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Want To Avoid A Crowded National Park? Here Are Some Secret Alternatives

The National Park System has over 400 units, but each year, people keep going back to the same few places. That leads to traffic jams (especially when tourists spy cute animals from their cars), parking issues, and crowded trailheads.

While places with official “park” designation often get the most attention, there are so many other places to go that are just as beautiful, and often far more wild. So, if you’re looking for a bit more solitude this summer, consider these less famous alternatives to the top 5 most-visited national parks.

Instead of Grand Canyon, visit Black Canyon at the Gunnison National Park in Colorado

Image by Brad McGinley Photography

The Grand Canyon is probably the world’s most famous canyon. And it is indeed grand. But the “Grand Canyon of Colorado,” Black Canyon, had fewer than 300,000 visitors last year, according to park data, compared to 4.7 million visitors to the Grand. At its deepest point, the Gunnison River is nearly half a mile below the rim of Black Canyon. There are no maintained trails down to the river, so you’ll need a backcountry permit to hike down to it via steep routes that take some time to maneuver. But once you’re there, it’s bliss—you might have the whole river all to yourself so you can camp, hike, and fly fish in total solitude. Bonus: Black Canyon is a certified International Dark Sky Park.

Instead of Rocky Mountain National Park, visit the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in Wyoming

Just a few hours north of Rocky Mountain National Park, the peaks of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest stretch across the border to Wyoming. Here, you’ll find dirt roads leading to secluded dispersed camping sites with views of rugged peaks towering nearly 13,000 feet. You’ll find plenty of places refreshingly far from cell service, and no shortage of hikes with dramatic views. In the Colorado portion of the forest, the popular ski town of Steamboat Springs serves as a luxurious gateway. The rustic hot spring resort, Strawberry Park Hot Springs, is a great place to relax after a long day on the trail.

Instead of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, visit the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia

The Dolly Sods Wilderness is tucked into the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia. It’s the highest plateau east of the Mississippi River, and has a rather unusual landscape that’s often compared with terrain in eastern Canada. On a rainy day when the mist is just right, the landscape can resemble something much more like seaside cliffs than a boggy inland forest. The Monangahela also contains Seneca Rocks, a popular climbing spot.

Instead of Acadia National Park, visit Baxter State Park and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

Image by Rebecca Smith

Acadia is relatively easy to reach from major cities in the Northeast, which is no small part of its draw. But further north, you can hike to the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Mt. Katahdin, at Baxter State Park. Right next door, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument offers further opportunities for hiking, kayaking, camping, and hunting in the Appalachian Mountains. 

Instead of Zion National Park, visit Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Utah might just be the best state for National Parks and incredible diversity of public lands. While Zion is the most-visited park here, it is by no means the only one worth visiting. Venture a little further off the beaten track to Grand Staircase-Escalante, which is massive and full of nearly every kind of recreation opportunity you could want. You can raft, kayak or SUP the Escalante River, hike through narrow slot canyons, or climb epic sandstone cliffs.

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