Pull on your hiking boots, it’s time to get outside. Whether you’re starting to think about venturing out of the house and looking for some less-crowded options or you’ve already started knocking parks off your list and are ready for the deep cuts, we’ve got you covered. While each National Park is uniquely inimitable, we’re taking three of the most visited National Parks*, and making suggestions for less-visited parks to give a chance instead. But we’ve also got tips to get away from crowds if you decide the more popular parks just can’t be replaced. So grab your interagency pass (available here), a compass (yes! A real one), and some good hiking boots – and let’s experience the parks!
*based on 2019 visitation data because 2020 was weird.
If you’re interested in Glacier National Park,
Try North Cascades National Park.
As one of the more difficult to access parks, North Cascades is certainly not for the faint of heart, coming in as only the 58th most visited park (out of 62) in 2019 in contrast to Glacier’s top 10 status. But if you want to drive the Going-to-the-Sun road or hike in Night of the Grizzlies territory, we’re assuming you don’t fall into that category anyway. Like Glacier, the main roads in North Cascades experience seasonal closures, so it’s best to plan a summer trip. Aim for late June-September.
North Cascades houses more than 300 glaciers, which despite Glacier’s name actually makes North Cascades home to the greatest concentration of glaciers in the lower 48. Drive the scenic North Cascades highway, take a boat ride on the turquoise waters of Diablo or Ross lakes, or hike the Sourdough Lookout, Diablo Lake, Blue Lake or Cascade Pass trails for amazing wildflower, lake and glacier viewing. Be sure to practice bear safety, look up trail and road conditions before you go, and check-in with a Ranger.
Glacier Pro Trip: If it’s the Highline trail or bust for you this summer, be sure you get your ticket to the Going-to-the Sun road in advance. Starting in the 2021 season, Glacier will require visitors to have both a park pass and a timed entry ticket reservation to enter via Camas Road, West Glacier or St. Mary. But you can still enter with just your park pass through Many Glacier, Two Medicine or Polebridge. A huckleberry bear claw at the Polebridge Mercantile can help sweeten the bumpy drive to the west side of the park.
If you’re interested in Zion National Park,
Try Canyonlands National Park and Capitol Reef National Park.
There’s a reason most people’s minds immediately go to the American Southwest when they think “National Park”. The canyons, red rocks, and hoodoos can’t be replicated. But while the unforgettable nature of Angel’s Landing and the Narrows more than justify Zion’s ongoing residency in the Park system’s Top 5, Zion’s competitive ticketed shuttle system means they can also be difficult to get to. If the idea of hitting refresh anxiously to try to snag just a few of these coveted passes or waiting in a crowded line to get on the shuttle turns you off, do not fear, the Southwest is vast and many other beautiful parks await you.
Coming in at 28 & 23 respectively in the visitation rankings, Canyonlands & Capitol Reef are the least visited of the “Mighty Five” parks clustered in Southern Utah. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve some love! Drive the Scenic Drive in Capitol Reef and hike the Grand Wash Trail to get your canyon fix or the Navajo Knobs trail for jaw-dropping views.
For the ultimate desert solitude, head to Canyonlands. Start at the Island in the Sky district and hike the Mesa Arch Trail at sunrise for one of the best photo-ops the parks have to offer. Afterward, get your rock-top vista fix on the Grand View Point Trail for panoramas of the Colorado River and more canyons than your heart can handle.
Zion Pro Tip: You don’t need a shuttle ticket to drive the scenic Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway on the east side or to hike in the Kolob Canyon section, both far less crowded than the shuttle-serviced Zion Canyon area of the park.
Extra Pro tip: Don’t rule out National recreation areas that haven’t made elite National Park status. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area showcases even redder rocks than Zion, fantastic rock-climbing and top-notch hiking, including a few canyon routes. While you still need a timed ticket to enter, it’s far less competitive than the Zion shuttle system and you can use the same interagency pass for entry that you would use at any National Park.
If you’re interested in Yellowstone National Park,
Try Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Well, yeehaw! If you’re looking for classic Western vibes and to live out that cowboy rough rider fantasy, we know just the place. Follow the path of the one, the only, cowboy/rough rider/conservationist extraordinaire, Theodore Roosevelt, to North Dakota to explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park, only the 31st most visited park in the U.S. In fact, it was Roosevelt’s experiences working as a cowboy in these very plains that shaped him into the wilderness-loving man that would go on to create five national parks and establish the U.S. Forest Service during his term as President. What better way to celebrate National Park Week than to give it a visit?
The park combines classic grasslands and badlands landscapes. View bison, wild horses and pronghorns along the scenic loop drive in the park’s South Unit — be sure to hike the short Wind Canyon Trail for views of the appropriately named wind-sculpted canyon that calls itself home to the Little Missouri. Then, swap the crowded Prismatic Spring boardwalks of Yellowstone with rainbow badlands on the Painted Canyon Nature Trail.
Visitors with more time can continue north to see the remains of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch and to explore the badlands, prairie dog towns and unique Cannonball rock formations of the North Unit. Or head south to relax in hot springs in Hot Springs, South Dakota. The fun kind you can sit in. Take that Yellowstone.
Yellowstone Pro Tip: If the idea of being unfaithful to Old Faithful just feels wrong, know that most visitors don’t wander too far from the Grand Loop road in Yellowstone. So if you’re willing to show up early for parking, you can find some solitude hiking Yellowstone’s numerous trails. Bring bear spray, a map and an old-school compass as you might not have GPS. And give Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Springs a hello from us during the off-hours on a weekday (think early morning just after opening).
And while you’re at it, why not extend the Parks’ mission to leave our wilderness intact for future generations a step farther by making your voyage a little greener. KAYAK tags flight results that are eco-friendly, meaning that based on their aircraft type and number of stops, they emit less CO2 than average for their route. Look for the green “Eco-friendly” tag in the top left corner of each result card or filter to see only eco-friendly results. You can even sort by CO2 emission by clicking on the “Other Sort” flyout menu above the search results.
Enjoy your trip and happy trails!