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A photo of red rock formations at Capitol Reef National Park
Photograph: Unsplash / James Lee

11 hidden alternatives to America’s most famous national parks

Visit these lesser-known, hidden alternatives to America's famous national parks and avoid the well-known crowds

Written by
Gerrish Lopez
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From Yellowstone to Yosemite, the best U.S. national parks have seen record-breaking visitation numbers of late. We can’t say we’re surprised—these protected destinations are home to some of the country’s most spellbinding landscapes, with plenty of opportunities for camping and hiking along the way. But while these coveted destinations are guarenteed crowd-pleasers, those larger crowds can put a real damper on any effort to be “one” with nature. Fortunately, there are a few hidden alternatives to America's most famous national parks that happen to fly under the radar.

While scores flock to big name parks like the Grand Canyon and the Great Smoky Mountains, there are lesser-known gems, from Colorado to California, that offer the same breathtaking beauty without all the hubbub. Some alternatives are a stone's throw to their more famous counterparts, while others will take you in a whole new direction. Ready to choose your own adventure? Consider these secret parks, forests, and preserves next time you’re looking to get back to nature.

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Alternatives to America’s famous national parks

Where's it like? Yosemite

What's the alternative? Yosemite plays host to millions of visitors each year. They come to the Sierra Nevada wilderness in California to see peaks, glaciers, meadows, and some of the world’s tallest waterfalls. But for a less crowded experience head just a few hours away to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Both parks (managed as one) also include parts of the Sierra Nevada range. Consequently, Sequoia and Kings feature more than 800 miles of trails winding through peaks, lakes, and waterfalls (just like Yosemite). Plus, you won't miss out on seeing majestic giant sequoias. Given the proximity, you can tackle Yosemite too, but for real solitude, stick with the more rugged Sequoia and Kings.

Where's it like? Yellowstone

What's the alternative? The crowds in Yellowstone can become even more burdensome when you encounter a “buffalo jam” — the constant line of cars driving through the park comes to a halt as a herd of bison takes its sweet time crossing the road. It’s an amazing experience, but there’s a better way to see similar natural wonders without the traffic. Instead of Wyoming, head to California’s least-visited park: Lassen Volcanic National Park. Here you’ll find similarly mesmerizing hot springs, steam vents, and mudpots as in Yellowstone, but you'll also see lava beds, peaks, alpine lakes, ponderosa forests, wildflowers, and a dormant volcano. Trade one hydrothermal area for another, and enjoy a much quieter visit.

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Where's it like? Acadia National Park

What's the alternative? With charming Bar Harbor as its base, record numbers of visitors are flocking to Acadia National Park on the coast of Maine to see wildlife, drive up Cadillac Mountain, hike the woodlands, and enjoy its rocky beaches and lakes. But you'll find less commotion at Baxter State Park in north-central Maine. Home to Mt. Katahdin, the state’s highest peak and the terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Baxter features the same abundance of wildlife (think moose, black bears, and deer) plus gorgeous views with streams, rivers, and ponds. More rustic accommodations (no electricity or paved roads) also means there's a better chance to experience the “Forever Wild” mentality promoted by Governor Baxter, who established the park long ago.

Where's it like? Zion National Park & Arches National Park

What's the alternative? Looking for an otherworldly experience without the crowds of Zion or Arches? While Utah’s Big 5 get all the attention, Capitol Reef National Park is an equally worthy destination. The certified Dark Skies area (a great place for stargazing in the USA) features similar red-rock formations, rugged cliffs, slot canyons, breathtaking viewpoints, and hiking trails, all without the throngs of visitors. The 22-mile scenic drive includes a stop to see the geological wonder that is the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile “wrinkle” in the earth’s crust. This park is also home to a rich history dating back to prehistoric times as well as the historic village of Fruita, where you can grab a slice of fresh baked pie.

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Where's it like? Great Smoky Mountains National Park

What's the alternative? Mountains, foliage, caves, waterfalls, Clingman’s Dome and the Appalachian Trail keep the Great Smoky Mountains National Park packed with visitors year-round. Head a bit further north to West Virginia and you’ll find the lesser-known New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, a great excuse for a road trip. With fewer crowds, there’s more room to enjoy similar breathtaking views and outdoor adventures like hiking, rock climbing, fly-fishing, whitewater rafting and cozy cabin stays.

Where it's like? Grand Canyon National Park

What's the alternative?
 Grand indeed, the Grand Canyon is a must-see geological wonder, so it’s no big surprise that its viewpoints and trails are consistently crowded. An equally stunning canyon can be found in Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado’s least-visited national park. The near-vertical canyon is made of dark, metamorphic rock that’s more than 2700 feet deep. Unmaintained trails lead to the bottom of the canyon, but don't get ahead of yourself—they are for skilled, adventurous types only. For an easy route, the South Rim of the park features a scenic drive, with stunning views from Painted Wall and Gunnison Point. The views alone are worth a visit, especially with so few visitors.

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Where it's like? Olympic National Park

What's the alternative? From glaciers to rainforests, Olympic National Park spans several different ecosystems that draw visitors from all over to Washington State. But for a less crowded option, consider the rare temperate rainforest of Redwood National Park in California. You’ll be mesmerized as you move through swaths of ancient redwood trees—many in this old growth forest are more than 2000 years old—covered in green moss and ferns (these are some of the tallest trees on earth). Like Olympic, you’ll also see the rugged Pacific coastline and might even hear the bugling of elk. Hike or drive to take in the beauty and solitude.

Where it's like? Rocky Mountain National Park

What's the alternative? Peaks, meadows, and valleys—not to mention an abundance of wildlife plus opportunities to hike, climb, and fish—make Rocky Mountain National Park a popular destination. But those Rocky Mountains stretch far beyond the park (3000 miles from Canada to New Mexico, in fact), which means its impressive beauty has serious range throughout Colorado. Just outside the town of Aspen, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness features alpine lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, and of course majestic peaks like Castle and Maroon, two of Colorado’s “fourteeners” (mountain peaks over 14,000 feet). Other than the Maroon Bells scenic area, where visitors flock to photograph the famed peaks, Maroon Bells-Snowmass is pleasantly free of crowds.

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Where it's like? Mt. Rainier National Park

What's the alternative? Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Parks tend to get all the attention in Washington, but nearby North Cascades offers an equally stunning experience just two hours from Seattle. A scenic drive and miles of trails wind through peaks, glaciers (nearly half the glaciers in the continental US are here), alpine lakes, waterfalls, ice caves and forests. You might spot wolverines, wolves or grizzly bears. In warmer months, fields of wildflowers are the star attraction.

Where it's like? Joshua Tree National Park

What's the alternative? The two distinct desert ecosystems of Joshua Tree in California—dotted with cacti, rock formations, and the namesake bristly trees—make for a haunting landscape that draws millions each year. As an alternative, venture to Texas to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. This former marine reef (from 265 million years ago) boasts marine fossils, four of the tallest mountains in Texas, more than 80 miles of trails, and amazing biodiversity that includes hundreds of species of plants (some of which only exist here), birds, mammals, and reptiles. This fairly remote park is well worth the trip to find a unique natural landscape.

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Where it's like? Denali National Park & Preserve

What's the alternative? If you make it to Alaska, Denali is likely on your list. Despite the distance, hundreds of thousands of visitors pack the park’s shuttles (cars are not allowed on the park road) each year. For a truly remote park experience, Gates of the Arctic National Park is an adventurous alternative. Located above the Arctic Circle, visitors (whose annual numbers are barely 3000) must hike, raft or take a bush plane to get in. The park has no roads or developed trails, so you can experience pristine wilderness and see caribou, muskox, grizzlies, tundra and possibly the northern lights, much closer than through the window of a crowded bus.

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