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.
These parks offer monumental peaks and sweeping landscapes–with a fraction of the crowds.
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Last year, more than 327 million people visited the 419 sites in the U.S. National Park System—that’s 2.8 percent more visitors than last year. Those climbing numers make it harder and harder for travelers to enjoy some of the country’s most spectacular vistas without having to jockey for a tourist-free view. But here’s the thing: Of the 62 national parks, people tend to flock only to the big names, leaving the roads of the other equally incredible parks far less-traveled.
On February 27, 2020, the National Park Service released its annual visitor statistics. Once again Great Smoky Mountains National Park snagged the top spot, with 12.5 million visits. With about 6 million fewer visitors, Grand Canyon National Park came in second (5.97 million visits), followed by Rocky Mountain National Park (4.7 million) and Zion (4.5 million). 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.
Compare to: Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12.5 million visitors in 2019)
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, wooded hollows, and waterfalls that you’d find in the Great Smoky Mountains, with a fraction of Great Smoky’s yearly visitors. And as a bonus, in the fall, the leaf-peeping is spectacular.
Compare to: Grand Canyon National Park (5.97 million visitors in 2019)
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.
Compare to: Rocky Mountain National Park (4.7 million visitors in 2019)
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Carved by glaciers and settled by Native Americans, ranchers, sheepherders, and Mormons, Great Basin National Park 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.
Compare to: Zion National Park (4.5 million visitors in 2019)
Capitol Reef is one of the truly hidden gems of the National Park 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.
Compare to: Yosemite National Park (4.5 million visitors in 2019)
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. 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.
Compare to: Yellowstone National Park (4 million visitors in 2019)
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.
Compare to: Acadia National Park (3.4 million visitors in 2019)
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.
Compare to: Grand Teton National Park (3.4 million visitors in 2019)
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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.
Compare to: Olympic National Park: (3.2 million visitors in 2019)
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.
Compare to: Joshua Tree National Park (2.99 million visitors in 2019)
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.
Compare to: Everglades National Park (1.12 million visitors in 2019)
Tree-covered Congaree National 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. The park 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.
This article originally appeared online in January 25, 2019; it was updated on February 27, 2020, to include current information.