5 Tips for Finding Hidden Natural Reserves Near You
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The tranquil, serene stillness of a national park is the perfect place to relax — that is, until 100 other people have the same idea. With overcrowding becoming a problem in many wilderness areas, you sometimes have to leave the beaten path to find peace and quiet. Here are five tips for finding lesser-known natural reserves near you.
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The Issue of Overuse
In 2020, a third of America’s national parks saw record visitation rates as people sought refuge from the pandemic outdoors, and many parks are still experiencing crowding. With campground reservations up 73% compared to 2019, the National Park System is struggling to keep up with the increase in demand. This problem has many people looking for quieter, less congested alternatives to the most popular wild spaces. How do you find them?
1. Use AllTrails
The AllTrails app is a favorite among hikers and nature enthusiasts. You can search for trails near you by putting in your location or the name of a nearby city or park. Then, you can sort the trails by difficulty, popularity, length and other metrics. Read through people’s reviews of each location to get a sense of what makes it unique or challenging — maybe it has a well-marked path in the beginning, but you’ll have to rely on signs to navigate through the second half.
The free version is chock-full of helpful features. In addition to the detailed maps, it boasts an activity tracker to let you mark your progress. You can save your favorite trails to revisit later. If you make your own custom map on the AllTrails website, you can view it on the app, and if you discover a new, unmarked trail, you can upload it to the app and give it a name.
The paid version of the app has a few extra features like an air quality index, ad-free usage and off-route notifications to let you know you’re straying from the designated path. By far, however, its most useful feature is the ability to download trail info.
You’ll need to get the paid version if you want to download maps for offline use, which can be handy if you’re planning to explore an area without cell service. Alternatively, many people simply screenshot the maps. It’s always a good idea to have photos of your map before setting off on any adventure. That way, if you drop the paper map or lose cell reception, you still have a copy of it in your photo reel.
2. Check out the Visitor Information Center
If you’re new in town or just passing through, it’s worth visiting the tourism center. You’ll likely find helpful information about nearby natural reserves, and you can ask for more details about them — do they have an entrance fee? Are dogs allowed?
When finding the most interesting natural reserves near you, you can also learn if they have any hidden trails only locals know about. Sometimes city parks even have areas off the beaten path that few people visit. Ask the staff at the visitor info center and find out!
3. Use Social Media
A great way to find hidden natural reserves near you is to join Facebook groups. Ask for permission to join private groups for locals, and you’ll likely become privy to lots of new information. People may share their favorite trails or places to unwind. Make a post asking about all the best spots and see what kinds of suggestions you get.
Or, join specific groups for hikers, bird watchers or cyclists. If you know the names of a few nearby parks or wildlife sanctuaries, follow their pages. Look up your state’s parks and wildlife department and follow their local chapter online as well.
4. Ask Locals
Spend time in local coffee shops, libraries and bars to get acquainted with the residents of the area. They probably know a few places that aren’t labeled on Google Maps, and you might even find a hiking buddy!
Having trouble meeting people who could show you around? It may be old school, but hanging up flyers that say you want to meet fellow hikers or nature enthusiasts is a great way to get to know locals.
What’s more, some people have pristine natural reserves on their private property, and it’s simply a matter of getting their permission to explore.
Parts of the United States have precious little public land. In Texas, for example, around 95% of the landscape is off-limits, with nearly every mountain or lake surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Finding hiking or camping opportunities can be challenging. But, if you make friends with local landowners, you just might gain access to areas no one else can visit.
5. Visit the Local Tourism Site
Whether you just moved to a new area or you’re visiting for a few days, see if they have a chamber of commerce site or something similar. Some cities promote their local festivals, holidays and things to do on a website that encourages tourism in the region. These sites often include a list of nearby parks and natural areas.
If the website provides maps of the nature reserves, download them and look for more difficult or out-of-the-way hikes. The most popular trails are usually near parking lots and tend to be short. In general, the farther you get from the main paved road, the less popular a trail will be. Look for trails that start near long, bumpy or dirt roads for the most solitude.
Once you have an idea of where to start, call the visitor center at each wilderness area — if there is one — and get further recommendations. Ask about the least-visited trails, campgrounds and scenic spots at each site.
Finding Natural Reserves Near You
When it comes to finding natural reserves and other outdoor spaces, the best hidden gems likely won’t pop up on Google’s front page. You’ll need to broaden your search if you want to find them. But, that’s part of what makes them so great! When you finally get out to that scenic trail or picnic spot, you’re practically guaranteed to have it all to yourself.
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About the author
Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.