Perfect Summer

5 Alternatives to the Most Crowded National Parks

Many of our national parks are overflowing with visitors. To get away from the crowds, seek an alternate route.

Visit the considerably quieter Canyon de Chelly. (tonda/iStock)
Rock Hoodoo

Many of our national parks are overflowing with visitors. To get away from the crowds, seek an alternate route.

Summer. It’s one of the best times to travel. Which is why many of our best places are horribly overcrowded during the warmer months. Fear not, we’ve scoured the atlas to find replacements that are at least as spectacular as their more popular cousins.

Skip: Grand Canyon

Go Here Instead: Canyon de Chelly

Four hours east of Grand Canyon (and its 6,254,238 annual visitors) lies the considerably quieter (just 825,660 visitors) Canyon de Chelly. Park access is free, and so are the ranger-led tours that introduce you to the canyon’s remarkable history and the indigenous tribes that have called it home for centuries. You cannot hike to its base or inside the canyon without a park ranger or a licensed Navajo guide, but even if you come without a plan, the North and South Rim drives offer ample turnouts at views that are arguably more dramatic than what you can see of the Grand. Spider Rock, an 800-foot spire on the South Rim road, is one of the most popular in the park, but there’s still plenty of parking and minimal selfie sticks.

Skip: Yosemite

Go Here Instead: Kings Canyon

Perhaps John Muir summed up Yosemite best when he said, “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” While it is undeniably awe inspiring, Muir’s opinion may have changed had he visited the area 149 years later and shared the temple with 4,336,890 other visitors. If you want to avoid getting hit by an RV hammering through the Valley floor, head about 110 miles south to Kings Canyon National Park. For those who don’t want to leave the car, take the Generals Highway between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks for both a deep-woods feel and wide-open vistas. Looking to amble? Check out the mind-bogglingly large trees in the Sequoia Groves. For a moderate day hike, head out 4.2 miles to Monarch Lakes at the base of 12,343-foot Sawtooth Peak.

Skip: Yellowstone

Go Here Instead: Beartooth Wilderness

Don’t worry, Old Faithful isn’t going anywhere. This summer, you can skip Yellowstone and just head east on the Beartooth Highway to the 9,440-acre Beartooth Wilderness. Frankly, the road itself, a National Scenic Byways All-American Road, is worth a cross-country trip all on its own. It has expansive vistas of enormous granite walls and high-alpine plateaus and is one of the prettiest drives in the country. There’s also ample access to world-class hikes if you want them. If you’re interested in camping, stop at East Rosebud Campground, which is like a baby Yosemite Valley with its glacially carved monoliths.

Skip: Zion

Go Here Instead: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

You only have to travel 45 miles east to dodge Zion’s crowds. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is by no means deserted, but the numbers of visitors are measured in hundreds of thousands rather than millions, and entrance is totally free. While the current administration unfortunately cut the monument in half last December, you can still wander in and wonder at the last place in continental United States to be mapped. Check out Devil’s Staircase and its myriad hoodoos and rock formations that’ll make you feel like you’re in a Dr. Seuss book.

Skip: Grand Teton

Go Here Instead: Wind River Range

While you should be a tourist and grab a drink at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson, Wyoming, drive right through Grand Teton National Park and out to the Wind River Range. The range itself is so huge that you’ll need to buy two maps to cover the whole thing. Mountain lakes butt right up against massive granite faces. If you’re comfortable carrying all your gear on your back, access to every type of superlative mountain view you can conjure up is easily accessed from the Big Sandy Trailhead, 54 miles out of Pinedale, Wyoming. A 12-mile round-trip day hike will take you to Big Sandy Lake, but we suggest really going for it and taking three days to hike in, hang out, and explore the Cirque of the Towers, where you can spend time on a lake surrounded by sharp glacier-carved peaks that rival any mountain view in the world.

Filed To: Grand Canyon / Travel / Nature / National Parks
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