that you can tour.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Where the Crowds Are: Crater Lake National Park
Welcome to the deepest lake in the United States and Oregon’s only national park. Of the many visitors who flock to Crater Lake National Park each summer, most drive around the lake and visit one of two visitor centers. Another popular option? Riding bikes along the rolling roadway of 33-mile Rim Drive, which circumnavigates the crater.
Go Here Instead: Paulina Lake
Located outside of Bend, Oregon, 80 miles north of Crater Lake, high-alpine Paulina Lake was also formed by a crater, but it doesn’t have the cachet of its national-park sibling. You’ll get turquoise waters and trails for hiking and mountain biking. Don’t miss the primitive Paulina Lake Hot Springs, tubs alongside the lake’s northeastern shore made of driftwood and filled with geothermal water. Book a cabin (from $126) on the shore at Paulina Lake Lodge.