Escape the Crowds: 6 Stunning Alternative Parks That Rival the Most Popular U.S. National Parks

Post Published October 12, 2023

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Escape the Crowds: 6 Stunning Alternative Parks That Rival the Most Popular U.S. National Parks

If you're looking to trade crowded overlooks and packed trails for wide-open vistas and a true sense of solitude, head to Nevada's Great Basin National Park. Far from the popular parks out west, Great Basin offers desert tranquility and stunning high-elevation landscapes that you can often have all to yourself.

Tucked into the Nevada wilderness along the Utah border, this overlooked park sees just a fraction of the visitors that stream through places like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. In 2019, around 120,000 people explored Great Basin's diverse ecosystems. Compare that to Zion's nearly 4.5 million annual visitors - that's the difference between solitude and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds.
Great Basin's relatively scant attendance means you won't spend precious vacation time waiting in lines or jostling for the perfect Instagram shot. Instead, a visit here means the freedom to soak up scenic overlooks, hike to your heart's content, and camp under some of the world's darkest night skies mostly undisturbed.

The park's centerpiece is the 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, which rises dramatically from the sagebrush valley below. A strenuous 8-mile trail leads hikers from the trailhead at about 10,000 feet up to the windswept summit with panoramic views. Come prepared with layers, water, and proper footwear, as late spring and early summer can still see patches of ice and snow near the top.

For an easier alpine hike, consider the 2.5-mile Alpine Lakes Loop past Teresa Lake, Stella Lake, and Bonita Lake. Surrounded by peaks and meadows, these crystalline tarns shine an unreal turquoise blue thanks to limestone deposits. Wildflowers dance in the summer breezes, trout dart beneath the crystal-clear waters, and the craggy grey mountains preside over it all.

At Lehman Caves, you can take daily guided tours that descend into a fascinating underworld of stalactites, stalagmites, fascinating cave formations, and pools that reflect like mirrors. It's a nice change of pace from the sweeping mountain vistas outside. Just know that Lehman Caves is one of the park's main attractions, so it does see more visitors. But crowds here are still minimal compared to places like Carlsbad Caverns.
For the quintessential Great Basin experience, pitch a tent at one of the park's first-come, first-serve campgrounds. Wake before dawn to watch the sunrise wash over Wheeler Peak, listen to coyotes yipping in the valley, and stargaze into the Milky Way free of light pollution. Most nights, the sky is so clear you'll swear you can reach out and touch the cosmos.

If backcountry camping is more your style, grab a free permit from the visitor's center. Then hike into the park's remote wilderness with just your gear on your back and mountains as far as the eye can see. With over 800 miles of trails winding through forests of ancient bristlecone pines, there's plenty of room to wander freely.
"I just returned from Great Basin National Park and it was an amazing trip. I was there during the week and didn't see more than a handful of people on any of the trails I hiked. It is so vastly different from the popular national parks out west...We had incredible views all to ourselves. The ranger-led cave tour was fantastic. Highly recommended if you want beautiful scenery and trails without fighting crowds."

"For people looking to get away from crowds, this is one of the most underrated parks in the U.S. We hiked to Teresa Lake on a perfect late spring day and only saw four other people. Just stunning scenery of the lake with Wheeler Peak in the background. I'll be back to explore more of this special place."

With endorsements like these, it's clear Great Basin offers an unforgettable escape from crowded parks where solitude reigns. If you want to connect with nature rather than selfie-snapping tourists, make the long drive to this remote Nevada oasis. Drink in the quiet and soak up the sweeping desert scenery in blissful peace.

The weather is most pleasant in spring and fall, when wildflowers bloom and daytime temps hover in the 60s and 70s Fahrenheit. But Great Basin enchants year-round if you don't mind bundling up in winter or braving summer heat. Just come prepared with plenty of water, proper footwear, and backcountry know-how.

What else is in this post?

  1. Escape the Crowds: 6 Stunning Alternative Parks That Rival the Most Popular U.S. National Parks - Experience Solitude in Great Basin National Park
  2. Escape the Crowds: 6 Stunning Alternative Parks That Rival the Most Popular U.S. National Parks - See Majesty and Wilderness in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
  3. Escape the Crowds: 6 Stunning Alternative Parks That Rival the Most Popular U.S. National Parks - Marvel at Geologic Wonders in Capitol Reef National Park
  4. Escape the Crowds: 6 Stunning Alternative Parks That Rival the Most Popular U.S. National Parks - Explore Ancient Ruins at Mesa Verde National Park

Escape the Crowds: 6 Stunning Alternative Parks That Rival the Most Popular U.S. National Parks

At over 20,000 square miles, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska is the largest national park in the United States. Six times the size of Yellowstone, Wrangell-St. Elias is remote, rugged, and humbling in its vast scale. Glaciers carve through mountain peaks, iceberg-dotted rivers wind through broad valleys, and wildlife from grizzlies to caribou roam land unchanged for millennia. With few roads and minimal infrastructure, Wrangell-St. Elias offers an unfiltered wilderness experience that trades convenience for grandeur.

Although Wrangell-St. Elias sees just a fraction of the tourists who mob the parks out west, those who make the journey are rewarded with thundering rivers, calving glaciers, and icy peaks as far as the eye can see. Here, it's easy to access backcountry trails and lose yourself in utter wilderness, where your only companions are the cranes crying overhead and the whisper of the wind.

At the heart of the park lie four major mountain ranges converging together – the towering St. Elias Mountains, the ice-draped Chugach Mountains, the rugged Wrangell Mountains, and the smaller Nutzotin Mountains. These peaks are coated in over 100 major glaciers, the largest ice fields in North America outside of Greenland. Flowing from this icy fortress are braided rivers heavy with sediment and strewn with icebergs.

For many visitors, flightseeing these colossal glaciers and soaring peaks is a highlight. Take off from nearby McCarthy and within minutes you'll be face-to-face with the 9,000-foot walls of towering Mt. St. Elias – the second tallest peak in the U.S. – and the sprawling Bering Glacier, where great rivers of ice ooze through valleys below. Seeing these epic features from the air truly emphasizes the park’s monumental scale.
On the ground, hiking trails lace through lowland forests past thundering rivers and waterfalls. The 4-mile Caribou Creek Trail leads to two powerful waterfalls cascading over walls of black rock. For more ambitious treks, venture onto the Root Glacier Trail or the Bonanza Mine Trail, which winds past abandoned remnants of the town's copper mining past.

Hardy backpackers can also access campsites deep in the backcountry via trails like the Chokosna River Route. Spend days trekking past forests and meadows without a soul around, cross ankle-deep rivers, listen for the chuffs of grizzlies fishing for salmon, and camp under the glow of the aurora at night. With proper preparation, backpacking here allows for a profound wilderness immersion. But be sure to register your trip with park rangers and come equipped with bear spray and ample experience.
At the edge of the park lies historic McCarthy, an old mining town with an off-the-grid, edge-of-the-world vibe. Get a taste of local life at the McCarthy Lodge, explore quirky shops and galleries, or chat with colorful locals at the McCarthy Bar. Nearby Kennicott offers a glimpse into the town's past with an old copper mill, mining artifacts, and informational walking tours.

Staying in McCarthy allows you to soak up Wrangell-St. Elias’ splendid isolation. As one Tripadvisor user notes: “McCarthy and the surrounding area is beyond beautiful. It's more of an experience than a town. We found absolute serenity hiking nearby in Wrangell-St. Elias with views that seem untouched since the dawn of the earth.”

With few roads, this corner of Alaska relies on bush planes, hike-in campsites, and your own two feet for access. But therein lies its magic, as described by past visitors:

"If you really want to get out into the wilderness, Wrangell-St. Elias is it. We flew into McCarthy and then backpacked along the Root Glacier Trail. Mind-blowing scenery of snowy peaks, huge glaciers, and we practically had it to ourselves...I've never felt so small and insignificant surrounded by the vast power of nature.”

“Don't be put off by the lack of roads and amenities. That's the whole point! We found incredible peace hiking in this rugged landscape. Seeing the vibrant turquoise blue of the Kennicott Glacier will be burned into my memory forever. An amazing park.”

Escape the Crowds: 6 Stunning Alternative Parks That Rival the Most Popular U.S. National Parks

In south-central Utah, Capitol Reef National Park safeguards a landscape of rocky ridges, petrified sand dunes, and brilliantly colored cliffs that reveal our planet's geological history page by page. Though it sees only a fraction of visitors compared to nearby Zion and Arches, Capitol Reef remains a crown jewel of the National Park system. Its rock layers tell stories of shifting landscapes, vanished seas, and prehistoric forests while its gracefully eroded canyons leave you awestruck.

Capitol Reef encompasses nearly 1,000 square miles of the Colorado Plateau, where geologic forces have lifted and chiseled earth into endless red rock formations. A prominent centerpiece of the park is the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in the planet's crust known as a monocline. This ancient fold caused layers of sandstone and shale to be dramatically tilted on end, revealing over 200 million years of geological strata.
As you traverse Capitol Reef, the rock layers change color and texture, illustrating different ecosystems across vast stretches of time. The grey slopes of Thousand Lakes Mountain represent dune fields from the Jurassic. Bands of white and gold hint at the Navajo Sandstone, an ancient desert where sleek dinosaurs once roamed. Swaths of vivid red show where iron oxidized in ancient soils. Together they tell of shifting seas, sand dunes, river deltas, and much more. It's a geology lesson written across the land.
The park's standout features are its commanding cliff faces and narrow slot canyons. The aptly named Capitol Dome rises above the Fremont River, its rounded shape resembling the U.S. Capitol. Nearby, the dramatic Chimney Rock looms over 500 feet tall against the blue Utah sky. From Goosenecks Overlook, gaze down at the San Rafael River winding in impossibly tight hairpin turns 1000 feet below. But to truly feel small amid Capitol Reef's grandeur, head to the iconic Grand Wash Trail.
The Grand Wash is a 6.5-mile one-way hike along a canyon oasis. Sheer red and gold walls rise hundreds of feet on either side of a tree-lined trail and sandy streambed. Cool mossy green contrasts with the vibrant mineral hues surrounding you. The further in you wander, the narrower the canyon becomes until it's just a thin ribbon of blue sky above. It's a very accessible hike that packs a lot of scenery into a relatively short distance.
For a lesser-known perspective, take the 5-mile Cohab Canyon Trail into the park's southwestern region. It leads through sculpted sandstone walls the color of harvest sunsets, decorated with petroglyphs from ancient peoples. Tiny trickles of water nourish delicate moss gardens. And you're unlikely to see more than a handful of fellow hikers. The trail ends at an overlook with panoramic views toward the Henry Mountains and beyond.

Capitol Reef also contains pockets of whimsical rock formations. In the southern district, the Golden Throne and Chimney Rock loom like fortresses guarding the land. The Egypt Temple treats hikers to petrified dunes and sphinx-like rocks hewn by the elements. And the Chocolate Drops showcase bulbous domes striped in alternating shades of red, gold and chocolate.

For a dose of the park's geologic past, take the 3-mile Fremont River Trail to view petrified wood. Where a lush forest once thrived 170 million years ago, massive logs now lie permanently preserved in stone amidst Capitol Reef's arid landscapes. It's a surreal peek into deep history at this geologically captivating park. As one Tripadvisor user described:

"The rock layers at Capitol Reef tell an incredible story about the natural history of the region. I was blown away learning about the geology on display and seeing it unfold all around me. Definitely take time to understand what you’re seeing to appreciate the park on a deeper level."

To truly immerse yourself in Capitol Reef's geological wonders, consider backpacking or car camping. Pitch a tent in remote backcountry sites like Upper Muley Twist Canyon or the Halls Creek Narrows where you'll have majestic cliffs all to yourself. Or stay at the peaceful Fruita Campground surrounded by cactus and cottonwoods. At night the stars blaze bright, reminding you of your tiny place in the universe. As another visitor recounted:

"Camping at Capitol Reef gave us the chance to experience the park at its most magnificent. During the day we were awestruck by the rock layers, canyons, name it. Then at night we stargazed into one of the darkest skies I've ever seen. It was beyond humbling to witness the beauty of this geologic wonderland."

Escape the Crowds: 6 Stunning Alternative Parks That Rival the Most Popular U.S. National Parks - Discover Diverse Landscapes in Big Bend National Park

Tucked into the elbow of southwest Texas along the Mexican border, Big Bend National Park unfurls incredibly diverse and captivating landscapes within its 800,000 remote acres. From the forested Chisos Mountains to the parched Chihuahuan Desert to scenic canyons carved by the Rio Grande, Big Bend encapsulates a true microcosm of the American West.

Yet despite its treasures, Big Bend entertains just a fraction of the visitors who mob parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. In 2019 around 440,000 people explored here, compared to Zion’s nearly 4.5 million visitors. For adventurous travelers, the park’s low attendance means the freedom to immerse yourself in nature without fighting crowds.

In Big Bend, you can embark on a backcountry trek and camp for days without seeing another soul. Or witness a fiery sunrise over the Sierra del Carmen peaks shining red in the dawn light. Listen to coyotes yipping under endless night skies untouched by light pollution. And marvel at the myriad landscapes unfurling before you in this Texas-sized park.

A crown jewel of Big Bend is the 7,825-foot Emory Peak in the Chisos Mountains. Sky Island mountains separated from other ranges, the Chisos seem to erupt from the desert floor. Hike 5.5 miles from the Chisos Basin trailhead to Emory Peak, climbing over 3000 feet through stark mountain scenery. The final push up exposed rock requires scrambling on all fours. But you’ll forget the challenge when you reach the peak with boundless views of desert and mountain wilds.
In the Chisos Basin, mist-draped mornings give way to sunny skies and pleasant temperatures - a delightful contrast from the desert heat. Hike the popular Lost Mine Trail through leafy oak, juniper and pine forests past panoramas of craggy peaks. Or opt for the secluded trails of Boot Canyon passing shady cottonwood groves and trickling springs. At night, thin air and little light pollution create phenomenal stargazing. Gaze up at the Milky Way blazing across the inky sky from one of the Chisos campgrounds.

Venturing east, mile upon mile of creosote bush, cactus, yucca, and desert grasslands stretch toward the horizon. While barren at first glance, life flourishes here for those who know where to look. Visit Rattlesnake Canyon where bizarre ocotillo plants seem to stand guard with spiky spears. Watch roadrunners dart between flowering cactus and yucca. Listen for the musical song of canyon wrens echoing off sandstone walls.

As you near the Rio Grande, its presence becomes known through the lush microclimates it nurtures. At Santa Elena Canyon, limestone cliffs soar 1500 feet above the churning green river. Hike the 1.7-mile trail into the canyon’s cool shadows, where you might spot painted buntings flitting through riverside thickets.

Or take in sweeping views of the Rio Grande from the Panther Junction overlook and pay respect to the nearby Panther Rock. This sacred site is covered in 5,000 year old pictographs left by the Jumano people, who once populated this harsh yet beautiful landscape. Their faded red and yellow rock art serves as a reminder that humans have long found meaning in Big Bend’s spirit of adventure and timeless beauty.

To immerse yourself in Big Bend’s diversity, shoulder your pack and head into the backcountry. With over 200 miles of trails, options abound from the lush voids of the Chisos to the stark sun-baked expanses of the desert lowlands. Arrange a river trip through Boquillas Canyon, where towering walls close in around the swirling Rio Grande. Or take the Outer Mountain Loop, a challenging 30-mile trek into the park's isolation. Ford waist-deep creeks, camp beneath the stars, listen for mountain lion screams at dusk. However you choose to experience Big Bend, its wild ethos sinks into your spirit.

As one Tripadvisor user described: “Big Bend amazed me with its diversity packed into such a remote corner of Texas. I'll never forget backpacking along the South Rim, where one sweeping vista displayed the Chisos peaks, desert expanse, and the Rio Grande carving through canyonlands. The views just went on forever.”

Another visitor recounted: “We had an incredible trip to Big Bend in late February. Stayed at the Chisos Campground and were treated to the most insane night skies I've ever seen...No light pollution plus high elevation meant the stars were absolutely mind-blowing. Definitely a highlight of visiting this underrated gem.”

Despite its treasures, the remote location and limited services likely contribute to keeping crowds at bay. But for those looking to immerse themselves in genuine wilderness and discover landscapes that shift from mountains to desert all in one Texas-sized park, Big Bend promises adventure, solitude, and natural beauty awaiting. As one Tripadvisor user noted:

“The fact that Big Bend sees relatively few visitors compared to other national parks is a selling point, not a deterrent. We backpacked for 3 days and didn't see a single person. Just unforgettable vistas and nature for days. It's an incredible park!”

In the high desert of Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park protects over 5,000 archaeological sites left by the ancestral Puebloan people, who inhabited the land from 600 to 1300 CE. They built elaborate cliff dwellings beneath the overhanging rocks, which remain remarkably intact. Today these sites offer a portal back through time, showcasing the remains of an ancient civilization.

Though not as popular as parks in Utah, Mesa Verde sees only a fraction of the crowds at places like Zion and Arches National Parks. In 2019 around 542,000 people visited. For history buffs and culture lovers, that means the opportunity to contemplate the past in peace amongst the well-preserved ruins.

The most iconic site is the immaculate Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. This grand structure housed around 100 people in 150 rooms and 21 kivas – subterranean rooms likely used for religious rituals. Intricately carved sandstone walls curve with the cavern’s contours, balanced delicately above the canyon floor. Circle kivas, peaked doorways, earth-toned masonry, and geometric rock art hint at the Puebloan way of life centuries ago.

To protect Cliff Palace from overtourism, ranger-guided tours here operate on a lottery system from April to October. But in the off season from November to March, visitors can enter the site without a ticket and linger over its ancient secrets. Enjoy the freedom to observe soot-blackened ceilings, peer into dusty kivas, and photograph the phenomenal architecture in this off the beaten path window through time.

Beyond Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde contains over 600 other archaeological wonders awaiting exploration. At Balcony House, climb steep wooden ladders, crawl through tight tunnels, and scoot along precipitous ledges to enter the 40-room dwelling tucked beneath an alcove. Peer out the openings at panoramic canyon views 700 feet below. This adventurous tour provides a tactile sense of ancient Puebloan life.
The 1-mile Petroglyph Point Trail guides you past panels displaying intricate rock art left by the ancestral Puebloans. See swirling patterns, animal designs, human forms, geometric shapes and handprints staining the desert varnish. These symbols likely held spiritual significance, serving as prayers, messages, or records of hunts and events. They open a window into the Puebloan belief system centered around nature and the elements.

For sweeping canyon perspectives, take the 2.4-mile Spruce Canyon Trail. Wander above Spruce Tree House overlooking grassy hills and sculpted canyon walls. Capture the local geography that drew early Puebloans to the safety of these sheltered alcoves high above the canyons.

Or visit Step House, perched beneath a sheltered rock ledge. Here you can clamber up a prehistoric Puebloan stairway made of hand and footholds carved into the stone. Standing in a dwelling space scarcely big enough to fit a double bed, one visitor remarked: “It was surreal to see how these people lived inside such small quarters carved into the rocks. Definitely gives you perspective on the simple, tough lives the Puebloans endured.”

A trip to Mesa Verde isn’t complete without wandering through Spruce Tree House, the park's best-preserved cliff dwelling. Accessible via a short loop trail, you can observe multiple kivas, roasting pits, and living spaces up close. Imagine waking at dawn to warm your feet by the fire, grinding corn with stone tools, and gathering on the kiva benches for meetings and ceremonies. Real life unfolded here over 700 years ago, now freeze-framed in stone.

To fully absorb Mesa Verde’s magic, stay overnight or reserve campsites at nearby Morefield Campground. In the evening when crowds thin, sit amidst the dwellings as the sun sets. Listen for whistling winds and envision flickering fires glowing in kiva hearths centuries ago. By night the clear high-altitude skies sparkle with stars that the ancestral Puebloans also revered. And in the stillness, Mesa Verde’s ancient soul comes alive.

One Tripadvisor user described their overnight experience: “Staying inside the park at night was phenomenal. We were some of the only people left at Cliff Palace at sunset. As the shadows grew, the ruins took on such an incredible, ghostly, spiritual feeling. Definitely schedule your visit to experience Mesa Verde after the day crowds leave.”

Another visitor recounted: “I’ll never forget watching the sunrise over Cliff Palace on a cold, clear morning in October. Seeing the buildings materialize from the shadows in the golden dawn light with no one else around was just magical beyond words. A truly spiritual experience.”

Despite its wealth of historic sites, Mesa Verde escapes the heavy crowds of other Southwest national parks thanks to its remote location in Southwest Colorado. But for those fascinated by ancient cultures, a visit here transports you back 800 years through immersive architecture. Wander abandoned rooms that once housed generations of families, gaze up at their celestial murals, and ponder the rhythms of a long-lost world.
As one Tripadvisor user raved: “Mesa Verde was the highlight of our entire trip to the Southwest. Being able to walk right up and touch the incredible masonry, pictographs, and petroglyphs is such a mind-blowing history lesson. Seeing the ingenuity and culture of the ancestral Puebloans come alive through these dwellings gave me chills.”

Another visitor agreed: “This park exceeded my expectations significantly. The amount of access visitors have to wander through the unbelievable cliff dwellings is incredible. It really sets Mesa Verde apart...Like stepping into a time machine back to the 13th century.”

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