The United States National Parks protect the country’s most spectacular natural wonders and important geographic features. In the last several years, they’ve become more popular than ever – and with that popularity comes crowding, traffic jams, and long lines. You might find yourself seeing more herds of tourists than elk in many of the most popular parks. This post offers alternatives to the busiest National Parks based on their 2019 visitation numbers. These lesser-known National Parks, monuments, forests, and wilderness areas offer some of the same iconic features as their higher-trafficked counterparts with a little more breathing room if you’d prefer to explore the great outdoors without quite so many of your fellow humans around.
This is of course not to say that you shouldn’t visit these National Parks – I’ve been to 8 of them myself but I’d recommend trying to go in non-peak seasons. We’ve had fantastic luck visiting in shoulder seasons in recent years and have enjoyed low crowds at places like Rocky Mountain and Yosemite. I spent a whole hour flipping through my own photos of these trips looking for one with crowds to use in this post and I couldn’t find anything with masses. But, if you have to travel during peak summer or holiday times, you likely won’t have that kind of luck. That’s when these alternatives can really come in handy.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park alternative – Pisgah National Forest
As the United States’ most visited National Park annually – by a pretty large margin – peak seasons in the Smokies can get very congested. Instead of sitting in traffic in the National Park, enjoy scenery and waterfalls in nearby Pisgah National Forest. In less than two hours from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you can find yourself in Asheville, which frankly is much more charming than tourist-trappy Gatlinburg in the Smokies. The surrounding mountains are full of dense forests and opportunities for outdoor activities.
The National Forest stretches across huge swaths of land around Asheville and you can drive miles and miles of the famous Blue Ridge Parkway for spectacular views of rolling mountains. There are plenty of hiking trails and easily accessible waterfalls along the way. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even take a ride on a natural waterslide in Pisgah National Forest. Pack your bathing suit and some water shoes and take a few refreshing runs down a smooth rockface into an 8-foot deep pool at the bottom – it’s even attended by lifeguards during peak times in the summer. (This spot will get crowded on warm summer weekends.) When you’re done exploring the mountains, you can hit one of Asheville’s breweries or tour the Biltmore mansion.
2. Grand Canyon National Park alternative – Canyon de Chelly National Monument
As the second most visited National Park, Grand Canyon sees its share of crowds in peak seasons. Instead of waiting for shuttles and weaving through packs of people looking for photographs, head east toward the Arizona/New Mexico border to visit Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which is jointly managed with the Navajo Nation. Here, you’ll find a series of connecting canyons with thousand foot walls. Prime views from above can be found along one of the scenic rim drives that run along the north and south rims of the canyon.
Authorized guides are required to accompany visitors on most trails within the National Monument, but unguided hikers can take the White House Ruin trail on their own. This popular trail winds down deep into the canyon and ends at the ruins of some cliff dwellings.
The National Monument also contains numerous archaeological sites from throughout the history of human occupation in the area. Protecting these, as well as the Navajo families who still live in the canyon, is the reason that guides are mandatory. There is a campground run by the Navajo parks department if you wish to stay on site, or you can find accommodations nearby.
3. Rocky Mountain National Park alternative – Indian Peaks Wilderness
Colorado is home to gorgeous mountain scenery. Many tourists opt to head to Rocky Mountain National Park, but the locals know that the best mountain scenery is right next door. The Indian Peaks Wilderness offers even more epic beauty than its sister National Park. There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails, climbing opportunities, camping, and backpacking opportunities in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
Lone Eagle Peak, Colorado’s most beautiful mountain, is located in the heart of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Getting there is no easy feat, however the breathtaking views of this dramatic mountain are worth the effort. From the Monarch Lake Trailhead, hike along the 14.3 mile out-and-back trail following signs to Cascade Creek and then to Mirror and Crater Lake. Overnight permits are available (first-come-first-serve, advanced reservations recommended) for backcountry camping. Keep in mind there is a $5 per day entry fee for this part of Indian Peaks Wilderness. Those looking for an easier adventure will want to check out the Brainard Lake Recreation Area ($12 per vehicle per day). You’ll find plenty of hiking trails for all abilities as well as picnic, camping, and fishing opportunities.
If you’re tight on a budget, head to the famous 4th of July Trailhead. Known as one of the best hiking trails in Colorado, according to locals, this incredible trailhead has no entry fee. There are a variety of hikes from this spot. Opt to hike to the top of South Arapaho Peak, a 13,000-foot mountain, or catch a view at the 4th of July Mine. Lake enthusiasts will want to check out the beautiful vistas at Lake Dorothy or Diamond Lake.
Overall, you’ll find a fraction of the crowds and double the mountain beauty in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
By Meg Atteberry from Fox in the Forest
4. Zion National Park alternative – Capitol Reef National Park
Zion National Park is beautiful, however it is often extremely busy and full of crowds. Capitol Reef is near Zion, and is often wide open for you to explore without any crowds. Capitol Reef National Park, like Zion, is located in southern Utah. The beautiful sites and sounds of Utah’s iconic National Parks are just as present in Capitol Reef as they are in Zion. Capitol Reef has some incredible hiking trails and adventure for you to explore.
The Cassidy Arch Trail is perhaps the best hike in Capitol Reef. The trail takes you up and through the enormous red canyons of this part of the country. At the conclusion of the trail, you’ll see Cassidy Arch itself, a jaw-dropping natural archway formed over ages and ages of erosion. If you want to, you can even walk out on the arch for a great photo opportunity! Chimney Rock is another wonderful hike in Capitol Reef. This hike gives you a wonderful 360 degree panorama view of the beautiful landscapes of this National Park. Another activity you can do in the area is checking out Butch Cassidy’s childhood home!
All in all, Capitol Reef is an excellent National Park and makes for a great alternative to visiting the much more popular Zion National Park. Explore the incredible hikes and landscapes of Southern Utah in this beautiful park.
By Zach and Julie Ruhl of Ruhls of the Road
5. Yosemite National Park alternative – Kings Canyon National Park
Yosemite is one of the most iconic National Parks in the United States – and for good reason. Not only is the scenery spectacular, but Yosemite hiking trails are some of the most famous among outdoor enthusiasts. However, with all that grandeur, it can get very crowded during peak seasons.
Less than 100 miles south (though you’ll have to drive more than that to get around the mountains), you can get a taste of similar high Sierra scenery in Kings Canyon National Park with a fraction of the crowds. John Muir, famous for his adoration of the Sierra Nevada region, even wrote of Kings Canyon as a more grand valley than that of Yosemite. And, like its more famous neighbor to the north, you can camp or stay in a lodge at the bottom of the canyon, surrounded by those gorgeous granite cliffs.
One of the most popular things to do in Kings Canyon National Park is take a drive along the winding road to the bottom of the canyon. This road closes seasonally, so you’ll have to visit during warmer months to enjoy it, but it’s absolutely worth the trip. Along the way, you’ll leave the park to pass through Sequoia National Forest before emerging into the spectacular canyon. While its waterfalls aren’t quite as dramatic as Yosemite’s that thunder from thousands of feet up, the volume of water cascading over Grizzly Falls and Roaring River Falls will still take your breath away. Once you reach the bottom of the canyon, don’t miss a hike on the Zumwalt Meadow Trail, which takes you along the river and through a rockslide area with jaw-dropping views.
If you’re looking to admire the enormous sequoia trees, Kings Canyon National Park has its own groves, including the General Grant tree that is recognized as the second largest in the world. And if you’re feeling ambitious, pay a visit to adjacent Sequoia National Park for even more.
6. Yellowstone National Park alternative – Lassen Volcanic National Park
California has the most National Parks in the United States. However, Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the least visited National Parks in the entire country. It is also one of the most beautiful. A natural wonder in the most unassuming way, Lassen Volcanic National Park is located in the northeastern corner of California. The closest major city is Redding, California, which is only an hour away, while San Francisco is a four-hour drive. Wherever you start, you WILL need a car because there is currently no public transportation to the park. Though, there are a number of incredible campsites and RV hookups available for an overnight stay.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is, as the name suggests, a large park with multiple geothermal sites such as Bumpass Hell, which has pools and pools of bubbling mud and that sweet iconic sulfur smell. Although there are no true geysers in Lassen Volcanic National Park, there are multiple boiling hot springs and some, like the “Terminal Geyser,” emit a strong flow of steam that resemble a geyser. Also true to the name, the National Park surrounds Lassen Peak, an active volcano. In fact, all four types of volcanos in the world can be found in the park. The Pacific Crest Trail runs through the park, so there are hundreds of trails and hikes that weave through the forests and hills surrounding the many lakes and valleys. Feel free to reenact Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” for the complete experience. For the even more adventurous, you can summit the peak of the Lassen Volcano, which offers views of the entire park! Speaking of Lassen Volcano, the Devastated Area is an interesting section of the park. As far as the eye can see, the area looks like the scene of a sci-fi novel, with singed trees and ash still covering the ground from the last eruption.
By Kay from The Awkward Traveller
7. Acadia National Park alternative – Voyageurs National Park
More than 3 million guests visit Maine’s Acadia National Park each year to hike on its forested trails, enjoy plentiful fishing areas, watch for bald eagles, and explore its waters via boat, ferry, or kayak.
Those same opportunities can be found in Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park, which covers 218,000 acres along the Canadian border. Located more than four hours away from Minneapolis, Voyageurs sees only about 230,000 annual visitors.
Voyageurs can’t match the 120 miles of hiking trails in Acadia, but it does have Kab-Ash Trail, which runs for 28 miles between the Ash River and Kabetogama regions. You definitely won’t have to worry about overcrowding on this secluded trail, which passes through remote wetland and forest areas. Close to 40% of Voyageurs is covered by water. The best way to experience the park is to hop on one of the National Park Service’s daily ferry tours, which operate from the visitor centers during the summer. Some of the tours visit neighboring islands for exploration of historic hotels and gold mines.
While both parks have small numbers of black bears and moose, your best bet for wildlife watching is to look up in the trees, as both have plenty of bald eagles. In fact, Voyageurs is one of the best places in the continental U.S. to see them. At last count, the park had 42 pairs of breeding bald eagles. You’ll probably see a few of them on a ferry tour.
Like Acadia, Voyageurs was the site of fur trading between Native Americans and early settlers during colonial times. Though the two parks are very similar, Voyageurs is much less crowded, so it’s a great option for those who prefer to avoid the masses.
By Scott from Quirky Travel Guy
8. Grand Teton National Park alternative – Sawtooth National Recreation Area
Located in central Idaho, Sawtooth National Recreation Area (managed by Sawtooth National Forest) boasts the same type of mountain views, alpine lakes, and wilderness activities as more widely known Grand Teton. Visitors will enjoy scenic drives through peaks made up of 4 different mountain ranges. If you want to get out of your car and off the road, you’ll find 700 miles of hiking trails of varying intensity.
Sawtooth National Recreation Area also features numerous lakes and boating, fishing, and float trips are all popular activities, just like you’ll find at Grand Teton. Since the recreation area shares a similar climate to Grand Teton, you’ll also find lots of the same animals and other wildlife if you’re hoping to view them.
Camping is the best way to stay in Sawtooth National Recreation area and there are several campgrounds available to choose from. A vehicle is a necessity for exploring park roads.
9. Olympic National Park alternative – Tongass National Forest
One of Olympic National Park’s most unique features is its rainforest area. If you head a bit further north to Tongass National Forest, the largest in the country, is home to a large swath of temperate rainforest with plenty of trails for hiking. And if that’s not enough for you, you can also enjoy the spectacular scenery of Alaska’s famous Inside Passage.
There are also plenty of opportunities to view wildlife, including bears, in the National Forest. Head to the Steep Creek bear viewing area near Juneau for a great chance at seeing some. Bald eagles are another famous resident that you may be able to spot during your visit. Most important of all may be the salmon that you’ll find in many of the waterways and on plenty of restaurant menus in the area. You may even be able to see them spawning if you’re lucky.
Another one of the best things to do in Tongass National Forest is glacier viewing. You can easily get to the Mendenhall Glacier by car to witness the a 13-mile-long river of ice that ends in Mendenhall Lake. You’ll find a visitor center there as well as plenty of trails that treat you to mountain views and waterfalls.
10. Glacier National Park alternative – North Cascades National Park
Imagine a scenic drive through the mountains filled with alpine lakes and a chance to see amazing wildlife, all in one park! It may sound like a trip through Glacier National Park, but it is also possible on a visit to lesser-known North Cascades National Park in Washington State. North Cascades National Park is one of the least-visited in the Parks system, but that is not because it lacks beauty. At just over 500,000 acres there are endless things to see. The main attraction is driving through the park on SR 20. Just like in Glacier National Park (where you can drive on the Going-To-The-Sun Road) the drive itself is worth a visit. It is open seasonally from late spring to late fall. In spring, you pass countless roadside waterfalls. In fall, you can watch the seasons change around you as the mountain peaks become covered in snow.
In summer, the busiest season, you can see the park from a different point of view on one of the many hikes! One of the most popular hikes, Thunder Knob, climbs 3.5 miles to views of surrounding mountain peaks and Diablo Lake below. This alpine lake is beautiful. Just as mesmerizing as Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, it is a beautiful turquoise color in the sunshine and is surrounded by mountain peaks on all sides.
There is a high chance for a wildlife encounter at North Cascades. The latitudes of Glacier National Park and North Cascades are similar, and their subalpine and alpine ecosystems are home to many of the same animals. Common sightings in the park include bald eagles, pika and mule deer. An encounter with bears, mountain goats and wolves is possible, although less common.
If you’re looking for a national park experience that is quieter, but with just as much adventure, North Cascades is the perfect alternative!
By Samantha from A Truthful Traveler
What other places remind you of these National Parks without the crowds? Let me know in the comments if you have any other suggestions!
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