National parks broke dozens of attendance records last year, making this summer a challenging time to visit any of the sites on the top-ten list. Add to that the strict reservation systems implemented by many, and planning ahead is more crucial than ever. The National Park Services’ official stance on the matter is simple: explore more under-the-radar park units. But if you’re hell-bent on visiting one of the most popular parks in the country this season, read on for a list of lesser known (but still stunning) spots within them 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 first became a national park in 1910. Though the park’s popularity is well-deserved, savvy travelers looking to experience a secluded Glacier will need to go the extra mile.
The park’s North Fork area is a true gem, with access to stunning, glacially-carved Bowman and Kintla Lakes, plus epic backcountry trails that stretch all the way to Canada. The area has excellent fodder for hikers, car campers, and paddlers, and hungry road trippers won’t want to miss grabbing a huckleberry bear claw at the historic Polebridge Mercantile on their way out.
When we think of national parks, we often think of the untrammeled landscapes they’re designed to preserve, but many of the Park Service’s most impressive sites are those that tell a more human story. Visitors to Indiana Dunes typically make a beeline straight for the beach, but they can avoid the summer throngs by savoring the shade of maple and beech trees surrounding the Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm, relics of the area’s fur trading and agricultural era.
Hetch Hetchy was once an area that John Muir called “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 easily the least-visited area in Yosemite National Park, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit, particularly in the spring and early summer when fresh snowmelt turns trickling waterfalls into roaring cascades.
The region, which lies in the peaceful northwestern corner of the park, is home to breathtaking day hikes out to Wapama and Rancheria Falls, as well as overnight treks to serene Lake Vernon and Lake Eleanor.
With an abundant supply of fishing, hiking, boating, and climbing opportunities, it can feel darn near impossible to find a quiet corner of Grand Teton. But for visitors willing to drive a little farther into the park’s northeastern corner, a bevy of wonders awaits.
Avoid the crowds at Jenny Lake by tackling the 6.5-mile loop trail around Two Ocean Lake, taking in sweeping views of Mount Moran and Grand Teton in the distance. In the fall, this hike bursts into flame with marigold and amber aspen leaves. Afterwards, head north to Lizard Creek Campground and gaze at the sunset from the shoreline of Jackson Lake.
Because of its island-centric location off the coast of Maine, escaping the summer rush in Acadia is trickier than in most parks. If you’ve got your own vehicle and a love of tidepools, there’s no better place to have the area’s ragged Atlantic coastline all to yourself than on the Schoodic Peninsula.
The area is home to an off-the-beaten-path campground and second-to-none seacoast views of rocky islets, basaltic dikes, and geyser-like waves that burst up between slabs of pink granite. Looking to get even more remote? Accessible only by passenger ferry, Isle Au Haut offers a primitive campground and over 20 miles of hiking paths.
This year, there’s going to be stiff competition to get a coveted Bear Lake Road entrance permit for Rocky Mountain, but the good news is that a huge majority of the park is still accessible to those with a much easier to nab park access permit, which is only required from 10 A.M. to 3 P.M. To scoot past the summer swarms on Trail Ridge Road, head south or west.
South, travelers can enter into the less-trammeled Wild Basin area and embark on a 12.4-mile day or overnight hike up to the chilly sapphire tarn of Lion Lake. To the west, mountain lovers can tackle an all-day trek past Adams Falls to the mirror-clear waters of Lake Verna or seek out moose and elk on the easy, accessible Coyote Valley Trail.
At Grand Canyon, only 10 percent of all park visitors ever set foot on the equally stunning North Rim, making it the perfect destination for those seeking solitude. Traditionally open from mid-May through mid-October, the North Rim is home to a campground, lodge, visitor center, and a small gift shop.
From here, park guests can witness the same technicolor sunsets and rust-red canyon views that are famous down south, but with a more relaxed vibe. Plus, backpackers looking to sleep between the canyon’s walls can easily access the North Kaibab Trail and trek all the way down to the mighty Colorado River (permit required).
Much like at Grand Canyon, Yellowstone’s visitors tend to confine themselves to a few select areas, generally centered around boardwalks and geysers, leaving the rest of the park fair game for intrepid wanderers.
For road tripping travelers hoping to spot some of the park’s most notorious wildlife, a scenic drive through Lamar Valley can’t be missed. It’s home to wandering grizzly bears, herds of ornery bison, and the Yellowstone Wolf Project. After the drive, stretch your legs on a scenic hike out to view-studded Mount Washburn. Just don’t forget the bear spray.
It’s confounding that most of Zion’s five million visitors bottleneck into the park’s narrow, 15-mile canyon year after year. To experience similarly spellbinding towers of bright red Navajo sandstone with far fewer throngs, check out the park’s northwestern Kolob Canyon and Kolob Terrace sections, a mere 60-minute drive from the main canyon.
Avid hikers and backpackers will fall in love with the 14-mile out-and-back trip out to Kolob Arch, which winds along mellow La Verkin Creek, while automobile cruisers might prefer a scenic ride along Kolob Terrace Road.
Great Smoky Mountains
Sure, the winding drive along Newfound Gap Road is a great way to experience the Smokies’ famous rolling hillsides 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, full of panoramic views and gorgeous pullouts.
If you’re up for a more active day in the park, head to the lesser-known Cosby entrance (a favorite among locals) and lace up your boots for a 4.4-mile hike out to Hen Wallow Falls or a challenging 12-mile trek up Mount Cammerer. Afterwards, try to nab a spot at the rarely full Cosby Campground.