We’ve compiled a list of the best national parks that are off the beaten path so that you can see a lot more sights than just crowds of people.
Did you know there’s a total of 423 U.S. National Parks? Probably not, because the top contenders (we’re looking at you, Zion and Yellowstone) draw such a crowd that people should start packing patience in their hiking bags (along with some sunscreen).
U.S. national parks are weekend and vacation hot spots for many of us, and the stunning scenery and the exhilarating trails make the trek to such national treasures worthwhile. However, parks like Zion and Yellowstone are no strangers to millions of visitors looking to get their adventure fix each year— 3.8 and 3.6 million recreational visits in 2020, respectively. Not exaggerating.
There are long wait times literally everywhere you turn—parking lots, park entrances, could you even imagine the bathroom situation? It’s hard to enjoy the beauty and awe of the scenery when you see nothing but miles of sunhat-protected heads and sunburnt shoulders ahead of you.
That’s why we’ve compiled a list of the best national parks that aren’t packed, so you can stop waiting in lines and start seeing the world.
The 7 Best National Parks Off the Beaten Path: Maximum Beauty, Minimal Crowds
Shenandoah National Park in Virginia
Sunrise from Hazel Mountain Overlook, Skyline Drive
If you’re a Great Smoky Mountains fan, get in line (literally) because so are 12.1 million others.
Visit Shenandoah instead. Here you can enjoy over 500 miles of trails—101 of those miles dedicated to the Appalachian Trail—that lead you deep into the wilderness, 75 miles away from the city life of Washington D.C. With 200,000 acres of low rolling hills, wooded hallows, and cascading waterfalls similar to the iconic sights of the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll actually be able to enjoy yourself and all that Mother Nature has to offer. You might even spot a black bear or two while you’re exploring.
Pinnacles National Park in California
The sun shines along the High Peaks Trail.
Pinnacles National Park is a badass alternative to the always-packed Joshua Tree and Yosemite. The cliffs, caves, and boulders are known to be “born of fire”, formed from multiple volcanic eruptions. C’mon, you can’t tell us that’s not badass.
There’s plenty of chaparral, oak woodlands, and canyon bottoms to hike through with incredible views. If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at cave exploring or rock climbing, now’s your chance. If that’s not your speed, no worries; whether you’re interested in a strenuous hike or nighttime stargazing, there’s something for everyone here.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas
El Captain at sunset with sky and clouds. Photo by Guadalupe Mountains NP
El Captain at sunset.
Deserts and dunes, canyons, and mountains— Guadalupe’s 135-square-mile-park has it all, including the world’s largest fossil reef.
There are 80 miles of hiking trails that lead you through mesmerizing scenes of canyons; you’ll even spot four of the state’s highest peaks during your hike. We recommend making the trek up the (metaphorical) “Top of Texas” to the Guadalupe Peak Trail for a view that’s straight out of a National Geographic magazine, especially during the autumn season.
North Cascades National Park in Washington
Shhh, do you hear that? I think the cascades are calling. This alpine landscape is just three hours north of Seattle and a hell of a lot less busy than Olympic National Park’s 2.5 million rec visits in 2020.
You’ll feel like you’re in Alaska with the unreal views of over 300 glaciers. Its rugged beauty is thanks to jagged peaks, lush forested valleys (smell that cedarwood?), and scenic waterfalls. With Lake Chelan, numerous hiking trails, and river rafting excursions, you’ll live your best life in the ecological heart of the finest mountain country in North America.
Wrangell- St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska
Spectacular view of a large glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Speaking of Alaska, this U.S. National Park only saw around 74,000 visitors in 2019, despite its whopping 13.2 million acreage. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve claims the title of America’s Largest National Park while being one of the least-visited. For size reference, this single park is the same size as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the entirety of Switzerland combined. Pretty ironic, huh?
Wrangell-St. Elias is home to the largest glacial system in the world and 16 of the country’s tallest mountains with rugged, wild, beautiful landscapes that pictures don’t do any justice. BRB, booking a flight to Alaska as we speak.
Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida
Aerial view of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park
When you hear the words “national park,” what do you think of? Maybe forests, mountain peaks, dirt trails, huge canyons; toss in some rivers and lakes, too. Well, it’s time to give the ocean some sweet justice.
Fasten your seatbelts and inflate those life jackets because Dry Tortugas National Park is only accessible by boat or plane. The 100-square mile park is surrounded by open water with several small islands (less than 1% of the park is dry ground!). If you’re into marine life and picturesque blue water, this is the place for you (our Sea Salt line might be too).
The best way to explore? Swimming, diving, or snorkeling, naturally. It’s also full of history, home to the 19th century Fort Jefferson - the biggest all-masonry fort in the country. Whether you’re an ocean lover or history buff, the unique exploration and postcard-picture views are unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. Plus, it sees less than 60,000 visitors a year. Sorry, Everglades.
Canyonlands National Park in Utah
Shafer Trail switchbacks from Shafer Canyon Overlook.
If you’re looking to get your canyon fix without facing the onslaught of people in Zion or the Grand Canyon, try Canyonlands. This particular park still draws in a crowd of over 700,000 visitors but compared to a number in the millions, hey, we’ll take it.
The Colorado River once carved out breathtaking buttes and countless canyons, resulting in Canyonlands— a park that features four districts divided by rivers. From Island in the Sky to The Needles to The Maze to the rivers themselves, this park is overflowing with different opportunities to sightsee and explore.
So, there you have it. The best national parks off the beaten path, so you can get out there and enjoy your post-quarantine activities crowd-free. Take a deep breath of that fresh mountain (or ocean) air and go kill those trails. Nature awaits you!