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11 Crowd-Free National Parks You Should Visit Instead

By Maggie Fuller and Brooke Vaughan

02.06.19

From the March/April 2019 issue

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The North Cascades, one of the most geologically complex places in the United States, is located just three hours from Seattle. 

Courtesy of Dmitry Kovba/Shutterstock

The North Cascades, one of the most geologically complex places in the United States, is located just three hours from Seattle. 

These parks offer monumental peaks and sweeping landscapes–with a fraction of the crowds.

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We definitely envy John Muir. We’re guessing that the pioneering naturalist—one of the biggest advocates for the preservation of the American wilderness—never had to jockey for a tourist-free view of some of the country’s most spectacular vistas. But here’s the thing: Of the 60 national parks, travelers tend to flock only to the big names, leaving the roads of the 50 other equally incredible parks far less-traveled. Want all of the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park without the crowds? You can have it at one of these lesser-known parks.

More than 500 miles of trails run through Shenandoah National Park.

Shenandoah National Park

1,458,874 visitors in 2017

Compare to Great Smoky Mountains (North Carolina/Tennesee): 11,338,893 visitors in 2017

While hiking any part of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park’s 500 miles of trails, you can explore the same sort of sweeping views, wooded hollows, and waterfalls that you’d find in the Great Smoky Mountains, with a fraction of the Great Smoky’s yearly visitors. And as a bonus, in the fall, the leaf-peeping is spectacular. 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is home to the highest cliff in Colorado, the Painted Wall at 2,250 feet.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

307,143 visitors in 2017

Compare to Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona): 6,254,238 visitors in 2017

Sure, the Grand Canyon’s North Rim is a less-touristy version of the South Rim, but the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado is also breathtaking. The park’s sloping canyons, craggy spires, and 2,000-foot cliffs are awe inspiring in their own way, and the area is known for its great rafting and expert climbing, if you’re in it for the extreme sports.

Capitol Reef is a geologic monocline, meaning there are folds in the rock-layer of the earth that makes the cliffs and canyons within the park.

Capitol Reef National Park

1,150,165 visitors in 2017

Compare to Zion National Park (Utah): 4,504,812 visitors in 2017

Capitol Reef is one of the truly hidden gems of the National Parks system. It often gets overshadowed by its ruddy-hued neighbors, Utah’s other beautiful national parks—Zion and Arches National Park—but this geologic “wrinkle” is sprinkled with vermilion cliffs, canyons, bridges, and arches that are well worth exploring. Don’t miss the towering beauty of the sandstone temples of Cathedral Valley.

Great Basin National Park is designated an International Dark Sky Park.

Great Basin National Park

168,028 visitors in 2017

Compare to Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado): 4,437,215 visitors in 2017

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Carved by glaciers and settled by Native Americans, ranchers, sheepherders, and Mormons, Great Basin has a cultural history as diverse as its geologic one. While the Nevada park still contains evidence of past glacial activity (roughly 100 valleys and the stalactite-filled Lehman Caves), the people have moved on: The only signs of human settlement are the sheep that still graze in the meadows on the park’s western side. There’s no bad time of year to explore. Stargaze during summer beneath some of the darkest skies in the country (Great Basin is an International Dark Sky Park), take a leaf-peeping hike up Wheeler Peak in autumn, hit Wheeler’s slopes come winter, or hunt for wildflowers in spring.

Sequoias are the third longest-lived species of tree, with some in California more than 3,000 years old.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

1,984,188 visitors in 2017

Compare to Yosemite National Park (California): 4,336,890 visitors in 2017

You may know Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California as the place to walk among giants–giant sequoias, that is–but there are also more than 800 miles of trails through peaks and valleys. And best of all, the parks are only about three hours away from Yosemite. So if you really can’t skip the big name, you can at least get a taste of both worlds.

Rainwater and snow in higher elevations feed the park’s hydrothermal system.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

507,256 visitors in 2017

Compare to Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming/Idaho/Montana): 4,116,524 visitors in 2017

If you’re drawn to Yellowstone’s Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring, Lassen National Park, in California, has some equally stunning geothermic activity in store for you. From the bubbling pools of Bumpass Hell to Terminal Geyser, there are plenty of exciting hydrothermal spots throughout the park–after all, volcanic is in the name. 

Water makes up more than 40 percent of Voyageurs National Park, making it the perfect location for an abundance of water activities.

Voyageurs National Park

237,250 visitors in 2017

Compare to Acadia National Park (Maine): 3,509,271 visitors in 2017

Looking for an H2O fix? More than 40 percent of Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park is water, and there are water activities aplenty. Book a boat tour or supply your own watercraft for warm-weather fun; when the water freezes over, break out your skis for  cross-country skiing or test your snowmobiling skills. Just don’t get too set on a bedtime–the aurora borealis might surprise you by flitting across the sky on a cloudless night.

North Cascades National Park has a diverse landscape, encompassing mountains, glaciers, a temperate rain forest, and other geological complexities.

North Cascades National Park

30,326 visitors in 2017

Compare to Olympic National Park (Washington): 3,401,996 visitors in 2017

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Less than three hours north of Seattle, Washington, North Cascades is one of the most geologically complex places in the United States. The Washington park encompasses the North Cascade Mountains, home to some of the state’s highest peaks, and Lake Chelan, the third-deepest lake in the nation, as well as a temperate rain forest, glaciers, and waterfalls. Dive into this array of landscapes on the 7.4-mile round-trip Cascade Pass Trail, which passes through old-growth forest with views of the Cache Col glacier and the Stehekin River Valley along the way.

As the largest national park in the country, Wrangell-St. Elias has a number of record-breaking mountains, glaciers, and other landmarks.

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park

68,292 visitors in 2017

Compare to Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming): 3,317,000 visitors in 2017

At 13.2 million acres, Alaska’s Wrangell–St. Elias is the largest national park in the United States—the size of Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Switzerland combined. With the second highest peak in the country, one of the largest active volcanoes in North America, and a glacier larger than Rhode Island, it offers endless opportunities to explore. Find a base at one of the dozen remote backcountry cabins, bike the remote Nabesna Road, or float from Nizina Glacier Lake to the Chitina River.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park protects an extensive marine fossil reef, what was once a major inland sea millions of years ago.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

225,257 visitors in 2017

Compare to Joshua Tree National Park (California)2,853,619 visitors in 2017

It’s hard to picture, but this mountainous 135-square-mile park was once a marine reef, part of a vast inland sea that covered Texas some 265 million years ago. Now it’s one of the best-preserved examples of a marine fossil reef on Earth—and surprisingly biodiverse. Guadalupe hosts more than 1,000 plant species, some of which exist nowhere else in the world, and more than 400 species of mammals, birds, and reptiles. With four of the tallest mountains in Texas and over 80 miles of trails, Guadalupe is also a playground for hikers and backpackers.

Congaree National Park earned UNESCO biosphere reserve status for its biodiversity, natural resources, and cultural heritage.

Congaree National Park

159,595 visitors in 2017

Compare to Everglade National Park, (Florida): 1,018,557 visitors in 2017

This tree-covered park in South Carolina includes the largest collection of old-growth bottomland hardwood trees in the country and more than 80 tree species in all. This biodiversity (along with a rich cultural heritage) in 1983 earned Congaree UNESCO biosphere reserve status, which supports conservation by including local communities in park decision-making. Congaree sits on a 27,000-acre floodplain fed by the Congaree and Wateree rivers, so yes, it’s swampy at times. Spring and fall months are best for camping beneath the giant cypress trees or admiring them from a guided tour down the Cedar Creek canoe trail.

>>Next: Key Change: How a Shifting Climate Is Transforming Florida

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