Trade the crowds, long lines and parking hassles for these lesser-known parks
Visiting America's most popular national parks, especially in summer, is quickly becoming a gamble. Will it be one of your favorite memories, or will you spend the trip stuck in the car, navigating crowds and snapping photos of tourists?
Instead of lining up at one of the most popular parks, trek the less-trodden path with these alternatives.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 11,312,786 annual visitors
Cuyahoga Valley National Park: 2,423,390 annual visitors
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is conveniently located between a number of big cities and is one of the few major national parks that has no entrance fee. As such, it's consistently the most popular national park in the US – but eight hours north is Ohio's Cuyahoga Valley National Park, with similar views and not-so-similar crowds.
Check out Brandywine Falls in the morning (the most popular spot in the park), and then hike or bike part of the 19.5-mile Ohio & Erie Towpath Trail. It follows the historic Ohio & Erie canal, meanders along the Cuyahoga River, and winds between forests, fields and wetlands.
If you have time, hit the 1.8-mile Ledges Trail, timing it right for some incredible sunset photos at the Ledges Overlook.
Grand Canyon National Park: 5,969,811 annual visitors
Badlands National Park: 996,263 annual visitors
The Grand Canyon may be a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the wonders of the world, but Badlands National Park in South Dakota is a Martian landscape popping out of the prairie. And with fewer than a million visitors a year, you'll get the surface of Mars pretty much all to yourself.
Door, Window, and Notch Trails can all be completed in an afternoon – leave time for them as you snake slowly along the 32-mile Badlands Loop Road, weaving between ancient rock formations, buttes and valleys.
The 10-mile Castle Trail will get you a behind-the-scenes, solitary look at the landscape (bison, deer and bighorn sheep might dot your path), but try to be back on the road by sunset to catch the colors at Pinnacles Overlook.
Yosemite National Park: 5,028,868 annual visitors
Kings Canyon National Park: 607,479 annual visitors
Yosemite is slowly becoming notorious for shuttles, crowds and long lines. While its views are definitely worth it, Kings Canyon is so similar that most people wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the two. John Muir called it a "rival to Yosemite," and in places, the valley is deeper than the Grand Canyon – making it the deepest canyon in America.
Stop in Grant Grove to see the massive General Grant sequoia (the second-largest tree in the world), and then make the two-mile round-trip hike up to Buena Vista Peak for views straight out of Yosemite and into the glaciated valleys of the high Sierras.
Otherwise, a few miles south is the Redwood Canyon – there's sixteen miles to traverse and wander here, taking you deep into one of the largest sequoia groves on the planet.
Rocky Mountain National Park: 4,517,585 annual visitors
Lassen Volcanic National Park: 536,068 annual visitors
While it's difficult to hold a candle to the sheer variety of terrain Rocky Mountain National Park offers, Lassen is the surprise wild card in this fight. Having every kind of volcano known to mankind within the park, one minute you're scrambling up cinder, the next you're 10,000 feet in the air, overlooking the Cascades and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Take time to snap a few photos of Lassen Peak hovering above Juniper Lake (trails surround the water), and then, if you can, climb to the top. It's nearly 10,500 feet in the air, but there's no better way to get acquainted with the park. For a surprisingly difficult climb, trek the cinder on the short Cinder Cone Nature Trail – and into the pit of a bygone cinder cone volcano.
Zion National Park: 4,295,127 annual visitors
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: 238,018 annual visitors
You won't find experiences like Angel's Landing and The Narrows anywhere else but Zion, sure, but when the light hits Black Canyon of the Gunnison just right, that won't matter. The canyon, in its depth, darkness and dread, receives merely 33 minutes of light a day – and you won't fight through a million people to witness it.
Drive the seven-mile South Rim Road, and then head straight to Chasm View (⅓ of a mile) to see the Gunnison River dropping a whopping 240 feet per mile (the Colorado drops an average of 7.5, for the record). Then hop on the North Vista Trail for aerial views over the San Juan Mountains, the West Elks, Grand Mesa and the Uncompahgre Plateau.
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Yellowstone National Park: 4,257,177 annual visitors
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park: 1,887,580 annual visitors
It’d be nearly impossible to rival Yellowstone in its wildlife and variety of scenery, but in terms of jaw-dropping experiences, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park takes the cake. Yellowstone may have the largest concentration of geothermal features in the world, but at Hawai’i Volcanoes, there’s molten lava.
Take it easy on Crater Rim Drive or Chain of Craters Road, and be sure to stop at the Jaggar Museum for views into the active Halema'uma'u crater. If you can, get up at dawn to hike the four-mile Kīlauea Iki Trail – in the morning, fog settles into the crater and the sun begins to pour onto the ancient lava, making this an experience you won’t soon forget.
Acadia National Park: 3,303,393 annual visitors
Isle Royale National Park: 24,966 annual visitors
The first sunrise of the day at Cadillac Mountain, epic views over the Atlantic – if there’s one place that could rival the watery serenity of Acadia, it’d be Isle Royale, the least-visited national park in the country.
You’ll need to take a ferry across Lake Superior to get into the park, and once in, you’re basically on your own (Isle Royale is so rugged and isolated, it closes in winter). Choose between Rock Harbor (the northeast end) or Windigo (the southwest end), and spend the day simply discovering the island. Rent kayaks to get out onto the water, exploring the views at your own pace.
Glacier National Park: 2,946,681 annual visitors
North Cascades National Park: 28,646 annual visitors
Simply overshadowed by Rainier and Olympic, North Cascades offers the same powdery-blue lakes, glacier-carved valleys and jagged peaks as Glacier, with a fraction of the visitors. What’s more, Glacier National Park contains 25 glaciers – North Cascades, however, has over 300.
Avid hikers should hit the steep 6.8-mile Desolation Peak Trail (which Jack Kerouac once frequented), and those looking for a little less elevation, but equally grand views, should consider the Diablo Lake Trail or the 5.2-mile trek to Hannegan Peak.
Back in the car, drive the North Cascades Scenic Highway stopping at every overlook you can. At North Cascades, no vista is short of grand and panoramic; the views are icons of time, proof nature is hard at work, her forces unrelenting.