I don’t know if 2022 is going to be another year for record-setting attendance in parks but visitation has been trending up for years and there’s no sign of a change in the trend.
Take Yellowstone for instance. It’s fairly busy every year. In 2022, the park celebrates its sesquicentennial (aka its 150th birthday), so it’s a good guess that the publicity involved is going to keep visitation trending upward.
But what if I gave you a great alternative? Kind of like a junior version of Yellowstone—thermal features, trees, hiking, camping—but without having to wait in line to get in.
That’s what my recommendations for 2022 are all about: While the busiest parks are still learning to adapt to crowds, let’s head to under-appreciated parks—ones that compare favorably to the more crowded parks, but without the crowds.
In today’s post, I’ll focus on my favorite under-appreciated parks and where they go to get away from it all.
So just between you and I, here are some places to hide out in 2022. If you tell anyone about them, tell them not to tell.
Lassen would be that alternative to Yellowstone I was alluding to. Both put on an amazing display of geothermal wonders. Both have great camping, hiking, lakes, and streams. But by visiting Lassen, you’ll be able to enjoy all of these with a bit less planning and at a more relaxed pace.
California’s breathtaking national parks are no great secret. Each year, millions of tourists flock to Yosemite, Sequoia, and Joshua Tree. Lassen Volcanic, one of the state’s least visited parks, is a great place to explore craggy high peaks, chilly alpine lakes, and forests full of towering ponderosa pines.
One might think that because it’s in California, Lassen was destined to be crowded. However, its location is in the northeast corner of the state, so for many of those in the big cities, it might as well be on the moon.
The park is home to eight different hydrothermal areas with boiling aquamarine hot springs, hissing steam vents, and bubbling mud pots much like the ones found in Yellowstone. Avid hikers won’t want to miss out on summiting Cinder Cone, a now dormant volcano with tremendous views of Lassen Peak and the Fantastic Lava Beds while families will love the stunning wildflowers and raised boardwalks of Bumpass Hell, the park’s largest hydrothermal area.
There are plenty of easy-to-moderate hikes to pick from, but I’m going to recommend one that’s short but challenging — just because it’s something that Yellowstone can’t offer. The Cinder Cone Trail goes up a volcanic cinder cone with a view at the top that will knock your socks off. So yes, expect it to be like a stair-stepper machine, and bring good boots. Only 2.5 miles in, steep in places, and no shade. Bring water. If this is too far for you, give it a bit of a try just to have the experience. No shame in turning back.
The east side of the park was heavily impacted by fire in 2021. This might keep some people away, and some restoration operations might impact your visit, so keep an eye on the park’s reopening plans.
Instead of the Grand Canyon, try Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
While the vast majority of the Grand Canyon is inaccessible wilderness, Theodore Roosevelt is easily accessible. Both are geological wonders, but at Theodore Roosevelt, these wonders are a lot more accessible. There’s even a river that runs through it. Not the mighty Colorado, but the-you-can-wade-across-it Little Missouri.
If there was one person that is a central figure in the national parks, it’s Theodore Roosevelt. His birthplace is a national historic site. His inauguration site is a national historic site. He has an island turned into a national memorial for him. Millions come to see his face carved into Mount Rushmore.
So you’d think that Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in the North Dakota badlands that inspired his love of the outdoors would be a mecca for national park visitors, coming en masse to share the experience that helped mold the man who molded the national park system.
And you’d be wrong.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is a park for isolation. Both the north and south units offer great hiking, expansive vistas, easily accessible wilderness, abundant wildlife, and not many visitors.
This is a wonderful park for hiking due to the elevation (or lack thereof) and abundance of trails.
Oh, and for wildlife, too. There are bison, pronghorns, wild horses, and ground squirrels.
The adjacent wilderness area is also a good alternative to Petrified Forest National Park with the Petrified Forest Loop well worth the trip. The Painted Canyon Nature Trail is an easy 45-minute hike. The canyon looks amazing from the rim but wait until you experience a hike down into it. Get up close and personal with the rock layers, junipers, and wildlife. Remember, every step down means a step back up on the return.
If you’re headed to the north unit, check out the 1.5-mile Caprock-Coulee Trail. You can do the Nature Trail portion for an easy 0.8 miles or the entire 4.5 miles for something more strenuous.
The front country campgrounds are nice, too, located in the cottonwoods for a good amount of shade.
Although the north and south units are the largest, the third unit, Elkhorn Ranch, is the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch. Only the foundation remains. The area is still quite remote. The last few miles of the road are unpaved, and often in poor condition.
Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through the floodplain, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate this ecosystem and support the growth of national and state champion trees.
Hiking the park’s many trails lets you get up close and personal with Congaree National Park. Whether you are looking for a short hike on the Boardwalk Trail or desire to make a longer trek into the backcountry, there are options available for visitors of all skills and abilities. Depending on what you want to see, trails can lead you to oxbow lakes, the Congaree River, or stands of magnificent old-growth trees that help make up the tallest deciduous forest in the United States.
Whether you are planning a short day trip or an overnight trip into the backcountry, traveling on Cedar Creek by canoe or kayak is a great way to experience Congaree National Park. This waterway passes through a primeval old-growth forest that contains some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. Opportunities are plentiful for viewing various types of wildlife such as river otters, deer, turtles, wading birds, and even the occasional alligator!
The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.