National parks are set aside for a good reason—they’re the most spectacular places in the country—but that means that they’re often overcrowded and teeming with tourists.
In 2020, there were more than 237 million visits to U.S. national parks. That’s a lot of hiking boots on the ground, even over the National Park System’s 85 million acres. Of course, not every park is as popular as Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12.1 million recreational visits in 2020). Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, for example, had less than 3,000 visits. But in that particular park’s defense, it’s also a wilderness park with no roads or trails.
There are good reasons why people flock to the best-known parks, but there are also just as many scenic (and less-packed) options right nearby. Here are some alternatives to the most popular national parks in the U.S.
Instead of the Grand Canyon, Go to Death Valley
One of the most impressive things about the Grand Canyon is its vastness. You can stand on the rim and look out for miles into unending canyons. Death Valley has that same sense of scale, but you’re not going to be standing on the edge with the entire population of Phoenix beside you.
Death Valley’s 3 million acres of wilderness hold all kinds of terrain and very few people. Check out the Devil’s Hole and the Racetrack Playa, where stones mysteriously move by themselves.
Instead of Yosemite, Go to Sequoia and Kings Canyon
Yosemite, with its beautiful valley, stunning rivers and waterfalls and mythic peaks like Half Dome and El Capitan, is one of the most spectacular places in the world. There’s a reason why it’s ground zero for some of the most elite climbers, but it’s not the only park worth visiting in California.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, just to the south in the Sierra, have climbing, hiking and exploring that’s almost on par, and you won’t have to jockey for a bivvy spot at Camp 4. You can also visit General Sherman, the biggest tree in the world.
Instead of Yellowstone, Go to Glacier
Both Yellowstone and Glacier are known for their abundance of wildlife and their deep, interesting backcountry. They’re both prime for long backpacking trips and fishing, and both have surprisingly good options for road biking.
Yellowstone tends to be more crowded and to get more of the picnicking and drive-through crew. Plus, geysers—arguably Yellowstone’s main draw—aren’t really that interesting, anyway. Seen one, seen ’em all.
Instead of Great Smoky Mountains, Go to Delaware Water Gap
The Great Smoky Mountains make up one of the most popular national parks in the country, partly due to their proximity to major cities, like Atlanta, and partly because they provide four-season recreation. You can camp, fish, bike and hike any time of the yea. Even the slowest months in the park, December through February, are busier than a lot of other parks in the country.
Pennsylvania’s Delaware Water Gap, not far from New York and Philadelphia, gives you the same opportunities. And even though it’s close to bigger urban centers, the crowds are smaller.
Instead of Zion, Go to Capitol Reef
Zion has done a really progressive job of keeping traffic down in the park—you have to ride the shuttle bus to access all the highlights—but that means that all the stops on the shuttle loop get crowded.
If you want to climb to Angels Landing or wade through The Narrows, there are going to be a lot of other people with you.
Capitol Reef, in the center of Utah, has the same skyscraper rock formations and winding canyons, but almost none of the people.