If you are looking to experience the splendor of America’s national parks and other popular outdoor destinations this summer, you likely won’t be alone. Given the resurgence of outdoor travel and road trips during the pandemic, many parks set all-time visitor records in 2021 and are expected to be at least as popular this year.
You’ll encounter trails and viewpoints full of tourists. As traffic jams and parking become ongoing problems, some national parks have instituted strict reservation systems. Yes, you can always find solitude in the vast wilderness of big parks like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone but you’ll still have to contend with traffic getting there.
This summer may be the time to try some alternative spots that offer some of the same features as their more famous neighbors. If you’re looking to dodge the lineups of slow-moving RVs and actually find a camping site, consider giving one of these lesser-known but still awe-inspiring destinations a try.
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Sequoia National Forest instead of Yosemite National Park
Last year, Yosemite National Park hosted more than 3.3 million visitors with the biggest crowds visiting during the summer months. The spectacular views of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls lose luster after you’ve had to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic all day and then face selfie-stick-toting mobs at every viewpoint. Park lodging is often sold out a year in advance, campgrounds, are packed and the Valley takes on a circus-like atmosphere. To attempt to limit the crowds, Yosemite has instituted a reservation entry process for this year’s high season, lasting from May 20 through September 30.
Meanwhile, about two hours south, Sequoia National Forest boasts similarly beautiful nature with cheaper entrance fees and only a fraction of Yosemite’s visitors. What you lose from missing out on Yosemite’s famous monuments, you gain by enjoying peace, solitude, and the fresh air you originally sought from the outdoors experience. Nearby Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks also contend with crowds, particularly in their main thoroughfares.
Despite the wildfires that raged through the area in 2021, most of Sequoia National Forest’s campgrounds are already open for 2022 and the 1.1 million acres of the park still provide plenty of pristine forests to visit.
Lassen National Park instead of Yellowstone
For an alternative to Yellowstone National Park, take the trek to California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. Yellowstone has the iconic Old Faithful geyser and herds of bison. However, it also has herds of visitors in summer which can be as unpleasant as a close encounter with the cranky furry beasts. The more remote and often under-visited Lassen National Park has an equally entertaining collection of thermal features including the giggle-inducing hiking trails and viewpoints of “Bumpass Hell” and “Fart Gulch.”
While some segment of Lassen suffered from a major wildfire in 2021, much of the park remained untouched and most campgrounds will be open for the start of the summer season along with many of the popular trails.
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For those with a hankering for wide-open bison-viewing spots, you can still get your fill in the 70,000 acres of North Dakota’s peaceful and secluded Theodore Roosevelt National Park or South Dakota’s Custer State Park.
White Mountain National Forest instead of Acadia National Park
New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest is a good alternative to Maine’s Acadia National Park. Given the record-setting 4 million visitors to Acadia National Park last year, it’s going to take a lot of work to find some solitude there this summer.
Instead, travel across state lines to the White Mountain National Forest and tackle the rugged beauty of the Presidential Traverse hiking trail. The full hike can be a challenge, as it goes along windswept peaks above the tree line but you’ll appreciate the peace and spectacular views you’ll earn along the way. The park offers plenty of more relaxing hiking trails as well.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument instead of the Grand Canyon
Instead of the Grand Canyon, take a trip to the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northeastern Arizona. The Grand Canyon is a truly spectacular destination that should be on everyone’s bucket list. However, its millions of high-season visitors can make it feel like Disneyland at times—with the associated high prices and crowds. Instead, take a detour to explore Canyon de Chelly National Monument which features similarly stunning sandstone canyons as well as ancient cliff dwellings near the current residences of the Navajo Nation (which co-manages the park). The park charges no entry fees and has rangers leading free hikes and hosting educational evening programs.
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While summer seems like a great time to visit America’s most famous National Parks and other high-profile outdoor destinations, expected high-season crowds may detract from your experience.
It’s worth the time to research and explore many of the lesser-known neighboring parks as alternative summer holiday spots. You can always return to Grand Canyon and Yosemite in the off-season and soak in some scenic seclusion then.
Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
— John Muir