Fear not, we’ve scoured America to find alternatives that are as spectacular as their more popular cousins.
Skip: Grand Canyon National Park
Go Here Instead: Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Drive four hours east of the Grand Canyon (and its 6,254,238 annual visitors) and explore the considerably quieter (just 825,660 visitors) Canyon de Chelly National Monument. As a bonus, 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.
A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor.
You cannot hike into the canyon (except for the White House Trail) 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 viewpoints 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 ample of parking.
Skip: Yosemite National Park
Go Here Instead: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
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 150 years later and shared the temple with 4,336,890 other visitors.
If you want to avoid getting hit by a SUV hammering through the Valley floor, head about 110 miles south to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Take the Generals Highway between Sequoia and Kings Canyon 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.
You will feel tiny, as you gaze upward at the largest trees in the world. You’ll want to see General Sherman, the world’s largest tree, standing 275 feet tall with a base more than 36 feet in diameter. You can also round out your visit with caves, hiking, and in the right season, even snowshoeing.
Skip: Zion National Park
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 and without long lines to enter the park.
Grand Staircase–Escalante is huge and wild, so stop at one of the visitor centers on the monument’s two main paved highways to get oriented. You’ll find them in the towns of Kanab and Big Water (Highway 89) and in Escalante and Cannonville (Highway 12). Just driving these highways is astoundingly scenic.
You can 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.
Hikers and backpackers will want to check out some of the monument’s gorgeous slot canyons. Several spectacular ones are accessible from Hole in the Rock Road. Bring paper maps—your phone won’t help you here and your GSP may lead you astray.
The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.