In 2019, the USA National Park system had 327.5 million(!!!) people visit their 62* national parks - a 2.9% increase in overall visitation from the year before. The three most visited were Great Smoky Mountains NP (12.5 million visitors), Grand Canyon NP (5.97 million visitors), and Rocky Mountain NP (5.7 million visitors). *there are actually 419 “national parks” around the country, though many of those are national monuments, recreation areas, historical parks, etc. but there are only 62 with the title national park. Confused? So were we. Learn more here.
All in all, that is A LOT of people.
Luckily, not every national park is like Disneyland, and many are actually quite quiet. If you are willing to forgo the “popular” parks (i.e. Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Zion) you will be surprised at how many amazing places the USA park system has to offer. These are what we would like to call "better" national parks: stunning, adventure-filled - but NOT people filled.
Crazy Fun Fact: 50 percent of total recreation visits (so about 150 million people) occurred in just 27 parks (7 percent of all parks in the National Park System), according to the National Park website.
So without further ado, here are a couple of “better," aka more off-the-beaten-path national parks to add to your adventure list for this summer.
Instead of Zion National Park, head to Capitol Reef National Park
While Zion National Park might have that jaw-dropping canyon view, not to mention one of the most beautiful and terrifying hikes in the whole USA, maybe consider heading a bit deeper into Utah canyon country and instead check out Capitol Reef National Park.
A true hidden treasure out in the desert, Capitol Reef is filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold - a geologic monocline (a wrinkle on the earth) that extends almost 100 miles (it is as crazy and mesmerizing as it sounds). Other notable things to see are Cathedral Valley, the rugged northern region of the park that is home to the Temples of the Sun, Moon, and Stars, Fruita, a historic homestead with orchards that still produce fruit, and various slot canyons that dot the park. Go for a hike, stargaze (it is a designated dark sky park) and just take in the serene desert surroundings.
Read our full Capitol Reef National Park Adventure Guide here.
Instead of Rocky Mountain National Park, head to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Yes, Rocky Mountain National Park is beautiful. As people who grew up an hour away from it and who have explored it extensively, we can honestly tell you it is a truly wonderful park. But it is also very, very busy. To the point where you feel less like you are in nature and more like you are in some weird outdoor amusement park (sort of like Westworld maybe?). Luckily, Colorado is home to four very different national parks: Rocky Mountain, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The last of which might just be the best kept secret in the whole state.
Quite tiny in size, Black Canyon of the Gunnison sits in the southwestern(ish) corner of the state - near the towns of Gunnison and Montrose. The serene park exposes you to some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock, and craggiest spires in all of North America. And while you can adventure from above, the actual canyon floor is the best place to explore. All you have to do is hike down to the base of the canyon (we recommend taking the S.O.B Draw trail) and camp next to the flowing Gunnison River. Then look up and take in the majestic rock walls shooting straight for the sky above. Note: the hike down is only about a mile long - but it is steeep. Expect it to take 1 hour or so (then double that for the hike out).
Instead of Olympic National Park, head to North Cascades National Park
Olympic National Park is another park at the top of our favorites list, and for good reason. The lush green rainforest, crystal clear lakes, and high rocky peaks are pretty darn amazing. But… everyone seems to agree (aka it is BUSY). But don’t fret, about three hours away from the hub of Seattle sits North Cascades National Park, one of the least visited parks in the whole contiguous United States.
With tall mountain peaks, beautiful blue alpine lakes, and lots of hiking trails, North Cascades is the perfect place to have a mountain adventure without seeing any people. And if that wasn’t enough to make you want to pull on your hiking boots, then this might: the park offers visitors the most views of glaciers (in the U.S.) outside of Alaska.
Instead of Yosemite National Park, head to Kings Canyon National Park
Everyone loves Yosemite National Park. At least it seems that way once you start to get close to the entrance station: just lines of cars for miles and miles. And don’t even get us started on the ridiculous traffic jams that occur once down in the Yosemite Valley. Unless you plan on visiting in the off-season (winter) be prepared for lots and lots of people.
While you can still find quiet nooks within Yosemite (most likely by hiking or backpacking 5 or 6 miles into the backcountry) you could instead just head a bit further south and hit Kings Canyon National Park (and its partner/neighbor, Sequoia National Park). Be prepared for giant Sequoia trees, high mountain peaks, abundant wildlife, and rocky canyons. There is so much to explore - and so much diversity - that you can’t really go wrong. If you want to truly get off-the-beaten-path and explore the backcountry of Kings Canyon, we recommend backpacking the Rae Lakes Loop. Learn more about it here.
Instead of Grand Canyon National Park, head to White Sands National Park
One of the newest national parks in the USA, White Sands National Park just might also be one the weirdest. With miles and miles of blindingly white sand dunes, made even more beautiful by the bright blue skies that seem to be a thing year-round, this park is the perfect place to get away from it all and just go for a walk (or if you are feeling real adventurous grab a sled and slide down the dunes).
While no one would argue that Grand Canyon National Park is not absolutely stunning, but it is also the second most visited park (and has been for yeeears). So if you want to not be surrounded by people, and instead want a more “unique” desert adventure, we 100% suggest heading down to southern New Mexico and experiencing the “world's largest gypsum dunefield.” Note: if you have the time and the gear, maybe consider camping in the dunes for some can’t-beat dark skies.
There is no denying it, the United States is very lucky to have so many amazing national parks within its borders. From the rainforests of Olympic National Park to the snorkeling paradise of Biscayne National Park in Florida. From the alien-like Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park (a very original name) to the endless red canyons and weird hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park. Across the country there are adventures to be had, you just have to get out and find it!
Want to know what other US National Parks are not very busy - but still incredibly beautiful and 100% worth visiting? Check out this list from Travel + Leisure.