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11 Great Alternatives to the Top National Parks

The glories of the national park system draw hundreds of millions of visitors each year, even in normal times.

But in this upside-down year, with the pandemic still limiting much travel in and outside the United States, it’s likely that the National Park Service’s 419 sites, 62 with a “national park” designation, will attract even more people looking to get away.

For potential park-goers who wish to avoid these crowds (and this season, who doesn’t?), one strategy is to skip the Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains and the other top 10 parks that typically receive the majority of visitors. There are alternatives that are still awe-inspiring for your summer and fall fresh-air retreats, ones that offer many of the Top Ten’s sights, sounds, wildlife and activities.

You may need to drive, either for safety or a lack of transit options, but these lesser-known crown jewels, all off the beaten path, are almost always mercifully free of the large groups and car traffic found in the more popular parks.

Wherever you decide to go, remember that this is a new world. As the majority of on-site visitor centers will remain closed, contacting the parks before your trip for up-to-date information and any necessary permits is highly recommended. For the parks’ main draws — the great outdoors — the reopenings are staggered and may be confusing; your desired destination may be limited to day-use, or welcome visitors during restricted hours or offer only backcountry camping. Local stores may be closed, too, so plan to bring food and all of your supplies. You might try camping to avoid crowded lodges, and even consider hauling a portable toilet. When you go, best to arrive early to avoid crowds, limited parking and the likelihood of being turned away at the gates.

But heading to a new park and taking these new and necessary precautions will be worth it: to breathe in the fresh air, stretch your legs in the woods, dip a paddle in the water and rejuvenate in the natural world.

South Carolina

Congaree, a park named after the original Native American inhabitants, was created in central South Carolina to preserve 15 different species of trees that are the tallest such specimens anywhere. These includes the most statuesque loblolly pine in the world, towering 167 feet above the surrounding tupelo forest. Tree lovers know Congaree, with only 159,445 visitors last year, as the Redwoods of the East — this year it’s worth forgetting about nearby Great Smoky Mountains and its 12 million-plus visitors.

Congaree reopened some of its hiking and paddling trails for day use on May 28, but the visitor center will remain closed until further notice. It’s best to experience this floodplain park — locals will bristle if you call it a swamp — on the water, paddling several different canoe trails or fishing for yellow perch or bass on its lakes. When the park offerings increase in its second phase of reopening, consider an overnight Congaree River paddle trip.

Congaree National Park | Operating Status | Hopkins, S.C. | (803) 776-4396


If you haven’t seen the Northern Lights, never mind Alaska. Instead, grab a camera and a paddle and head to Voyageurs National Park, named after the French Canadian canoeists who plied these waters three centuries ago. This park of lakes is 40 percent water and adjoins another 10,000 square miles of aquatic wilderness. Its remoteness, flanking the Canadian border in northern Minnesota, enables incredible stargazing opportunities all year long and an estimated 200 nights of Northern Lights (even in summer).

While the 341-square-mile park reopened in mid May, its three visitor centers are likely to remain closed all summer. However, houseboat and canoe rentals are available online, along with permits for camping among the park’s hundreds of islands. Most visitors, less than a quarter million per year, come to fish the more than 50 different finned species, play on the water or listen to loons yodeling across the mirrored waters.

Voyageurs National Park | Operating Status | International Falls, Minn. | (218) 283-6600


Reopening on this week, Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve features the highest dunes on the continent, towering 755 feet above the surrounding trails. These are set in an otherworldly catchment basin, below the 14,000-foot high Sangre de Cristo Mountains, some 200 miles south of Denver. All trails and one campground at this national park will be open, but overnight backcountry access and the visitor center remain closed.

Sand boarding and fat-tire mountain biking are popular on and among the dunes, as is horseback riding on surrounding trails. If you want another sight, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is 195 miles west, and features a spectacular half-mile-deep river gorge that recently reopened for day use. Both parks average less than a half-million visitors per year, one tenth the traffic of nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, a roughly four-hour drive away.

Great Sand Dunes National Park | Operating Status | Mosca, Colo. | (719) 378-6395


Opening for day use on June 1, this park in West Texas lies along the namesake curl of the Rio Grande, marking the Mexican border.

At this renowned dark-sky park, you can count more than 2,000 stars — 10 times the number typically seen above most cities — surrounding the canvas of the Milky Way. During the days, especially when temperatures cool in the fall and early winter, enjoy 150 miles of trails throughout the park. You might be joined by a bird watcher or two, who roam Big Bend’s 1,200 square miles to spot more than 400 avian species, more than in any national park. This collection includes seldom-seen Southern migrants, such as Lucifer hummingbirds, black-tailed gnatcatchers and Colima warblers.

Tens of thousands of fossils have also been discovered here. In 1971, fossil hunters poking around a dusty arroyo found a protruding bone belonging to a pterosaur with a 35-foot wing­span, now considered to have been the largest flying creature in the world.

If Big Bend is too crowded for your taste, consider driving 235 miles north to the scantly visited Guadalupe Mountains National Park, along the border of New Mexico. Below the park’s mountains, originally formed by an ancient sea reef, are 2,000 acres of shining, white gypsum and pale-red quartz sand dunes.

Big Bend National Park | Operating Status | Big Bend National Park, Texas | (432) 477-2251


In east-central Arizona, 110 miles from Flagstaff, the Petrified Forest adjoins the Painted Desert, 7,500 square miles of badlands and hills tinted lavender and red by Triassic Age strata. The annual visitation of this park is one-tenth that of the nearby Grand Canyon.

The Petrified Forest, a drive-through park, holds the greatest and most spectacular concentration of fossilized, coniferous tree logs in the world. Once a lush and subtropical climate, the forest of 200-foot-tall trees was buried by volcanic ash and preserved 225 million years ago. Now petrified into waxy, bright quartz, the tree pieces lay scattered across the Painted Desert, along with hundreds of plant and animal fossils, including dinosaurs, reptiles and ferns. The park also protects thousand-year-old Ancestral Puebloan rock art.

The park, reopened to limited day use in last month, has a 28-mile main road with turnoffs for viewpoints. Its visitor center and other facilities are likely to open after mid-June. There are few trails, so hiking cross-country with map and compass is the optimal way to take in and discover the splendors of this park’s primordial remains. Be sure not to leave with any petrified wood in your pocket, lest you become, as local legend claims, cursed for life.

Petrified Forest National Park | Operating Status | Petrified Forest, Ariz.| (928) 524-6228


Instead of ogling the sandstone formations in traffic-jammed Arches, opt for a wilderness desert experience amid the reddened Wingate sandstone in Canyonlands.

Canyonlands is southwest of the tourist mecca of Moab, Utah. Most visitors take the Island in the Sky scenic drive out to spectacular overlooks, but otherwise the 527-square-mile park has few roads.

Hardier souls go for multiday paddles down the gentle Green River, which, after its confluence with the Colorado, plunges into the maelstrom of Cataract Canyon. When the desert begins to cool in August, hikers and canyoneers can lose themselves to wonder on trails and backcountry routes that pass Ancestral Puebloan art sites and ruins. And though it’s not widely known, Canyonlands has its own natural sandstone arches (more than 80). You just have to walk a good distance to see them.

Restrooms will open at the end of May, along with backcountry trails for overnight use. But the two visitor centers remain closed until further notice.

Canyonlands National Park | Operating Status | Moab, Utah | (435) 719-2313


The “Grand Circle” marketing campaign pushed Utah’s national parks to record-setting visitations in recent years, but Great Basin — a few miles over the border in eastern Nevada — got left out of the loop. The 121-square-mile park is named after the enormous basin it sits in (spanning nearly all of Nevada, it is 20 times larger than the park), which pulls all water underground so that it can’t reach the ocean and other waterways.

  • Updated June 2, 2020

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

Yet this arid park has surprising diversity and, from cool caves as deep as 436 feet below ground to the 13,060-foot Wheeler Peak, a landscape like no other park you’ll visit.

During a hike up Wheeler Peak, you can commune with some of the oldest living trees on earth. (It was here that the most ancient tree ever recorded — a Bristlecone pine named Prometheus, at 4,862 years old — was cut down by a researcher in 1964 before the park had been created.)

The restrooms and park are open for day use only, with both visitor centers presently closed.

Great Basin National Park | Operating Status | Baker, Nev. | (775) 234-7331


In place of the crowded Yellowstone geysers or Yosemite mountains, a panorama of wildflowers, volcanic peaks and steaming fumaroles can be seen at Lassen Volcanic, 180 miles north of Sacramento. The 30-mile park highway reopened in late May, along with most of the trails and overnight backcountry camping.

The still-smoking, glacier-clad Lassen Peak is one of only two volcanoes in the contiguous 48 states that erupted in the 20th century (Mount St. Helens erupted 40 years ago last month). Today, more than 100 years after magma first flowed from the Lassen Peak, amateur volcanologists can delight in finding the remains of the four types of volcanoes: shield, cinder cone, strato and plug.

The 167-square-mile park is also crisscrossed with 150 miles of trails for day hikes or extended backcountry trips. These wind up through different plant zones to alpine lakes, and hikers can expect to see a wealth of wildlife, there are more than 300 vertebrate species alone.

If you fly fish or paddleboard, check out Manzanita Lake.

Lassen Volcanic National Park | Operating Status | Mineral, Calif. | (530) 595-4480

Washington state

Although still emerging from snow banks and currently open for only day use, North Cascades is typically one of the less-visited parks of the entire parks system, seeing less than 3 percent of Mount Rainier’s yearly traffic. Adjoining the Canadian border, 120 miles northeast of Seattle, this wilderness has only six miles of internal roads — all unpaved — and stretches over 1,000 square miles. It boasts 312 glaciers (12 times Mount Rainier’s), as well as more than 500 lakes and a lush carpet of old-growth evergreens. From its dry ponderosa pines in the east to the temperate rain forest in the west, this is landscape of tremendous biodiversity.

It’s also a great place to beat the heat, watch one of the most intact wildlife populations in the lower 48 (the huge and remote acreage still offers ideal habitats for all its original species.) But don’t forget to play, whether on day hikes or epic backpacking tours, perhaps peak bagging, fishing, boating or horseback riding.

North Cascades National Park | Operating Status | Sedro-Woolley, Wash. | (360) 854-7200

Jon Waterman, a former park ranger, is the author of National Geographic’s “Atlas of the National Parks” and 13 other books. He lives in Carbondale, Colo.

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