America’s National Park system is great, it’s even been called “America’s Best Idea” in a film series by PBS. But despite all the Park system has done for the preservation of our most beautiful wild places, the awareness it has generated, and the access it has provided to millions of people, it has done the opposite for our four legged friends, and for those of us who wish to vacation with them.
Let me preface the rest of this by saying I may have an unhealthy attachment to my 7 year old Rottweiler/Lab mix, Diesel. And likewise, him to me. He does everything with me; mountain biking, skiing, climbing, hiking, running, rafting, and most importantly laying around and doing nothing. He is lying within petting distance as I write this. When it comes time for vacation one of my first priorities is making sure I’m headed somewhere he can come. Hence, my love/hate relationship with National Parks.
WIthout getting too far into it, I tend to agree with Edward Abbey’s opinion of national parks (If you’re not familiar, I wholeheartedly recommend reading “Desert Solitare” or at least this excerpt from it: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks). In many ways the national parks have become petting zoos of sort. Except, instead of petting little cute animals, you get to drive around and pet nature. The vast majority of people that visit the parks never get more than a mile or two from a paved road. To me, this is not what enjoying nature, and our beautiful places, is about. So I look elsewhere.
Fortunately, the National Park system does not have a monopoly on the beautiful places in America. And there are 109 million acres of designated Wilderness and 190 million acres of National Forest where dogs are perfectly welcome. Here are my three favorite, most versatile, and most beautiful vacation spots for when I want to bring Diesel and get away from the crowds:
1. The Sawtooth Wilderness
The Sawtooth is one of my favorite places in the country, hands down. I made the 12 hour drive up there 3 times this summer, passing dozens of other spectacular places on my way because I enjoy it so much. The range lies a couple hours east of Boise or a couple hours north of Twin Falls and contains every outdoor activity you could want. Beautiful high alpine lakes with surreal camp spots. Rugged mountains, plenty of them with relatively easy hiking access, and even more requiring technical climbing. But, maybe most importantly, it’s very uncrowded compared to most places this beautiful. If you’re into climbing, the Elephant’s Perch, a 1000 foot monolith at the foot of the Saddleback Lakes (seen above) offers world class climbing. Beyond that there are thousands of alpine routes that exist within the wilderness. Some of these, just by the sheer number of routes and lack of popularity of the area almost have to remain unclimbed. If you’re looking for a more tame vacation the Red Fish Lake Lodge is a place that is very tranquil and works as a great base camp for day adventures of hiking, biking, climbing, fishing, rafting, and more.
2. The Wallowa Mountains in the Eagle Cap Wilderness
The Wallowas are tucked away in the northeastern corner of Oregon, referred to as “America’s Little Switzerland”. There is less in the way of technical climbing here than in the Sawtooth, but what it lacks in that aspect it makes up for in sheer beauty and number of spectacular alpine lakes to camp at. On top of that the hiking here is a little less demanding than in the Sawtooth, and it would make the perfect family backcountry vacation spot.
3. The Bighorn Mountains in the Bighorn National Forest and Cloud Peak Wilderness
The Bighorns, like the Wallowas and the Sawtooth, remain relatively unknown. All by them selves in the central part of northern Wyoming they certainly don’t attract the crowds that the Tetons and Yellowstone do. These are, by Wyoming standards, less rugged mountains, but the mellow, wide open, terrain is unbelievably scenic and it certainly isn’t completely lacking big mountains or technical climbing. The picture above is the view as you approach the Lost Twin Lakes, a spectacular place to camp with two 1000 foot walls that offer spectacular (hard) climbing. The highpoint of the range, Cloud Peak, is a worthy objective in it’s own right and affords you views hundreds of miles in most directions due to the isolation of this range relative to other mountains.
Next time you’re planning a vacation, I would encourage you to think outside of the Parks and bring your furry, four legged, friend with you.