You already know our advice for avoiding crowded national park travel: don’t go during tourist season, which usually means summer. But sometimes you can’t avoid prime time. Maybe you’re traveling with the grandkids on a multigenerational summer vacation or, for whatever reason, it’s your time to travel. If you have no other choice except traveling during the busy season, Alan and I recommend beating the crowds by visiting off-the-beaten-path national parks or monuments.
We’re big fans of going where everyone else is not. So here are a few off-the-beaten-path national parks and monuments to get your travel planning started. Our favorites are mostly located in the Western U.S. because that’s where our road trips tend to focus but check the National Park Service site for more choices beyond major national parks.
Our Favorite Off-theBeaten-Path National Parks
Enjoy a Bumpy Ride in Canyon de Chelly
I’d much rather explore inside a canyon rather than peering over the edge at what’s below. That’s what you’ll do at Canyon de Chelly National Monument near Chinle, Arizona. This national monument is on Navajo land, so a local guide is required. Driving in and out of Chinle Wash is part of the fun. Alan and I explored Canyon de Chelly on a four-wheel-drive adventure.
Discover Western Graffiti at El Morro
Alan and I discovered the graffiti-covered limestone cliffs of El Morro National Monument on a New Mexico Backroads Weekend Adventure. It’s a fascinating look at history that travels all the way back to prehistoric times. Read more: History’s Written in Stone at El Morro.
Explore Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Grand Staircase-Escalante is situated between Bryce and Capitol Reef national parks. Although the area in southern Utah is becoming better known, it’s vast enough to still feel uncrowded. Hike to a waterfall, explore slot canyons or challenge your four-wheel driving abilities, it’s your choice. Alan and I enjoyed Hiking to Lower Calf Creek Falls.
Walk With Stone Soldiers at Chiricahua National Monument
Here’s another Arizona canyon meant for exploring from the inside out. Hiking down through the rhyolite formations at Chiricahua National Monument is like walking with a troop of stone soldiers. The Apache’s called it “Land of Standing-Up Rocks,“ I call it hiking fun. Read more: Traveling Off-the-Beaten-Path in the Chiricahuas.
Escape to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon
A huge tourism draw in Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park certainly isn’t off-the-beaten-path. But a less touristy experience is available on the North Rim. It takes time and effort to reach our favorite side of the Grand Canyon but the journey’s worth it. We explain in North Rim: The Grand Canyon’s Other Side.
Look to the Sky at Natural Bridges
Whether you explore by the stars in the first official Dark Skies park, or hike through the stone bridges during the day, Natural Bridges National Monument offers an uncrowded alternative to Arches National Park just up the road. Located in southern Utah near Bluff, a visit is easily combined with a trip to Monument Valley. I write about our adventure in Fighting a Fear of Heights at Natural Bridges National Monument.
Visit the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison
This Colorado canyon offers dramatic views from its edge. Already considered an off-the-beaten-path national park, turn your trip up a notch by visiting the North Rim. Alan and I have fond memories of a flower-filled summer hike on the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Need help planning your next National Park Adventure? Check out our favorite travel experiences in our National Park Adventures page!
Don’t let predictions of a crowded national park keep you from visiting some of our country’s natural treasures. Plan ahead, seek alternatives to major parks and slow down to enjoy the moment, no matter who many other travelers are experiencing it with you.
Do you have favorite off-the-beaten-path national parks or monuments? Join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook or send us an email to ask a question or share your experience.