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Why You Should Explore The Areas Around The National Park Boundaries

The parks are the just tip of the iceberg.

By: Anna Redbond + Save to a List

There's no question that the national parks are amazing, but after spending three summers living and working within a two hour drive of Yellowstone, I found that the landscape and wildlife just outside of the park rivaled the park itself. In April, I visited Zion and found the same to be true. The areas around the parks boast similar ecosystems, geography and geology, but have their own distinct benefits and wonders. If you are planning a trip to a national park, take some extra time to explore the surrounding areas and you won’t regret it.

1. The scenery and geography are incredible.

The national parks contain some of the most awe-inspiring hikes and viewpoints in the country, but the areas just beyond their gates also play host to some breathtaking scenery. I have spent three summers hiking, fishing, and horseback riding just outside Yellowstone and it is all spectacular. A little more research and exploration will find you endless trails, lakes, streams and roads that are well worth your time and attention. On the road, the Beartooth Highway has vistas and landscapes that rival Yellowstone’s beauty.

2. Beat the crowds.

Navigating the areas outside of the boundaries comes with the added bonus that you can often explore with less people around. The national park hikes are incredible, but the mass of crowds that popular trails (such as Angels Landing in Zion) draw can be a huge deterrent and can detract from the experience massively. Traveling along the many trails and dirt roads between Yellowstone National Park and Cody, Wyoming it was common to go for days without passing a single fellow adventurer on the trail. Not all of the national park trails and roads are crowded, but I have found that some of the parks with the busiest hikes and viewpoints are still surrounded by trails and dirt roads that you can discover in solitude.

3. Pursue some activities that aren’t always available within the park boundaries.

Taking some time to research the land around the parks’ boundaries can lead you to some great off-road driving and mountain biking experiences. Off-road adventuring is prohibited in most parks to preserve the ecosystems and history. Similarly, some of the parks have mountain bike trails while others do not. On a recent trip to Zion, my partner and I went off-road exploring near Grafton ghost town and found some stunning viewpoints, mountain bike trails, and camping spots that were totally isolated and allowed for a great deal of exploring without anyone else in sight. Added bonus – these were all within a 40 minute drive of Zion’s entrance.

Photo: Jake Young

4. There is more freedom for those traveling with dogs.

Some of the national parks allow dogs but there are often rules in place that, for example, restrict dogs to certain areas or state that they must be kept on a leash at all times. These rules are certainly in place for a reason and not to be criticized, however exploring outside of the park boundaries comes with more freedom on the trail for those who adventure with their canine friends in tow.

5. The gateway towns are awesome in their own right.

Many of the gateway towns are well worth devoting some time to. I have passed through Cooke City and Red Lodge in Montana on my way into Yellowstone several times, and would certainly make a case for everyone paying at least a fleeting visit into these towns. The gateway towns are a great place to explore quaint stores, rest tired legs, grab some homemade ice cream or sample a local brew (or two). These towns often contain a great deal of local history as well. Cooke City is a unique and striking reminder of just how close the 1988 Yellowstone fires came to burning through the local towns, as one side of the town has a backdrop of scorched trees on a hillside whilst the other side remains untouched.

While the national parks are universally known to be worth visiting, I am learning more and more that it also pays to take a bit of extra time during your trip to explore the surrounding areas. Information on campsite, pet, mountain biking and off-road driving rules can be found on each national park's website.

Cover photo: Jennell McHugh

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