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.
Congaree, instead of Great Smoky Mountains
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.
Voyageurs National Park, instead of Glacier Bay
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.
Great Sand Dunes or Black Canyon, instead of Rocky Mountain
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.
Big Bend or the Guadalupe Mountains, instead of a trip to Mexico
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 Bib 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.
Petrified Forest, instead of the Grand Canyon
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.
Canyonlands, instead of Arches
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.
Great Basin, instead of the Grand Circle
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.
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.
Lassen Volcanic, instead of Yellowstone or Yosemite
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.
North Cascades, instead of Mount Rainier
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.
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.