Many of the 63 national parks across the United States have seen an explosion in visitor numbers both during and after the pandemic, which has often led to booked campgrounds, clogged roads and timed entry requirements to limit crowds.
The big-name national parks are, however only one category of public lands under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. And the name doesn’t necessarily imply a preeminence of scenery and activities—many of the lesser-known national historic sites, monuments, recreation areas, and coastlines also provide great places to explore America’s diverse natural beauty and attractions, but without the big ticket crowds.
“Regardless of formal designation, each of the 424 sites in the National Park System offers visitors a variety of opportunities for inspiration, relaxation, recreation and education,” said Kathy Kupper, public affairs specialist at the NPS.
Here are five suggestions for less crowded alternatives to national parks this busy summer season.
It’s a wild, rocky coastline surrounded by lush forests and striking cliffs — but on Lake Superior, not the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. Pictured Rocks’ 42-mile coastline is a wonderful destination for those seeking hiking, camping and waterfront recreation, and in 2022, this national lakeshore received about a quarter as many visitors as Acadia National Park. The eponymous Pictured Rocks, sandstone cliffs covered in vibrantly colored streaks of mineral deposits, rise up to 200 feet from the water and can be explored by boat tour, kayak or hiking trail.
If you are looking for the forested mountain beauty of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, consider…
The opportunity to hike and camp in the densely forested mountains of Appalachia are major attractions of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which was the most visited national park in 2022, drawing close to 13 million recreational visitors. Find a similarly stunning setting in the 24,000 acres of Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, which received fewer than 750,000 visitors last year. The Gap, a natural path through the Appalachians, was a trade route for Native Americans and, later, a route for pioneers going west. In addition to 85 miles of trails rich with lookouts, waterfalls and wildlife, tour the historic Compromise Hensley or Gap Cavehome to striking stalagmites and bats.
If you are looking for river trip through the geological wonder of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, consider…
Colorado and Utah
Rafting through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River is a bucket list activity for many. As such, it is a trip that can require extensive advance planning; last year, the park saw more than 4.7 million visitors. Comparatively epic and certainly more accessible, rafting the Green and Yampa Rivers through Dinosaur National Monument offers a similar experience of racing rapids, towering canyon walls, and remote mountain and desert wilderness (and received only 350,000 visitors in 2022). And, as its name implies, the National Monument is a destination for ancient dinosaur fossils and petroglyphs.
If you are looking for the otherworldly hoods of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, consider…
Hoodoos, the name for thin, towering spiers of rock, are the main draw of Bryce Canyon National Park, which boasts the largest number of these rock formations on the planet – and more than two million visitors a year. The hoodoos at Chiricahua National Monument in the Chiricahua Mountains in Southeast Arizona lack the characteristic orange hue of Bryce Canyon, but are still numerous, eye-catching and comparatively uninhabited; the park received just over 600,000 visitors in 2022.
If you are looking for the wildlife viewing opportunities of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, consider…
The Pacific Coast location and wide-open grasslands of Point Reyes in the Western Marin region may not seem like an obvious alternative for the towering peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. But if your passion is wildlife viewing — a major draw for some of the 4 million visitors to the Rockies in 2022 — Point Reyes is a suitable choice. The coast received half the number of visitors as the National Park last year and is home to Tule Elk Preserve, along with elephant seals, a wide range of bird species and, in certain seasons, migrating gray whales.
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