National parks have smashed dozens of visitor records over the past year, making this summer a challenging time to visit any of the sites on the top ten list. Add to this the strict reservation systems that many are implementing and planning ahead is more important than ever. The official stance of the National Park Services on this issue is simple: explore more under-the-radar park units. But if you’re dying to visit one of the country’s most popular parks this season, read on for a list of lesser-known (but still stunning) spots within to avoid the lion’s share of the crowds.
Once marketed as the “Swiss Alps of America,” Glacier has seen no shortage of visitors to its striking alpine peaks since it was designated a national park in 1910. Though the park’s popularity is well-deserved, savvy travelers looking for a secluded glacier will have to go the extra mile.
The park’s North Fork area is a true gem with access to stunning glacially carved Lakes Bowman and Kintla, as well as epic backcountry trails stretching all the way to Canada. The area provides excellent fodder for hikers, campers and paddlers, and hungry road trippers won’t want to miss snagging a blueberry Bear Claw at historic Polebridge Mercantile on the way out.
When we think of national parks we often think of the unobstructed landscapes they are designed to preserve, but many of the Park Service’s most impressive sites are those that tell a more human story. Visitors to the Indiana Dunes usually head straight to the beach, but they can avoid the summer crowds by enjoying the shade of the maple and beech trees that surround the Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm, relics from the fur trading era and of agriculture in the region.
If you’re still itching to get out on the sand, visit neighboring Indiana Dunes State Park and feel the leg burn with the 1.5-mile Three Dune Challenge.
Hetch Hetchy was once an area that John Muir described as “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples,” but it was dammed in 1923 to provide drinking water for the city of San Francisco. Today it’s by far the least-visited area in Yosemite National Park, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit, especially in spring and early summer when fresh snowmelt turns trickling waterfalls into roaring cascades.
Located in the park’s peaceful northwest corner, the region offers breathtaking day hikes to Wapama and Rancheria Falls, as well as overnight hikes to serene Lake Vernon and Lake Eleanor.
With an abundance of fishing, hiking, boating, and rock climbing opportunities, it can feel almost impossible to find a quiet corner of Grand Teton. But for visitors willing to venture a little further into the park’s northeast corner, a plethora of wonders await.
Avoid the crowds at Jenny Lake by tackling the 6.5-mile loop trail around Two Ocean Lake, enjoying expansive views of Mount Moran and the Grand Teton in the distance. In the fall, this hike blazes with marigold and amber aspen leaves ablaze. Then drive north to Lizard Creek Campground and watch the sunset from the shore of Jackson Lake.
Because of its island-centric location off the Maine coast, Acadia has a harder time escaping the summer rush than most parks. If you have your own vehicle and love tide pools, what better place to have the area’s rugged Atlantic coastline to yourself than on the Schoodic Peninsula.
The area is home to an off-the-beaten-path campsite and unsurpassed coastal views of rocky islands, basalt dykes and geyser-like waves breaking between slabs of pink granite. Want to get even more secluded? Accessible only by passenger ferry, Isle Au Haut offers a basic campsite and over 20 miles of hiking trails.
There will be stiff competition this year to get a coveted Bear Lake Road access permit for Rocky Mountain, but the good news is that much of the park is still accessible to those wanting a much easier-to-snag one Park access permit is required from 10:00am to 3:00pm only. To zoom past the summer swarms on Trail Ridge Road, head south or west.
To the south, travelers can enter the less-disabled Wild Basin area and take a 12.4-mile day or overnight hike to cool sapphire Lion Lake. To the west, mountain lovers can take a full-day hike past Adams Falls to the mirror-clear waters of Lake Verna, or look out for moose and elk on the easily accessible Coyote Valley Trail.
At the Grand Canyon, only 10 percent of all park visitors have ever set foot on the equally stunning North Rim, making it the perfect destination for those seeking solitude. Traditionally open from mid-May to mid-October, the North Rim is home to a campground, lodge, visitor center, and small gift shop.
From here, park guests can experience the same colorful sunsets and rust-red canyon views that are famous in the South, but with a more relaxed vibe. Plus, backpackers who want to sleep among the canyon walls can easily access the North Kaibab Trail and hike all the way down to the mighty Colorado River (permit required).
Much like the Grand Canyon, visitors to Yellowstone tend to stick to a few select areas, generally centered around boardwalks and geysers, leaving the rest of the park to intrepid hikers.
For road travelers hoping to see some of the park’s most notorious wildlife, a scenic drive through the Lamar Valley is a must. It’s home to migrating grizzly bears, herds of unruly bison, and the Yellowstone Wolf Project. After the ride, stretch your legs on a scenic hike to Mount Washburn lookout. Just don’t forget the bear spray.
Note: The 2022 Yellowstone River flood destroyed key park roads, but much of Yellowstone is opening up faster than expected. Here’s what you need to know about the visit now.
It’s bewildering that most of Zion’s five million annual visitors find themselves bottlenecked in the park’s narrow 15-mile gorge. To experience similarly mesmerizing spiers of bright red Navajo sandstone with far fewer crowds, visit the park’s northwestern sections of Kolob Canyon and Kolob Terrace, just 60 minutes’ drive from the main canyon.
Avid hikers and backpackers will love the 14-mile round trip to Kolob Arch, meandering along the gentle La Verkin Creek, while motorists prefer a scenic drive along Kolob Terrace Road.
Great Smoky Mountains
Sure, the winding drive along the Newfound Gap Road is a great way to experience the famous rolling hills of the Smokies that seem to stretch on forever, but when a park breaks records by surpassing the 14 million visitor mark, travelers need to think outside the box to avoid a tree-strewn traffic jam. Instead, opt for the 33-mile Foothills Parkway near Pigeon Forge, which is full of panoramic views and beautiful side-walks.
For a more active day at the park, head to the lesser-known Cosby Entrance (a local favorite) and lace up your boots for a 4.4-mile hike to Hen Wallow Falls or a challenging 12 -Mile Hike Hike up the Cammerer. Then try to snag a spot at the rarely crowded Cosby Campground.