4 National Park Alternatives to Yosemite

With 63 national parks to choose from, it’s easy to find space of your own. You just need to know where to look.

National parks are having their moment. With many seeing record numbers this year and the number of yearly visitors rising by over 53 million from 2013 to 2019, it can feel like a fool’s errand to attempt an off-grid adventure amid throngs of other visitors. Not only are campgrounds booking up months in advance—at some parks, popular trails feel as jammed as Friday traffic in Los Angeles.

The good news is that, out of the country’s 63 national parks, only a dozen or so draw constant crowds. Many others remain off of many Americans’ radars. I’ve selected four of my favorite lesser-known national parks. Every one of these parks is bucket list-worthy on its own merits. 

So if you’re seeking an outdoor escape with plenty of fantastic scenery and room to roam, turn your attention to the West Coast. California has nine national parks—more than any other state in the U.S. So you have tons of options! The toughest choice is which gorgeous locales to tick off your bucket list first and when to visit. Not to worry, I’ve gone ahead and done the research. Thus freeing up your time for more important matters, like reserving a campsite and buying hiking gear. Scroll on for a breakdown of four of my favorite national parks in the Golden State. Happy exploring!

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Joshua Tree National Park

Best for: Rock climbers, stargazers, desert wanders, Instagrammers, camping enthusiasts

An arid 800,000-acre expanse dotted with twisted trees, cacti, massive boulders, and starry skies, Joshua Tree has it all. Perched at the intersection of the Mojave and the Colorado Desert, this otherworldly Southern California region offers a surreal landscape and sense of serenity.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rock formations are obviously a major drawcard for photographers and pretty much anyone who digs desert scenery. Not surprisingly, Joshua Tree continues to be a magnet for climbers.

Amazing hikes also come with the territory. Mastodon Peak is a strenuous odyssey that rewards trekkers with jaw-dropping panoramas. Seeking a less energetic hiking stroll? Try a loop path like Bajada Nature Trail, Cholla Cactus Garden, or Discovery Trail.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In terms of accommodations, you definitely don’t have to rough it in the traditional sense. Joshua Tree has some of the most swoon-worthy rentals around. Or, why not sleep under the stars? The majority of the 500 campsites in the park are available by reservation.

When to go: Summer is brutal as the thermometer rarely dips below 100 degrees. Peak season—marked by pleasant weather and, admittedly, an influx of tourists—spans from October to May.

Where we stayed: Indian Waters RV Resort, Indio

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Best for: Volcano chasers, hikers

Can you guess the crown jewel of Lassen Volcanic National Park? We’ll give you one hint: The last time it erupted was a century ago. The chance of Lassen Peak blowing its top is unlikely. That should put your mind at ease as far as getting up close and personal with the park’s trademark lava rocks, steaming sulfur fumaroles, gurgling mud pots, hydrothermal springs, and jagged peaks.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, volcanic features aren’t the only noteworthy attributes. This northern California gem brims with untamed forests, glistening lakes, and flower-filled meadows. I’d be remiss not to mention the 150 miles of hiking trails.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to go: The window for visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park is pretty tight. You’ll want to avoid heavy snowfall which just leaves May to October. This period of clear skies, warmer days, and open roads offers ideal conditions for a few days of earthy expeditions.

Where we stayed: JGW RV Park, Redding

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Pinnacles National Park

Best for: Hikers, climbers, birdwatchers, camping enthusiasts

The baby of the bunch (aka California’s newest national park), Pinnacles isn’t as well known as the rest of the stunners on my list. But I have a feeling that under-the-radar status won’t last long. Not when the region is defined by breathtaking rock formations, cliffs, canyons, spires, and caves created by an extinct 23-million-year-old volcano.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most popular pastime is hiking. Easy, moderate, and challenging trails traverse the protected area. Adrenaline junkies with scrambling skills can attempt to tackle everything from straightforward top-roping to expert-level multi-pitch climbs. Look up and you may witness endangered condors soaring through the blue skies.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to go: Speaking of birds, Pinnacles National Park ranks among the top locales to spot peregrine falcons, red-shouldered hawks, and golden eagles—especially if you go during the spring which is raptor breeding season. Aiming to avoid the crowds and don’t mind seriously scorching temps? Consider visiting during the sweaty summer months.

Where we stayed: San Benito Camping and RV Resort, Paicines

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

Best for: Tree huggers, hikers, climbers, fans of fishing, stargazers

A diverse and magical place, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park is blessed with magnificent scenery unlike anywhere else. These adjoining nature areas have a wealth of immense canyons, alpine peaks, and truly massive trees. It’s here that you’ll discover the majesty of the 14,494-foot Mount Whitney.

General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whatever you do, don’t miss the General Sherman Tree. (At 275-feet-tall and with a 36-foot-diameter base, it’s the biggest tree on the planet by volume. Follow the paved trail in Giant Forest. Needless to say, an epic photo opp awaits.

Also on the agenda? Go caving, fishing, and spelunking. Mosey to the top of Panoramic Point for spectacular vistas of Kings Canyon and Hume Lake. Park Ridge Fire Lookout is one of the many other jaw-dropping viewpoints.

Eleven Range Overlook, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to go: By now, you’re probably pretty sold on Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Spring, summer, and fall are ideal for all sorts of outdoor activities. As if all that’s not enough. You can comfortably sleep under the stars at the Lodgepole Campground during the warmer months.

Where we stayed: Sun and Fun RV Park, Tulare

Worth Pondering…

We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.

—John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

Road Trips That Will Reinvigorate Your Soul After a Very (Very) Long Year

Since a transformative trip is what most everyone needs at the moment, I’ve rounded up 10 experiences guaranteed to reinvigorate your soul

Not to dwell on the past, but it’s been a pretty rough 18 months for most folks. And we’d like to put that chapter behind us. These days, lots of stuff comes with a degree of anxiety or worry, however, there’s absolutely no reason that a road trip should cause such stress. In fact, I’m of the mindset that the exact opposite is true.

Kentucky Artisan Center, Berea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re anything like me, after a year and one-half of being cooped up with travel restrictions, the inner drive to make up for lost time and get out and explore is real. A great spot to take a selfie? Sure, that can be cool. But I’m not looking for just another pretty place. Right now, it’s a deeper and more meaningful travel experience that’s calling.

For some, that might mean a spa getaway. Others find fulfillment in more eye-opening cultural pursuits—an artsy destination (Berea, Kentucky), tasting incredible culinary delights (Cajun cuisine), or sipping fine wine (Okanagan Valley, British Columbia). And, of course, connecting with nature can be thoroughly invigorating.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You start to pay more attention to little things, such as the warmth of the rising sun on your skin, the sound of the morning’s first bird song, the crunch of the sand and stone beneath your hiking shoes. The wide-open spaces and distant views of dramatic landscapes can inspire a sense of awe and wonder. It can invoke a renewed feeling of discovery and excitement and zest for life that for too long has been drowned out by the pandemic and its stay-at-home orders.

To experience this can be wholly rejuvenating for the mind, body, and soul and it has a way of reminding us of what is truly important and valuable in our lives.

Interested in some travel ideas guaranteed to have you feeling peaceful, joyful, and totally relaxed? Scroll on for 10 relaxing vacations in America that we all deserve right about now!

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seek Out Energy Vortexes in Sedona

Sedona is a deeply spiritual destination known for its spectacular red-rock formations, epic hiking, and energy vortexes. If you’re not familiar with the latter, they’re often described as “swirling centers of energy” that radiate from the earth. The most powerful vortexes (Airport Mesa, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Boynton Canyon) are great spots to meditate, sit alone with your thoughts, or connect to Mother Earth. This deeply spiritual destination boasts some of the most magical scenery anywhere in the world. Need some solo time? Strikeout on a less-trafficked trail like Wilson Mountain and you’ll feel like the only person on the planet. Staring at the enormous red rock formations just really puts things in perspective.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore Zion National Park

There’s something incredibly therapeutic about communing with nature—and it certainly doesn’t hurt to do so in such a staggeringly beautiful place. Insert Zion National Park. Located in southwestern Utah, Zion brims with breathtaking scenery—high plateaus, steep cliffs, deep canyons, forested trails, flowing rivers, and waterfalls. Exploring this majestic natural preserve is a true mind, body, and soul experience. Strenuous treks like Observation Point will push you physically. Covering 148,016 acres with tons of remote corners, Zion provides ample space to be alone with your thoughts. So if you’re seeking a sense of mental clarity, consider it found. And, needless to say, the sheer grandeur of Zion Canyon is all but guaranteed to awaken spiritual awareness.  

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Commune with Nature at Joshua Tree National Park

Yes, it’s an Instagram goldmine. But most people visit Joshua Tree National Park for the purpose of getting up close and personal with nature (epic photos are just a bonus). The desert really does have this incredibly healing energy. Plus, it’s so serene. Few National Parks boast the mythical and mystical quality of Joshua Tree. Massive boulder piles, bleached sand dunes, and Dr. Seussian yucca forests spread across hundreds of square miles of the desert are an otherworldly sight to behold. Soul-searchers can hoof it to the middle of nowhere, staring out at the arid landscape, and enjoy uninterrupted quiet to think. Joshua Tree also shines as one of the best places in the country, err the world, for stargazing. Peering up at the celestial bodies in the sky is sure to shift your perspective on things.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Saguaro National Park

To the indigenous people of the Sonoran desert, the saguaro is a sacred being. Uniquely adapted to the rigors of the desert, the saguaro forests alongside the palo verde and ironwood forests with all the beings they shelter and sustain form a single interlocked ecosystem of great diversity. The fruit that the saguaro cactus bears is dependable even in drought years so that humans and others owe their survival to the beneficence of the saguaro.

Hogsback, Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive Utah Scenic Byway 12

Sometimes you find yourself on a road that you can sense is something truly special. It is not just the landscapes, though you can’t take your eyes off them. It is something about the drive itself. Driving along Scenic Byway 12 is less about driving and more about staying oxygenated, so breathtaking is this 122-mile highway of pure driving bliss. Peaks ranging from 4,000 to 10,000-feet in elevation, extreme engineering feats allowing vehicle passage, rock formations, plateaus, alpine forests, and other eye-candy compete for a mind-blowing beautiful drive. And it seems to have a history. There’s something in the engineering—the Hogsback stretch comes to mind—and in the lay of the road. The way the road connects with the land feels somehow a part of the landscape. Utah State Route 12 is such a road.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savor the Serenity of Congaree

Established in 2003 and often referred to as the “redwoods of the east,” Congaree National Park is home to the largest and tallest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the United States. This designated wilderness area is located in central South Carolina and is a sanctuary for diverse plant and animal life. It’s also historically significant, once being home to Native Americans and later a refuge for escaped enslaved people. Congaree also offers an accessible boardwalk hike for everyone to enjoy as well as breathtaking canoeing, birding, and tent camping experiences. Honor nature and history when visiting Congaree National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tour Theodore Roosevelt National Park

This is where America’s 26th president spent his wilderness years as a rancher, hunter, and naturalist and this desolate stretch of ridges and bluffs is beyond ethereal. Buffalo and pronghorns graze in every direction giving meaning to the song Home on the Range. The prairie dog villages are among the most impressive in the world. If you venture off the uncrowded paved road that winds through the park you’ll find hoodoos and contoured rocks of the weirdest shapes; these surreal hills reminded Roosevelt of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales and poems. On hikes, I’ve found that these jagged buttes and towering sandstone pinnacles change shades by the hour, from heliotrope red to nickel gray.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stand Amongst the Sequoias

They say hugging trees is a form of therapy. Why not? We’ve heard of stranger stuff. And, hey, whatever works, right? Jokes aside, just being in the presence of towering, thousands-year-old sequoia trees has a wonderfully calming energy that’s hard to put into words but easy to feel in your soul. Take a deep breath, inhale the earthy aroma, and you’ll feel better in minutes. And enjoy the numerous trails and picnic areas in one of California’s iconic national parks.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See the Grand Canyon

It’s easy to be absorbed by the wonders of Grand Canyon National Park. Stretching more than 1.2-million acres, the park’s outer edges include the South Rim (open year-round) and the North Rim (closed from mid-October to mid-May) which are 210 miles apart. Our problems often seem big until we’re standing in front of something as massive and majestic as the Grand Canyon with its striated red rocks that seem to go on forever. The busier South Rim offers easy access to panoramas, paved paths along the rim, and hikes like the Bright Angel Trail which zigzags to the Colorado River. The Grand Canyon’s North Rim which sits at 8,000 feet offers a quieter pace with scenic drives and trails leading to pictographs and dramatic sunset views, All of a sudden those trivial little things that took up so much attention no longer matter. This immense, pilgrimage-worthy destination just seems to have that effect on people.

Appalachian Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike the Appalachian Trail

Need a mood boost? To quote Elle Woods, “endorphins make people happy.” We’re not just advocating for any old form of exercise (though physical activity, in general, has a slew of obvious benefits) but rather movement in a magical setting. Hiking the iconic Appalachian Trail pairs quad-torching trekking with fresh, alpine air and scenery so splendid it all but promises a spiritual awakening. Now that’s a win for your mind, body, and soul. Guess the only thing left to do is decide where to start your trek.

Driving Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picture It

You’re on the wide-open road in a fully-stocked RV, heading towards your own secluded campsite under the stars. Turns out, RV life is pretty good. 

Worth Pondering…

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.

―John Muir

2021 Vision: On Travel Restrictions, Freedom to Travel, and Staying Healthy

We’ve been through a lot this past year. 2020 has tested our resolve and proven to be a difficult time for many in the face of the COVID pandemic.

It goes without saying that 2020 hasn’t been the year any of us expected. And as we bid farewell to this year, it’s a good time to look back on what we’ve learned, while we also look forward with anticipation to the New Year and all it may bring.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One thing we’ve been reminded of this year is that spending time outdoors brings a world of physical and mental benefits. This rang even more true in 2020 as we focused on health and well-being. Medical professionals advised us to socially distance from one another and told us that when we did spend time with others, it was preferable to do so outside rather than indoors. This advice seemed tailor-made for the RV lifestyle, so much so that some news outlets dubbed it The Year of the RV.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With the first coronavirus vaccinations making their way across the United States and Canada as this is written, we look to 2021 with hope. Our 2020 Vision has left us with a new appreciation for the freedom to travel, to explore our continent, and to spend time in the company of friends and family. Cheers to more of that in 2021! And cheers to always expanding our RV knowledge and learning new things.

Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What can you do to help navigate through what might be another crazy year? My answer is simple…Get outside and start 2021 off on the right foot, right from the trail! Try something new or get back into a familiar, possibly forgotten pastime. Take a breath of fresh air while hiking in our beautiful outdoor places and you’ll breathe a sigh of relief. Focus on what you can control in 2021. Get outside, stay healthy, and stay connected. Pack your hiking boots and get off the beaten path. Take a look at the following options to help you start 2021 off strong, outdoors, and on a positively healthy note!

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park, Arizona

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains in Arizona. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails which wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. Choose from 120 RV and tent campsites with electric and water utilities. Each campsite has a picnic table and BBQ grill. Roads and parking sites are paved. Campgrounds have modern flush restrooms with hot showers, and RV dump stations are available in the park. There is no limit on the length of RVs at this park, but reservations are limited to 14 consecutive nights.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Custer State Park is a South Dakota State Park and wildlife reserve in the Black Hills. The Park encompasses 71,000 acres of spectacular terrain and an abundance of wildlife. A herd of 1,300 bison roams freely throughout the park often stopping traffic along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. The Annual Buffalo Roundup draws thousands of people to Custer State Park every September. Besides bison, Custer State Park is home to wildlife such as pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros. Whether hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, or rock climbing, find your adventure along the roads and trails! Custer State Park’s early pioneers, ranchers, and loggers have left behind miles of hiking trails and backcountry roads to explore.

Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Side-by-side, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have 800,000 acres and 800 miles of hiking trails to enjoy. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are famous for the massive trees that grow in their forests. The Sequoiadendron giganteum that grows in this portion of the Sierra Nevadas is famed for its girth with the world’s largest tree by volume found here. General Sherman is the tree in question, and grows in Sequoia National Park. Nearby Giant Forest hosts several more of the world’s largest trees. Moro Rock provides a stunning vantage of the surrounding foothills and granite formations; pair it with Crescent Meadow, which John Muir called the “Gem of the Sierra,” at the head of the High Sierra Trail.

Bernheim Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, Kentucky

Are you looking to connect with nature? Bernheim is the place to do it. With over 15,000 acres of land, there is an adventure waiting for everyone, no matter what your interest. At 15,625 acres, Bernheim boasts the largest protected natural area in Kentucky. Bernheim contains a 600-acre arboretum with over 8,000 unique varieties of trees. Take a scenic drive through the forest on paved roads, or bicycle around the Arboretum. Over 40 miles of trails weave their way through the forest at Bernheim.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Visit Arches to discover a landscape of contrasting colors, land forms, and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. This red-rock wonderland will amaze you with its formations, refresh you with its trails, and inspire you with its sunsets. RV and tent campers can select from 51 sites at Devils Garden Campground. Between November 1 and February 28, sites are first-come, first-served. Sites range in length from 20 to 40 feet. Facilities include drinking water, picnic tables, grills, and both pit-style and flush toilets.

Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary, Walterboro, South Carolina

There is a beautiful wildlife sanctuary located in the middle of the historic and picturesque city of Walterboro, South Carolina. Easily reached from I-95, the Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary (formerly the Great Swamp Sanctuary) is a great place to leave the traffic behind, stretch your legs, and enjoy nature. Located within the ACE Basin, the East Coast’s largest estuarine preserve, the 600- acre Sanctuary features a network of boardwalks, hiking, biking, and canoe trails that are perfect for viewing a diversity of a black water bottomland habitat.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden Isles of Georgia

The natural splendor of the Golden Isles (St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Jekyll Island, Little St. Simons Island, and the port city of Brunswick) extends past its golden-sand shores to tidal marshlands, live oak forests, and delicate estuaries. These impressive landscapes create a springboard for adventure. Hike or walk along the trails to experience the region’s natural beauty. Historical ruins, exquisite wildlife, and unique vegetation give outdoor enthusiasts an exciting variety of routes. From nature preserves to stretches of beach and miles of trail systems, find routes appropriate for all ages and skill levels as well as routes perfect for families and pets. If you’re looking for a diverse network of trails and a day full of fun, head to Blythe Island Regional Park, a 1,100-acre public park. Comprised of more than 30 nature and urban trails, the Jekyll Island Trail System is the best way to explore the island.

Worth Pondering…

Hiking a ridge, a meadow, or a river bottom, is as healthy a form of exercise as one can get. Hiking seems to put all the body cells back into rhythm.

—William O. Douglas, Justice, United States Supreme Court

The Wonderful National Parks of the West

Out west, the landscapes are vast and beautiful. There’s no place better to check them out than at these National Parks.

Magnificent mountains, diverse forests, and unusual geological features are among the significant features found in the National Parks of the West. These extraordinary landscapes are great places to enjoy outdoor recreation, to learn about nature and history, and to savor a scenic driving tour.

These areas give you a chance to get back to nature, explore the wilderness, and gaze up at pristine night skies. The western United States has a plethora of National Parks and each one is distinct and unique. We don’t expect you to visit all 12 straight away, we’ll give you some time…

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

It’s iconic. It’s dramatic. It’s historic. One mile deep and 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon is a mesmerizing force of nature. One of the world’s seven natural wonders, it’s almost overwhelming to stand at the South Rim at dusk and watch rose-hued rock faces turn a fiery burnished bronze.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park is characterized by its pinnacles, rock fins, and 2,000 gravity-defying arches. The spans of these natural stone wonders range from three feet across to 290 feet in the case of Landscape Arch, but the most famous of all is the 52 foot-tall Delicate Arch—so iconic it appears on Utah license plates.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Arches’ nearby neighbor, Canyonlands invites you to explore a wilderness of countless canyons and fantastically formed buttes carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Rivers divide the park into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, photographers, and rock climbers.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

The park’s namesake tree, the Joshua tree, is an admired inhabitant that resembles something you might find in a Dr. Seuss book. For years, novice and expert climbers have ventured to the park to climb giant, sculpted slabs of rock while hikers explore the vast desert terrain.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

At first glance, you might wonder where the forest went. Stone log fragments litter an otherwise drab section of the high desert. However, this span of desert was once a lush, green, forested oasis with 200-foot conifers and was ruled by dinosaurs. Of the 50,000 acres of designated wilderness, the brilliantly-colored petrified wood, impressive fossils, and the Painted Desert incite the most excitement.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde is the only national park dedicated solely to human endeavor and houses some of the largest and most important cliff dwellings in the world. Built by the Ancestral Puebloans, the known archeological sites number more than 5,000 and include mesa-top pueblos and masonry towers, as well as intricate, multi-storey dwellings wedged beneath overhanging cliffs. 

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Aside from being home to the world’s largest tree (by volume) and protecting vast areas of towering inland redwoods, a big part of Sequoia’s appeal is that it isn’t all that crowded. Take a stroll under the big trees in the Giant Forest, view wildlife in Crescent Meadows, climb to the top of Moro Rock.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Drive along the Badlands Loop Road to experience magnificent craggy buttes, pinnacles, and spires that seem to surprise the surrounding prairie grasslands. This Mars-like landscape has several accessible trails and overlooks including the Pinnacles Overlook, Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, and Fossil Exhibit Trail.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Just two trails (and an elevator) exist for hikers hoping to explore Carlsbad Caverns on their own. The Big Room Trail, the largest single chamber by volume in North America can be accessed via a 1.25-mile trail or a .6-mile shortcut. The relatively flat terrain weaves through a series of curious hanging stalactites and passes through park gems like the Hall of Giants, Bottomless Pit, and Crystal Spring Dome.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Home of the hoodoos, Bryce Canyon is much more than a single sandstone canyon. Here, you’ll find the largest concentration of eroded auburn spires, or hoodoos, on Earth. Sunset, Sunrise, Inspiration, and Bryce viewpoints are the spots to hit for the best views in the shortest amount of time.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Just when you thought the scenery couldn’t get any better, Zion comes along and blows your socks off. Carved by the Virgin River, the landscape is a geological masterpiece, defined by its canyons, plateaus, and soaring sandstone cliffs. But it’s the variety, not just the magnitude that gives the park its grandeur.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

5 of the Most Visited National Parks…and Where to Go Instead

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

Since it was signed in 1906, the United States Antiquities Act has conserved millions of acres across 61 national parks. These protected areas encompass some of the country’s most extraordinary landscapes which have unsurprisingly prompted growing tourism numbers in the most popular parks. Competing with these throngs of tourists while is far from ideal. With that in mind, we’ve assembled a list of less crowded, yet equally scenic, alternatives to America’s most popular national parks.

Due to changing advisories, please check local travel guidelines before visiting.

If you like Grand Canyon National Park, try Bryce Canyon National Park instead

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Known as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon is a bucket-list destination for travelers worldwide. This recognition comes at a cost, though, with 6.38 million arrivals to the park in 2018. Consider instead heading due north to Bryce Canyon National Park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated along the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, the park’s terrain has been shaped and eroded by the harsh high-altitude elements. The resulting hoodoos, jagged formations, and massive horseshoe amphitheaters are an astonishing sight to behold. Bryce Canyon’s extensive trail network is sure to satisfy any type of hiker. The park’s elevation ranges between a lofty 8,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level making for milder summer temperatures compared to the Grand Canyon.

If you like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, try Shenandoah National Park instead

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A whopping 11.4 million people visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2018. Heading six hours north along the Appalachian Mountains, hikers and drivers can find equally scenic roadways, stunning mountain vistas, and epic trails at Shenandoah National Park. Though it’s not exactly an off-the-beaten path destination, Shenandoah’s 1.2 million visitors are a mere trickle compared to its southern neighbor.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spanning 105 miles between the Front Royal and Rockfish Gap entrances, winding Skyline Drive allows visitors to leisurely enjoy the park’s scenery from their car and choose from numerous trailheads for day hikes. Hiking options abound, with over 500 miles of marked trails, including a substantial section of the famed Appalachian Trail.

If you like Zion National Park, try Capitol Reef National Park instead

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion’s famed Narrows and towering cliffs are nothing short of breathtaking. If you’re craving more solitude among southern Utah’s geological wonders, consider heading three hours northeast to Capitol Reef National Park. Capitol Reef’s Scenic Drive takes in some of the most picturesque stretches of the park. Frequent pullouts permit plenty of stops for photos or embarking on a day hike. Turn down Grand Wash Road to hike a quarter-mile to Cassidy Arch where Butch Cassidy was rumored to have camped out.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most conspicuous reminder of settlers is at Fruita where orchards and a few restored buildings serve as the last remnants of the Mormon town of 50. Depending on the season visitors can pick their own fruit including cherries, pears, and apricots.

If you like Yellowstone National Park, try Theodore Roosevelt National Park instead

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yellowstone’s wealth of attractions—unique wildlife, spouting geysers, volcanic landscapes, and churning rivers—are unmatched by any single national park. For similar wildlife spotting opportunities away from the crowds head east to the lesser-known Theodore Roosevelt National Park which sees just 749,000 annual visitors compared to Yellowstone’s 4.1 million.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Twenty-nine American bison were reintroduced here in 1956, with herd numbers today totaling several hundred between the park’s north and south units. For the best chance of seeing bison, make your way around the Scenic Loop Drive in the south unit but be sure to maintain a respectable distance from the massive creatures. Fortunately, bison prefer to graze the nutritious grasslands surrounding prairie dog communities, and thus, you may spot both species.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond the park’s critters, there is an abundance of scenic views and impressive rock formations to enjoy. Visiting at sunrise or sunset is an ideal time to appreciate the multitude of colors emanating from bands of minerals in the rugged rock face.

If you like Yosemite National Park, try Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park instead

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although Sequoia and Kings Canyon’s natural beauty rival its northerly neighbor, it only received 1.2 million visitors in 2018 compared to Yosemite’s four million. The dramatic landscape testifies to nature’s size, beauty, and diversity—huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, and the world’s largest trees. These two parks lie side by side in the southern Sierra Nevada east of the San Joaquin Valley.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You expect giant trees and huge canyons—and you won’t be disappointed. Within these parks, you can experience a spectacular range in elevation from warm foothills to cold alpine peaks. The largest and finest groves of giant sequoias grow at the sometimes snowy mid-elevations, along with extraordinarily diverse plants and animals living in extremely varied conditions.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

Explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks create a recreational wonderland covered by ancient forests, soaring domes, stone canyons, and rivers that roar or ripple, depending on the season

The giant trees of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks will fill you with awe—and give you a crick in your neck from staring up at them. But who cares about a little pain when the payoff is so grand? And the high season is over for these two incredible parks meaning the time is right for a leisurely visit minus the crowds. And the campgrounds that are always full during the summer now have vacancies.

Eleven Mile Overlook in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shoulder-season visitors (September-November) avoid the hustle and bustle of peak times. Traffic lessens, autumn leaves appear, and it becomes easy to find a parking spot.

Forest Center in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The weather also cools off, a big plus. Many days here top 100 degrees during the summer. Weather like that is brutal if you’re hiking—or even just taking a quarter-mile nature walk. Skip the sizzling July and August weather and visit in October when average highs are in the 60s.

November is a little chancier: We was here in mid-November and encountered some snow in the High Country. But, to be honest, not enough to alter our plans!

Castle Rocks in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A couple of other problems also arise if you visit too late in the year. The road to Kings Canyon’s Cedar Grove area closes November 11. And you don’t want to miss that spectacular area of the park. Many campgrounds also close. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Let’s start when naturalist John Muir wrote about the area that eventually became Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. “In the vast Sierra wilderness south of the famous Yosemite Valley, there is a yet grander valley of the same kind,” Muir wrote in 1891.

Forest Center in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grander than Yosemite? Those are strong words. But many park fans agree. Sequoia has the largest trees on the planet and Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48. Kings Canyon is by some measures considered the deepest canyon in the country.

It’s a place that can make visitors feel very small. It also can bring a sense of tranquility.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The adjacent parks, which are administered together, offer beautiful rivers and waterfalls, lush valleys, vast caverns, snow-capped peaks, and terrain ranging from 1,300 to 14,500 feet. And it’s all in the southern Sierra Nevada.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nowhere else in the national park system can you experience the diversity of landscapes within a day’s hike, from blue oak woodlands to red fir forests to alpine tundra. Plus, the stunning ancient giant sequoia groves!

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The colossal trees can grow as tall as a 26-story building and live more than 3,000 years, thanks to a chemical in their bark that protects against rot, boring insects, and even fire.

Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s hard to comprehend the size of a sequoia until you stare up at one, especially the General Sherman Tree, a giant among giants—275 feet tall and more than 36 feet in diameter. It’s the largest tree in the world by volume and is a favorite stop for visitors. Yes, you’ll have to walk half a mile to see it, but it’s a pilgrimage you’ll remember the rest of your life.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even better: Take the 2-mile Congress Trail, which begins at the General Sherman Tree and loops through the heart of the green and beautiful Giant Forest, home to more than 2,000 sequoias with trunk diameters greater than 10 feet. It’s an easy trail and like the Sherman Trail is both wheelchair- and kid-friendly. Like no other place on Earth, the Giant Forest is alive with mystery and wonder.

Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another highlight of Sequoia National Park is Moro Rock, which isn’t an easy trail. If the walk to General Sherman fazes, Moro Rock will stop you in your tracks. The bald granite dome looms thousands of feet above the park highway, protruding from a forested ridge 6,725 feet above sea level.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kings Canyon is a rugged landscape of granite, water, and sky. Like Sequoia, Kings Canyon National Park is more than 95 percent wilderness and few roads disturb the peace. But, that’s the topic of another post.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Between Kings River and the Kaweah, we enter the colossal forests of the main continuous portion of the sequoia belt.

—John Muir, 1876