America’s national parks offer visitors stunning vistas and unparalleled opportunities for outdoor exploration. While some parks are more popular than others, they’re also more crowded. If you’re looking for an adventure but want to beat the crowds, check out some of the country’s least visited national parks for equally beautiful — but more serene — outdoor getaways.
Acadia National Park → Isle Royale National Park
Over two million visitors rush to view the gorgeous vistas of Acadia National Park each year, so the area is no stranger to crowds. Visitors looking to enjoy the challenging hikes, scenic overlooks, and foggy coastlines associated with Maine’s premiere national park — but with a little peace and quiet — should consider a visit to Isle Royale National Park instead.
Tucked away on a remote island and surrounded by the icy waters of Lake Superior, Isle Royale is Michigan’s oasis for hikers, boaters, backpackers, kayakers, photographers, and even scuba divers. You can access the island by passenger boats from locations in Michigan (Copper Harbor or Houghton) and Minnesota (Grand Portage). But fair warning — a trip to Isle Royale requires a commitment to “roughing it.” Visitors must bring supplies with them and be prepared to carry out all trash as well. Those who brave the rarely-traversed trails may also come into contact with both wolves and moose, who access the island by swimming through the cold waters or traversing frozen sections of the lake. The park is most beautiful from June to September, but those who visit in late summer will get to sample ripening blueberries straight from the bushes.
Glacier National Park → North Cascades National Park
Often referred to as the “Crown of the Continent,” Glacier National Park’s splendor is difficult to rival. But the good news for travelers looking to avoid large crowds is that there’s a national park that is both equally stunning and less-traveled. North Cascades National Park lies a mere three-hour drive outside of Seattle and entices visitors with its unique jagged peaks, snow-capped mountains, turquoise lakes, and breathtaking views.
A haven for adventurers of all types, the mountains of North Cascades welcome seasoned hikers, amateur explorers, and backcountry enthusiasts alike. For those who prefer life at sea level, the Stehekin Valley is an escape from the hustle of everyday life. Visit Lake Chelan — the third deepest in North America — and don’t pass up the opportunity to explore all that the region has to offer, including horseback riding, kayaking, guided tours of the falls, river rafting, mountain biking, bird watching, and fly fishing.
Grand Canyon National Park → Badlands National Park
Few sights compare to your first glimpse of the Grand Canyon — its depth, beauty, and vastness are almost incomprehensible, which may be why nearly five million visitors made the pilgrimage to this Arizona site in 2016 alone. For similarly impressive vistas, we recommend setting your GPS for South Dakota and heading to the Badlands.
Home to fields of pastel-colored geological deposits, this site is one of the most fertile fossil beds in North America. Whether you’re interested in exploring the preserved Eocene and Oligocene mammal fossils or spotting the park’s protected residents — such as bison, bighorn sheep, black-footed ferrets, and prairie dogs — there’s something for everyone. Exploring the prairie landscapes and unique formations of the Badlands is not only allowed, but encouraged. The trails vary from easy to strenuous, though no matter your route, you’ll want to bring your camera along. Since South Dakota sees its fair share of snow, plan your visit to the Badlands from June to early fall.
Grand Teton National Park → Wrangell–St. Elias National Park
While Grand Teton’s jaw-dropping landscapes are as photogenic in the summer and spring as they are in fall and winter, heading north will yield a similarly striking view with an added dose of adventure. Alaska’s Wrangell–St. Elias National Park may be America’s least known, but it’s also the country’s largest at 13.2 million acres (the same size as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the country of Switzerland combined).
Ten million of these acres are designated “wilderness area,” meaning that trails are largely unmarked and explorers are expected to be self-sufficient as they traverse mountainous peaks, chilling rivers, and snow-covered glaciers. Whether you’re heading into the Alaskan wilderness to hike, backpack, hunt, fish, kayak, or bike, be sure to respect the park’s “Leave No Trace” policy. Adherence to this rule is particularly important in ensuring the protection of Alaska’s pristine rivers — these clear waters are some of the last in the States. Visit Wrangell–St. Elias in May if you’re planning a mountaineering trip, though be aware that snow lingers on high mountain passes until July. If your plans include exploring the Alaskan backcountry, visit from late June through early September.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park → Cuyahoga Valley National Park
There’s a magical place that bridges North Carolina and Tennessee — a wonderland lauded for its mountain scenery, fall foliage, Appalachian culture, and rich diversity of natural life. This place is Great Smoky Mountains and it is America’s most popular national park. But with over 11 million visitors last year alone, it’s easy to be disillusioned by the park’s packed trails, cramped parking lots, and slow-moving crowds. Instead, set your sights on Cuyahoga Valley National Park in northeast Ohio instead.
Nestled between Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga is a new addition to the national parks roster (2000) — and an underrated gem. If you’re so inclined, plan a hike! The park offers over 125 miles of trails that range from fairly easy to challenging and guide explorers through fields, wetlands, and woodlands. Be sure to visit Blue Hen and Buttermilk Falls, and don’t miss Brandywine Falls, the most popular destination within the park. If you plan your trip for the fall (which you should), set aside time to hike to the Ledges Scenic Overlook for sunset and watch as the Cuyahoga Valley unfolds below, resplendent in its autumn colors.
Olympic National Park → Mount Rainier National Park
From its moss-frosted forests to its snow-capped peaks and glistening glacial pools, Washington’s Olympic National Park is considered a place of sheer beauty and dazzling diversity to millions of visitors. But if you drive two and a half hours southeast, you’ll find another national park with Olympic-esque beauty and approximately half the foot traffic of its famed neighbor. And it’ll raise you one active volcano.
Mount Rainier National Park is blanketed by wildflower meadows and alpine forests. While typically cool and rainy, Mount Rainier is an excellent location for both hikers and mountain climbers, but adventurers should heed weather forecasts, which can change within the span of a single day. While layers of fresh winter snow may be appealing to some backcountry explorers, Mount Rainier is at its best during the months of July and August, when its meadows are ablaze with thousands of blooming wildflowers. Color-chasers should also return at the advent of fall, when the valleys surrounding Mount Rainier are washed in reds, oranges, and golds.
Rocky Mountain National Park → Great Basin National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park boasts some of the highest peaks in the contiguous United States, and a diversity of landscapes to boot. Visitors to Rocky Mountain will spot everything from alpine tundra to thick forests, crystalline lakes, and an abundance of wildlife — if they’re lucky. But a stunning alternative to this popular park lies in the Great Basin region of nearby Nevada. Great Basin National Park embodies its dichotomies — spanning from the towering summit of Wheeler Peak to the depths of Lehman Caves, Great Basin is a playground for hikers, explorers, photographers, and even stargazers!
Designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2016, Great Basin has earned this distinction because stargazers can spot thousands of stars, as many as five planets, meteors, satellites, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the Milky Way — all without the help of telescopes. While searching the clear, dark skies will occupy your nights, spend your days admiring groves of bristlecone pines (the oldest trees on Earth), exploring scenic lookouts like Lexington Arch, , and — weather permitting — snowshoeing through the park’s pristine and silent backcountry.
Yellowstone National Park → Lassen Volcanic National Park
Known as the world’s first national park and the home of Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park is a bucket-list adventure. Unfortunately, it seems that almost 5 million visitors a year are ticking Yellowstone off of their to-do list as well. If you’re not one for crowds, consider visiting a more accessible park that will stun you with its rolling meadows, glassy lakes, jagged volcanoes, and active fumaroles.
Located north of Sacramento, Lassen Volcanic National Park is a hot destination, though admittedly, it has been for the last 600,000 years, beginning when the Lassen volcanic center first began to form. Since then, visitors have been awed by the smoking fumaroles, mud-pots, and hot springs that burble from boiling water and volcanic gas. Aside from these gas vent oddities, Lassen Volcanic National Park is also home to otherworldly lava fields, unbelievably blue alpine lakes, and sweet-smelling meadows of sage and wildflowers. From Cinder Cones Crater to Chaos Crags, Lassen offers landscapes that will delight hikers, photographers, and nature enthusiasts alike.
Yosemite National Park → Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
While Yosemite is one of America’s most beloved and beautiful national parks, famed conservationist John Muir didn’t think it was the grandest. That’s right; he once confessed, “In the vast Sierra wilderness far to the southward of the famous Yosemite Valley, there is a yet grander valley of the same kind. It is situated on the south fork of King’s River…” This place, this rival to the mighty Yosemite is little-known Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.
This site in California is the holy grail of natural wonders — there are staggeringly tall mountains, a deep and scenic canyon, groves of sequoias, unbelievable vistas, and an abundance of wildlife. The park’s placement in the most rugged zones of the High Sierra mountains also means that much of the backcountry wilderness is inhospitable to people — but gusty backpackers are welcome to try their hand at exploring the land less-traveled.
Zion National Park → Capitol Reef National Park
Have an affinity for red rocks? Who doesn’t? While your first impulse may be to visit the towering sandstone cliffs of Utah’s Zion National Park, consider driving three and a half hours southeast to Capitol Reef National Park instead — we promise you won’t be disappointed!
Not only is Capitol Reef beautiful, it’s also the seat of rich Native American history and the home of many cultural artifacts and petroglyphs from hunters and gatherers of the Fremont Culture. After ogling the red rocks of Capitol Reef, be sure to explore Waterpocket Fold, a rare geologic monocline (the fancy name for a wrinkle on earth’s surface) that extends nearly 100 miles along Capitol Reef’s red walls! Other activities include exploring Capitol’s historic orchards, which contain nearly 3,000 fruit trees. You can also enjoy the park by night, as it’s been named an International Dark Sky Park, which means that its skies are ideal for stargazing long into the evening.
Header photo by Michael George