Not to knock Yosemite, The Grand Canyon, Acadia, or Yellowstone, which are all glorious in their own right, but let’s face it, everyone wants to go there for summer vacation. Crowds take away from the experience, detracting from the overall tranquility and awesomeness. So if you’re looking to visit a national park this summer, but have no desire to elbow your way through a crowd to snap a photo from the best viewpoint, we’ve collected a list of some lesser known national parks, sites, and monuments that are less crowded.
Editor’s note: Some services, amenities, or events at these locations may be altered/halted due to the pandemic. Save these ideas for when it’s safe to travel again, and always follow all COVID-19 restrictions, rules, and safety regulations both at your destination and upon returning home.
If seeing a real live bear is on your bucket list, Katmai is for you! According to the National Park website, the purpose of Katmai “is to protect, study, and interpret active volcanism surrounding the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, extensive coastal resources, habitats supporting a high concentration of salmon and brown bears, and an ongoing story of humans integrated with a dynamic subarctic ecosystem.” So while providing the perfect spot for research, Katmai also provides the perfect landscape for camping, hiking, and viewing wildlife. Be sure to check out the bear safety info before visiting.
Getting there: Katmai cannot be accessed by car. You must take a plane or boat.
2021 marks the 53rd anniversary of North Cascades, which was officially made into a national park in 1968. This park has a little something for everyone in its 1,070 square miles, spanning from temperate rainforest to the drier environment preferred by ponderosa pines. With its variety of ecosystems allowing for vast biodiversity and over 300 glaciers dotting the mountainous landscape, the only thing you won't find at North Cascades is crowds.
Getting there: Less than 3 hours from Seattle
There is more to Nevada than Vegas. Take a ranger guided tour of Lehman Caves, which, although not overly crowded, you do need to book in advance. As of spring 2016, Great Basin has been designated as an International Dark Sky Park! Here you'll find some of the darkest night skies in the US, which allows for some of the best stargazing in the country. There is an assortment of sky viewing activities including a star train, full moon hike, and solar telescope viewing.
Getting there: Located less than 4 hours south from Salt Lake City, and 4 hours 20 min from Las Vegas.
Take in the beauteous landscape while hiking, rock climbing, and of course, camping. You will find a wide variety of animals including the yellow bellied marmot, Elk, rocky mt big horn sheep, mountain lion, black bear, and, the fastest bird in the world, a peregrine falcon. Click here for more information on the wildlife of Black Canyon.
Getting there: While there is an airport in Gunnison, you may find better deals to Grand Junction, which is about an hour and a half away.Denver is a longer drive at just under 6 hours but a gorgeous one!
Congaree National Park is the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. There are 25 miles of trails, plus 2.4 miles of board walk for those who prefer a flatter terrain. On Saturdays there are ranger and volunteer guided tours. Try your hand at canoeing or kayaking on their marked canoe trails along the river. If you’re nervous about canoeing, they do offer guided canoe tours as well.
Getting there: Located just over a half hour from Columbia.
This small group of islands 70 miles west of key west are anything but dry. Getting their name from the Portuguese word for Turtle, the “dry” was added at some point in the islands history, but this national park is best explored by water! Accessible only by ferry, private/chartered boat or seaplane, travel from island to island via kayak or paddleboard.
Getting there: ferries and planes leave from Key West. Key west is about a 3 ½ hour drive from Miami.
Did someone say sand sledding? Home of the tallest dunes in North America, you will be awed by these great dunes you may not have realized were even here. Aside from sand sledding, you can have hike and camp.
Getting there: Alamosa airport is 38 miles away, where you can get nonstop flights on Boutique Air from Denver. Denver is just over 3 ½ hour drive away, and Albuquerque is just under 4 hours.
Nicknamed “The American Spa,” this is a more relaxing national park. Here you can take break from reality with a soothing hot springs soak in the Fordyce Bathhouse. Other activities include touring a historical bathhouse, strolling along bathhouse row and the grand promenade, or, of course, hiking along the 26 miles of trails.
Getting there: Little Rock is about an hour away.
Visit the land that inspired Theodore Roosevelt to care so passionately about preserving America’s beautiful landscapes. Roosevelt first visited here in 1883 as a young man, and later, dedicated his life to the conservation of land, earning him the nickname “Conservationist President." Camp, bike, canoe/kayak, horseback riding. Learn about the Bison Conservation project and getting up close and personal with bison and other wildlife.
Getting there: About a 2 hour drive from Bismark.
Established as a national park in 2015, Waco Mammoth was the site of, according to the National Park Service, “the nation’s only recorded discovery of a nursery herd of Columbian mammoths.” More of a museum than a park, you can view fossils of mammoths that lived 67,000 years ago at the archeological dig site. Learn about the animals that once roamed this land.
Getting there: Located under an hour and a half from Dallas/Fort Worth and just over an hour and a half from Austin.
This monument pays homage to the renowned co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), an organization whose growth and dedication led to the passage of California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975—the first of its kind for farm workers in the United States. Pay your respects at the grave of Chávez in the Memorial Garden and visit nearby Nuestra Senora Reina de la Paz, which was both an important meeting place of the UFW and former residence of Chávez.
Getting there: Keene CA is 2 hours north of LA.
There is no reason to fear a visit to the Petrified Forest, it gets its name from the large deposits of petrified wood found throughout its landscape. You’ll find plenty to do here, from camping and hiking to backpacking and geocaching, a fun way to tour the park using a GPS app on your phone! Suggested itineraries on the National Park website are anywhere from an hour to more than a day.
Getting there: closest airports are Phoenix, or Albuquerque, both about a 3 hour drive from the park.
Formerly known as McKinley National Park, Denali National Park is home to Denali Peak, the highest point in North America. There are numerous ways to explore Denali: take a bus tour, cycle, hike. Check out the sled dog demonstrations, or get spectacular views from a zipline.
Getting there: Unlike the other Alaskan parks we mentioned, you can actually get to Denali by car! There is one road that gets you there, which is accessible from both Fairbanks (2 hours) and Anchorage (5 hour drive).
After braving the crowds at Mount Rushmore National Monument, take the 50 minute drive south to Wind Cave, where you will find tranquility amongst the caves and surrounding 30 miles of hiking trails in one of America’s oldest national parks. Wind Cave is one of the longest caves in the world, where you can view the rare, honeycomb-like boxwork mineral structure.
Getting there: An hour drive from Rapid City.
Dubbed a “National Park for the Arts,” Weir Farm provides a unique experience you will be hard pressed to find at any other National Park. Originally home to impressionist artist J. Alden Weir, you can tour the house, walk the grounds, and get inspired for your own artistic ventures. Check out the annual Art in the Park Annual Festival, take one of their art classes, or settle down on the grounds at anytime with your own art supplies.
Getting there: Weir Farm is located an hour and a half drive from Hartford.
Above photos via Adobe Stock, The National Park Service, and The City of Waco Texas