It’s no secret that visitation to America’s national parks is skyrocketing. In 2019, more than 327 million people hiked, camped or toured within the boundaries of a national recreation area, memorial, or historic site. But the brunt of overcrowding is being borne by just a handful of beloved landscapes including the Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, and Zion. It’s not just a question of sustainability (which, let’s face it, with an $11 billion maintenance backlog, is a big problem), it’s a dang existential crisis! When millions of tourists are competing for trail time, campsites, and the best Insta-worthy views, is the wild still wild?
For every one of the national parks swarmed by millions of visitors each year, dozens of state and federal preserves, parks, and monuments go relatively untravelled. And while many can’t hold a candle to a Yosemite or a Joshua Tree, a handful of enchanting alternatives offer not just spectacular landscapes but something more elusive—silence.
Instead of Zion National Park, Try Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Carved by water and snow from massifs of red sandstone, Zion National Park is a stunning, hard-scrabble world of vertical rock and blazing sun. Riddled with impossibly narrow slot canyons and cooled by the Virgin River, visiting Zion has become a right of passage for hikers, backpackers, and sightseers, alike, to the tune of 4.5 million visitors a year. While Zion has worked hard to keep the overloved park sustainable with mandatory shuttle service between viewpoints and a permitting system for traversing The Narrows, its most beloved canyon, the battle against trail congestion and garbage is neverending.
Ironically, not 50 miles east is a desert landscape of flaming sandstones and gravity-defying rock formations that draws less than a quarter of the visitors Zion receives annually (982,993 in 2018) to a space almost seven times the size (despite being reduced by almost half by the Trump administration in 2017). Straddling the border of Utah and Arizona, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is best known for warren-like slot canyons like the short, family-friendly Spooky Gulch, a channel that rarely widens more than 15 inches between 30-foot tall sandstone walls, and the 25-mile long backpacker favorite, Coyote Gulch. Along the 62-mile Hole-in-the-Rock Road, soaring arches and hoodoos grow in the easily-strolled Devil’s Garden.
Where to stay: Grand Staircase-Escalante has two developed campgrounds in the Escalante section of the monument and dispersed camping is permitted throughout the park with a free backcountry permit. For more comfortable digs, head to nearby Kanab, a quaint town with a Hollywood history.
Instead of Yosemite National Park, Try Lassen Volcanic National Park
There are two National Parks within spitting distance of California’s San Francisco Bay Area. Both are worlds formed by lava with steep granite mountains and serene meadowlands. Both have vertical cliffs and alpine lakes. But while one, Yosemite National Park, is world-famous and battling around 4.5 million visitors each year, the other, Lassen Volcanic National Park has held steady with around 517,000 visitors annually for almost 50 years.
It’s baffling why Yosemite National Park has become an overcrowded bastion of tour buses and selfie-seekers while even Northern Californians often can’t pick Lassen out on a map. But for those in search of solitude on the trail, it’s a welcome difference. Lassen has the largest plug dome volcano in the world (Lassen Peak) and the park still bubbles with fumaroles and hot springs, especially on the three-mile round-trip hike through the appropriate named Bumpass Hell. Chains of clear sapphire lakes in the alpine section of the park east of the summit make for stunning day hiking or backpacking.
Where to stay: Lassen has seven campgrounds that range from the primitive Juniper Lake to the developed Manzanita Lake where rustic lakeside cabins are also available for rent. Dispersed camping (free with a backcountry permit) is permitted throughout the park.
Instead of Yellowstone National Park, Try Wind River Mountain Range
Among America’s most iconic parks, Yellowstone, with an annual visitation of just over four million, pays the price for its popularity. If it’s not disrespectful tourists taunting 2,000-pound bison, it’s even more disrespectful tourists trespassing on the ancient hot spring, Old Faithful. Congestion can get so bad on the park’s roads that traffic-and-wildlife jams can stretch for miles.
But while Yellowstone is bucket-list spectacular, it’s not the only spectacular game going on in Wyoming. Less than three hours southeast of the iconic park (and just below another overcrowded bastion of beauty, Grand Teton National Park), the Wind River Mountain Range is calling. This is Wyoming’s largest mountain range, part of the Rocky Mountain chain, boasting 40 named peaks, seven massive glaciers, 2,300 lakes and the headwaters of the Green River. Encompassing two National Forests (the Shoshone and the Bridger-Teton) and portions of the Wind River Indian Reservation, the “Winds” has over 600 miles of trails, including Elkhart Park, part of the Continental Divide Trail decorated with jewel-toned lakes and jagged, rocky peaks. Just like its better-known neighbors to the north, the Winds also boast an exceptional roster of wildlife, from bison and moose to grizzlies and wolves.
Where to stay: Backcountry and car-camping (including at Elkhart Park) are available in the Winds and more cushy accommodations are waiting in the town of Pinedale, the gateway to the range.
Instead of Rocky Mountain National Park, Try Kootenay National Park
A stunning land of monumental peaks and alpine landscapes, Rocky Mountain National Park receives an annual pilgrimage of around 4.7 million hikers, campers, and sightseers. In this 415-square-mile park in the sky, elk frolic and wildflowers bloom but along with the good comes the disappointing hallmarks of overcrowding: packed trails, busy campgrounds, and way too much noise for a proper wilderness experience.
Those Rocky Mountains, though, the further they stretch north along a 2,000-mile route from New Mexico to Canada, the more secluded they become. Just over the border between Idaho and British Columbia is a version of the Rockies that hasn’t existed at Rocky Mountain National Park for years at Kootenay National Park. Like Rocky Mountain, Kootenay has soaring peaks, rushing rivers, glassy marble lakes, and elk and deer up the wazoo. Unlike Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s serenely quiet, with only around 515,000 visitors a year. Day hikes in Kootenay are worth writing home about but the park’s specialty is The Rockwall, a 33-mile multi-night trek.
Where to stay: Kootenay has three developed campgrounds all located near family-friendly trailheads and attractions: Redstreak, Marble Canyon, and McLeod Meadows.
Instead of Grand Canyon National Park, Try Grand Canyon West or Parashant National Monument
Before the Grand Canyon became a National Park in 1919, this colorful geological wonder was a central landmark for Native American peoples of the Southwest. And while much has changed in the last century, with visitation in 2018 reaching almost 5.9 million, one Indigenous Nation, the Hualapai, still call the western rim of the canyon home. In 2007, the Hualapai opened Grand Canyon West, adding a tribal-managed 4,000-foot-high glass skywalk and zipline to the world-famous landscape, along with river rafting and boat tours along the Colorado River.
While Grand Canyon West receives around 700,000 visitors a year, a second more secluded option in the Grand Canyon exists at Parashant National Monument. Despite its perch on the rim’s edge, this park receives only around 18,000 visitors a year. Parashant is ideal for scenic drives full of expansive desert views, for hiking through natural sandstone rock formations and water-carved amphitheaters like Hells Hole, and for glimpsing ancient petroglyphs at Nampaweap.
Where to stay: Overnight beneath a blanket of stars in Parashant’s backcountry (there are no developed campgrounds in the park) or sleep in luxury at Grand Canyon West’s tribal-owned Hualapai Ranch.
Instead of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Try the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
If any one national park deserves a little respite from the constant flow of camera-clicking, feet-pounding visitors, it’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This one park alone had as many visitors in 2019 (12.5 million) as Rocky Mountain, Zion, and Glacier National Parks combined! No one is disputing the beauty of this slice of the Appalachian Mountains with its diverse ecological footprint of old-growth forests and rushing waterfalls, but with all those people milling about, it can be hard to ever get a moment alone.
The intrepid solitude seeker would do better to head west and north to the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Though its a thousand miles from the southeastern Blue Ridge, the “Porkies” are remarkably similar to the Great Smoky Mountains, all old-growth forest, roaring waterfalls, and unparalleled views. The biggest difference (besides size, that is, Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park is only 60,000 acres compared to the Smokies 522,419 acres) is the remarkable absence of crowds; the Porkies get roughly 300,000 visitors a year, around 2.5 percent of those visiting the Smokies. Despite its small stature, there are 90 miles of hiking trails inside the park, including the ultra-scenic 11-mile Little Carp River Trail along roaring rapids and impressive waterfalls, and the four-mile North Mirror Lake Trail over hill and dale straight to the pine-sewn heart of the Porkies.
Where to stay: The Porkies have a number of lodging options for all comfort levels, from primitive Presque Isle River campground to bare-bones wilderness yurts to the historic stone fireplaces and cedar-log beds of the Kaug Wudjoo Lodge.
Instead of Glacier National Park, Try North Cascades National Park
Like other ever-snowy places around the globe, Glacier National Park is facing a bleak future as the climate crisis wreaks havoc on its namesake fields of perma-ice. Compounding the park’s ecological stability is its annual visitation of 3 million glacier-seeking hikers and car-riding oglers. Despite its iconic name though, Glacier National Park is far from the last place in the continental U.S. to get up close and personal with the frozen tundra.
West along the U.S.-Canadian border, glaciers pack the jagged peaks and feed the brilliant turquoise lakes of Washington’s North Cascades National Park. Receiving only around 38,000 visitors a year, the majestic, rugged North Cascades are the National Park Service’s best-kept secret. Mountains here rise more steeply more quickly than anywhere else in the lower 48, making for unbelievable panoramas on trails like the 7.5-mile round-trip Cascade Pass Trail.
Where to stay: There are several comfortable developed car and RV campgrounds in the park, as well as boat-in campsites on Diablo Lake and first come-first served bicycle campsites at Newhalem Creek and Colonial Creek.
Instead of Joshua Tree National Park, Try Mojave National Preserve
Since Joshua Tree became the hip desert hangout for Los Angeles defectors, visitation at the National Park of the same name has spiked to almost 3 million annually. They come for the desolate landscape and the unusual spiky, tufted Joshua trees that decorate the landscape but all those visitors aren’t doing the delicate ecosystem any favors. The damage done during January 2018’s epic government shutdown could take more than 200 years to heal. At this point, it’s not just a matter of trash and noise, choosing an alternative to Joshua Tree National Park is an act of benevolence for the scarred and shattered landscape.
That alternative is just down the road in the Mojave National Preserve. The 1.6 million-acre park not only boasts the largest Joshua tree forest on Earth, but an endless world of mesas, mountains, and cacti seen by around 840,000 visitors each year. The solitude here runs deep and even roads to the Preserve’s most fascinating geological features—the 45-square mile, 700-foot high Kelso Sand Dunes and the cinder cones and lava tubes around Kelbaker Road—are lightly traveled. For a view of the Cima Dome and a trek through the most extensive living Joshua tree forest, hit the three-mile Teutonia Peak Trail just north of the town of Cima.
Where to stay: The best campsite (and the only one with potable water) in the Mojave Preserve is at the volcanically sculpted Hole-in-the-Wall Campground. A private campground, along with a store and restaurant, is located at Nipton on Interstate 15.
Instead of Acadia National Park, try Voyageurs National Park
Gridlock during Acadia National Park’s summer season is so bad that in 2017, the road to the summit of one of its most popular peaks was closed 49 times due to safety concerns and parking in the park is its own special kind of hell. In short, summer visits with a car are such a traffic nightmare that memories of Acadia will not celebrate its spectacular coastal beauty but lament its excruciating overcrowding, topping out last year at almost 3.4 million visitors.
In terms of coastal beauty, there’s at least one other National Park that can hold a candle to the “Crown Jewel of the North Atlantic Coast” and with less than 7 percent of its visitors, to boot (232,974 in 2019 vs. Acadia’s 3.4 million). Northern Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park is a watery land of rugged lakeshores and wild islands hunted by timberwolves and black bears. With lakes covering more than a third of the park, the best way to explore Voyageurs is with a kayak or canoe, which can be rented locally at Voyageurs Outfitters. On dry land, Voyageurs also has a handful of (mostly short) hiking, snowshoe, and cross-country ski trails like the four-mile round-trip Locator Lake Trail and the two-and-a-half-mile Blind Ash Bay Trail loop.
Where to stay: At Voyageurs, not a single campsite is accessible by car or RV; unless you have reservations at the Kettle Falls Hotel, a watercraft is required to stay overnight inside the park. Hotels, RV-friendly campgrounds, and resorts can be found in any the “gateway communities” of International Falls/Ranier, Kabetogama Lake, Ash River, Crane Lake, Orr/Pelican Lake, or Fort Francis.
Instead of the Grand Teton National Park, Try Lake Clark National Park
Hosting almost 3.4 million visitors in 2019, Grand Teton National Park is among the ten most visited National Parks in America. Nestled below Yellowstone in the saw-toothed Teton mountain range, this place deserves a spot among the country's most iconic landscapes. But the delicate, wildlife-rich landscape also deserves a respite from the destructive love of its human admirers.
Enter Lake Clark National Park, a veritable Grand Teton on steroids. Occupying a remote corner of southern Alaska, Lake Clark is nothing short of awe-inspiring: Four million acres of craggy peaks, Crayola-colored lakes, and pristine ocean shores. Like many places in Alaska, Lake Clark can only be accessed by boat or plane—there are no roads to or inside the park—but after disembarking, this National Park has everything visitors to Grand Teton ever dreamed of including brown bear viewing, tundra backpacking, kayaking and canoeing, day hikes, world-class fishing, and a glut of glorious tranquility.
Where to stay: Backpacking is the best way to see as much of Lake Clark as possible. Less adventurous visitors can find lodging and a rustic campground at Port Alsworth on the lake’s southeastern shore.