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Top Secrets of the National Parks: An Insider's Guide

By Megan Taylor Morrison
June 23, 2013; 8:03 AM ET
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When it comes to the national parks, no one knows them better than the park employees who call these remarkable places home. While a ranger or other park gig can be hard to secure (The National Park Service only has enough funding for about 13,000 full-time workers nationwide), those lucky enough to be hired have daily access to some of the largest and most breathtaking outdoor playgrounds in the world.

Over the years, NPS employees come to know their parks very well. Just as any New Yorker has their out-of-the-way watering holes, so too do these park gurus have their own secret haunts. Whether it's the best spot to see sunset in Yosemite or the most incredible place for bird watching in the Everglades, these areas are as special to them as Half Dome or Old Faithful.

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In 2012, the national park system attracted more than 282 million tourists. Because our secret finds fly under the radar of the average visitor, these spots are also an ideal place to connect with nature, unwind, and see the beauty and quiet that attracted us in the first place. To help you ditch the crowds, we asked park officials from popular parks for a few tips. In this slideshow, we will introduce you to the lesser-known places they recommend. While some spots are remote, others are simply unfamiliar to most tourists. The suggestions cover all four seasons and all ability levels.

Credit: Flickr/GrandCanyon/NPS

Grand Canyon National Park Secret #1

Walk or Cross Country Ski to Shoshone Point

This lookout provides spectacular views no matter what time of year you visit, said Outdoor Recreation Planner Vanya Pryputniewicz. Located near the east entrance of the park, visitors should plan to park in the lot between mile markers 244 and 245 on East Rim Drive. The trip to Shoshone Point is a one-mile hike in warmer months or can be made on cross country skis in the winter, depending on conditions. As one of the higher elevation points on the canyon rim, the area often has snow from December through February.

"When you get to the lookout, you can walk on a spindly promontory, and it feels like you're in the canyon rather than on the rim," Pryputniewicz said.

Because you can't take a shuttle bus or car directly to the lookout, only a small percentage of park visitors take advantage of this area.

Credit: Flickr/wild_trees

Olympic National Park Secret #2

Backpack the High Divide Loop to Seven Lakes Basin

This 18.2-mile loop is a moderate hike with 3,050 feet of elevation gain. You'll begin in an old-growth rainforest and make your way up into the high country. Once you've arrived at the basin, you can spend several days camping and exploring the area.

"You'll be surrounded by mountains," Maynes said. "And if you hike up onto High Divide on the south rim, you can look straight across at Mount Olympus, which is the highest peak in the area. It's just spectacular." From this vantage point, you can also see into both the Sol Duc and Ho River areas-two distinct parts of the park.

Permits are required and access is limited May through September, so it's best to call ahead. For more information, contact the Wilderness Information Center at the park. Maynes also cautions hikers to be wary of mountain goats. In some areas, these animals have become accustomed to people, and hikers have been injured or killed after wandering too close.

For more rangers' secrets from Olympic, click here.

Credit: Flickr/mgpenguin86

Acadia National Park Secret #2

Watch Storms on the Schoodic Peninsula

The busiest time for Acadia is in the summer, but the late fall offers some of the most spectacular conditions, including vibrant foliage and a series of huge storms that roll in over the Atlantic Ocean, Marion said. During this time, strong winds whip up huge waves that break over the rocky shore. It's an incredible spectacle that's popular with the locals, but make sure to keep a safe distance, he warned.

"We don't have fences and guardrails because we want to preserve the natural scenery, so you have to be extremely careful," he said. People have died after getting too close to the edge and being washed into the sea. Marion suggests heading out just after the storm, when you can still see the surf, but conditions are safer.

For more rangers' secrets from Acadia, click here.

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