10 Uncrowded Alternatives to Popular National Parks in the U.S.
K.C. was a featured writer for Yahoo! Travel before joining trips to discover in 2013. She is the author of Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland, an Amazon bestseller every year between 2013 and 2016. She has been a featured expert on Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Travelocity, among others.
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Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite are some of America’s most popular national parks, and while they’re well worth visiting, if you’re looking for a more tranquil, uncrowded experience you’ll want to head elsewhere. With 419 national parks in the U.S., there are many other options. These incredible alternatives will allow you to experience stunning landscapes and more in a more peaceful environment.
While it’s just a three-hour drive from Seattle, less than 27,000 people visit North Cascades National Park each year. The park protects one of the country’s most pristine wilderness areas, and with the exception of Alaska, it boasts the largest concentration of glaciers with more than 300. Look forward to some of the best hiking in the Pacific Northwest, with endless scenic trails like the one that leads to the Boston Basin, a rocky, un-maintained route ascends directly onto the Quien Sabe Glacier. Watch for the abundant wildlife along the way like bald eagles, moose, black and grizzly bear, gray wolf and cougar.
Sunset magazine called Lassen National Park in Northern California, “The West’s most beautiful, least visited wonderland.” It not only offers impressive geothermal features like Yellowstone, including boiling mud pots, hot springs, steam vents and fumaroles, but crystal-clear alpine lakes, soaring jagged mountain peaks and lush meadows. There are miles and miles of hikes, and by driving the scenic 30-mile Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway, you can take in many of its highlights.
This 218,000-acre national park is 40 percent water – there are no roads, instead, visitors get around on everything from canoes to houseboats via the network of over 30 lakes and interconnected waterways. Visitors enjoy swimming, fishing, wildlife viewing and hiking. In the winter, it becomes a very popular spot for cross-country skiing with six miles of groomed trails. The dark skies make it a great place to camp, ideal for stargazers, with shooting stars and the Milky Way coming into view. You might even get to witness the occasional aurora borealis.
One of the newest, most remote and least visited national parks, Great Basin is home to Nevada’s second-highest mountain, Wheeler’s Peak, and are some of the world’s oldest trees. The bristlecones once covered much of the region and survive now in scattered stands – some are 3,000 years old. There are 65 miles of trails that provide access to the scenic terrain which also includes alpine lakes and glacial moraines. Lehman Caves is one of its most popular attractions, filled with stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, popcorn and more – it can be visited on a guided tour.
Home to the largest expanse of old-growth forest in the country as well as some of the tallest trees in the east, Congaree National Park is a great place to hike and admire them with over 25 miles of trails. Visitors can also view the grand trees along waterways in a kayak or canoe. The park also experiences some unusual phenomenons – after heavy rain, nearly 90 percent becomes submerged underwater, and when there’s flooding between mid-May and mid-June, a remarkable spectacle of synchronous fireflies can be witnessed.
Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest national park in the country, covering over 13 million acres around the confluence of the mighty Copper River and the Chitina River, yet on an average year, it sees less than 80,000 visitors. It’s been likened to a mix of Switzerland, Yosemite and Yellowstone parks, and boasts the largest glacial system in the U.S. along with 9 of the 16 tallest mountains in the nation, including 18,008-foot-high Mount St. Elias. Watch for all sorts of wildlife, including moose that can frequently be seen around the lakes and willow bogs. Caribou, bison, black and brown bears, mountain goats, and wolves can all be spotted too.
Katmai National Park is home to dreamy landscapes and abundant wildlife. Extremely remote, it can only be accessed by plane or boat, but you’ll be able to witness its famously large population of grizzly bears by booking an excursion. A flight tour from Homer provides a bird’s-eye view of mountains, glaciers, volcanoes and calderas before touching down for a scenic hike leading to the bear-viewing sites. Depending on the time of year, you’ll be able to marvel at the bears doing everything from catching jumping salmon to nursing cubs.
While it may be the most popular national park in Texas, Big Bend National Park is rarely crowded, making for a serene experience, discovering dramatic canyon walls that meet up with desert land. It’s a great place to hike, raft on the Rio Grande River or enjoy a scenic drive. After dark, it offers incredible stargazing with some of the darkest skies in the lower 48 – spend the night around a campfire and you’ll be able to look up at thousands of stars and planets that are visible to the naked eye.
Home to North America’s tallest sand dunes, which soar over 700 feet into the almost always brilliant blue skies, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve offers the opportunity to experience two very unique sports, sandboarding and sand-sledding. It’s also filled with forests, alpine lakes, creeks, grasslands and 13,000-foot-high rugged peaks that are all just waiting to be explored.
Set on an isolated island in the middle of Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park can only be reached by seaplane or boat. Once there, discover wild and rugged shorelines, forest, back country trails and around 450 satellite islands. While there are no permanent human residents, a wide array of wildlife can be found here, including wolves and moose. It’s only open during the warmer months of the year, perfect for fishing, kayaking, boating, hiking and even diving.