Photo by Jon Bilous/Shutterstock
Photo by Dmitry Kovba/Shutterstock
The North Cascades, one of the most geologically complex places in the United States, is located just three hours from Seattle.
With crowds overrunning the U.S.’s most popular national parks, head to these alternative parks, forests, and natural wonders instead.
While U.S. national parks saw a year-over-year decline in visitors in 2020 thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, 2021 is (so far) a different story. The summer has only started and some parks, like Arches National Park and Canyonlands in Utah, have already broken visitation records compared to previous years. Those numbers make it harder for travelers to enjoy some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes without having to jockey for a tourist-free view.
Of the 63 national parks, people tend to flock only to the big names (such as Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, and Zion National Parks, all of which topped the National Park Service’s annual visitors list in 2019). This leaves the roads of the other equally incredible parks and natural areas far less traveled. Want all of the beauty of these incredible places without the crowds? You can have it at one of the following lesser-known alternatives to some of the most popular national parks.
In addition to the 63 official national parks, the U.S. also has 129 national monuments—usually smaller areas designated worthy of protection for historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest—and hundreds of state parks equally worthy of a visit. The boundaries of nature also expand beyond the official lines of our national parks, with many national forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands neighboring them and covering similar geographical features.
No matter where you go, remember to practice “leave no trace” and pack out what you pack in; stay on trails, don’t feed or get close to wildlife, always let someone know where you’re going in case of an emergency, and download maps or keep a paper backup in the likely case that you lose reception.
While hiking any part of the 500 miles of trails in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, you can explore the same sort of sweeping views of low-rolling hills, wooded hollows, and waterfalls that you’d find in the Great Smoky Mountains, with a fraction of Great Smoky’s yearly visitors. As a bonus, in the fall, the leaf-peeping is spectacular.
Shenandoah National Park is a doable day trip from the Washington, D.C. area, but if you’d rather take your time, book a stay at one of the park’s campgrounds or an Airbnb in one of the nearby gateway towns.
Sure, the Grand Canyon’s North Rim is a less-touristy alternative to the South Rim, but it’s closed for much of the winter, and the dramatic views at Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado about seven hours away are also breathtaking. The park’s deep canyons, craggy spires, and 2,000-foot cliffs are awe inspiring in their own way, and the area is known for its class V kayaking and expert climbing, as well as easy to moderate hiking.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison has several campgrounds within the park as well as basic hotel options in Montrose, 30 minutes away from the Black Canyon’s South Rim.
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Sure, Rocky Mountain National Park is impressive, but the mountain range for which it’s named doesn’t stop at the park’s boundaries. Stretching 3,000 miles from northern Canada to New Mexico, the Rockies run through much of Colorado—including the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness, which sits just outside the town of Aspen. Here you’ll find several of Colorado’s infamous “fourteeners” (mountain peaks over 14,000 feet), like Castle and Maroon Peaks, alpine lakes, waterfalls, and hot springs.
There are several campgrounds within the wilderness area (some of which require permits), but for less rugged accommodations, stay at a hotel in the nearby town of Aspen, such as the rustic-yet-modern Hotel Jerome in town, or secluded the Gant at the base of Aspen Mountain.
Utah’s “Big 5 parks”—Zion, Arches, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Bryce Canyon—are all experiencing a strong rebound in visitation numbers (if you compare preliminary 2021 numbers to 2019). However, Utah’s most iconic features—sandstone cliffs, slot canyons, and rock arches—can be found throughout the state. One of the best places to explore them without the crowds is Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument—a 1-million-acre expanse of public lands that ranges from low-lying desert to coniferous forest.
If you’re driving between Salt Lake City or Moab and Escalante, make a pit stop at Goblin Valley State Park (one of our favorite state parks in the West), which is known for its tall, mushroom-shaped rock formations called hoodoos, also known as goblins.
Vast as Escalante is, where you stay will depend on the areas you plan to visit. Developed and dispersed camping options are abundant throughout, but for those who prefer a bit of luxury, consider booking a cabin or Airstream at Yonder Escalante, just west of the town of Escalante and attractions like Zebra Canyon and Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. On the southern edge of Escalante near Lake Powell, a new Under Canvas location has opened for a luxury camping experience.
Visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and the Sierra National Forest in California
You may know Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (two parks managed as one) 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. Best of all, the parks are only a three-hour drive (give or take) from Yosemite. So if you really can’t skip the big name, you can at least get a taste of both worlds.
In between Yosemite and Sequoia sits the Sierra National Forest that encompasses several wilderness areas and parts of the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail (which overlap). Given that both areas include stretches of the Sierra Nevada, visitors will find many similar geographical features, from lakes and waterfalls to granite peaks and pines—with a touch more ruggedness.
In addition to campsites in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, there are several lodge and cabin options within the park: Wuksachi Lodge, John Muir Lodge, and Grant Grove Cabins. To explore the Sierra National Forest, make the family-friendly Snowcreek Resort in Mammoth your home base.
If you’re looking to skip the crowds at Yellowstone, head east of the park on the scenic Beartooth Highway, which winds across Wyoming and Montana, over dramatic peaks and through green valleys before ending in the town of Red Lodge. Along the way are plenty of jumping-off points into the Gallatin National Forest: Although it holds none of the geothermal features Yellowstone is known for, it has many canyons, lakes, and glacial basins to explore.
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Camp at the scenic East Rosebud campground in Custer Gallatin National Forest, which overlooks a remote lake surrounded by towering peaks.
Visit Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota
More than 40 percent of Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park is covered in a network of lakes, rivers, and estuaries, and there are water activities aplenty. Book a boat tour or BYOBoat; when the water freezes over, break out the cross-country skis 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.
As a certified International Dark Sky Park, Voyageurs gives visitors a good reason to spend the night. Reserve one of the park’s many campgrounds (some drive-in, some backcountry, and many only accessible by canoe) or stay on the water in a houseboat (permit required). In the town of Ash River, Ebel’s rents houseboats from which you can navigate Voyageur’s waterways.
Less than a three-hour drive north of Seattle, Washington, the North Cascades are 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.
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 Mountains National Park 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.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park has two campgrounds, which are the best option for a place to stay. Carlsbad, the nearest major town and one hour to the north, has some basic hotel options as well.
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 (Mount St. Elias), one of the largest active volcanoes in North America (Mount Wrangell), and a glacier larger than Rhode Island (the Malaspina Glacier), it offers endless opportunities to explore. Other highlights include biking the remote Nabesna Road and floating from Nizina Glacier Lake to the Chitina River.
This article originally appeared online on January 25, 2019; it was updated on June 25, 2021, to include current information.
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