Are you looking for the best off-the-beaten path national parks to visit? One of this country’s greatest national treasures, the National Park Service is experiencing a boom in visitation.
I’m not sure if it’s the great press that national parks receive on social media, a bigger interest in exploring the United States, or an increase in the world population, but the park crowds have arrived in force.
Even parks like Glacier National Park in Montana, which used to be considered an out-of-the-way park, are seeing huge increases in visitors. This has resulted in entrance tickets, shuttle buses, and other crowd control efforts.
Long time readers of My Itchy Travel Feet already know my advice for avoiding national park crowds: 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, I recommend beating the crowds by going off-the-beaten-path.
Our favorite off-the-beaten-path National Parks and Monuments
When looking for national park adventures, Alan and I are on a mission to avoid the crowds. Our favorite national parks in the United States are becoming more and more popular, which equates to traffic-congested roads and busy hiking trails.
That’s not for us! So Alan and I are on the lookout for off-the-beaten-path national parks and monuments that are less crowded.
Are you like us? If so, here are itinerary ideas for uncrowded national parks, monuments and lakeshores to get your national park travel planning started.
Our favorites are mostly located in the Western U.S. because that’s where our boomer road trips tend to focus. But our guest writers have introduced us to many other fun choices. Of course, I’ve included them. You might also check the National Park Service site for more ideas beyond major national parks.
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Visit Crater Lake National Park in late May or early June
On a summer visit to Crater Lake National Park you’ll be accompanied by other visitors. But there’s a short window of opportunity in spring and early summer for a less crowded trip.
I recommend visiting Crater Lake National Park in May or early June. On our trip, Alan and I enjoyed a beautiful lake surrounded by a snowy landscape. Fun photography!
Most of the hiking trails weren’t open, but we saw folks snowshoeing some of them. One of the highlights was walking Rim Road before it was open to vehicular traffic. Of course we could have explored it on bikes like some of the other visitors.
Where to stay: Crater Lake Lodge in the park. We scored a last-minute reservation, probably because the park was not fully open. Maybe you will, too!
Take a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park
Reachable only by ferry, chartered catamaran or float plane, Dry Tortugas definitely qualifies as an out-of-the-way national park. But this is one Florida Keys day trip that’s worth it.
Erika Nelson shares tips for a Dry Tortugas National Park day trip. In her article, you’ll learn about the ferry ride to the park on the Yankee Freedom III as well as what to do while you’re there. Enjoy exploring a picturesque Civil War Fort followed by snorkeling in crystal blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Where to stay: I recommend staying in a Key West Hotel for your day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park. Camping overnight on Dry Tortugas is another option, but you’ll need to reserve a spot well in advance.
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, especially after Utah tourism’s Mighty 5 campaign, the monument is 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, driving the Burr Trail and exploring the Devil’s Garden.
However we visited the week before Memorial Day and it was busy. Plan ahead because you won’t find last-minute accommodations. And, in summer, plan for hot weather.
Watch the bears at Katmai National Park
A visit to the remote Katmai National Park is an Alaska adventure that I want to experience. My Itchy Travel Feet featured contributor, Debi Lander, reports on her trip to Kodiak Island to watch the bears.
While the lodge at Brooks Falls is the ultimate Alaskan bear watching experience, Debi opted for a more budget-friendly approach. Headquartering in Kodiak, Debi booked a day trip to Katmai’s Geographic Harbor. Boy, did she see bears!
Debi shares her experience in her article on Kodiak Island Bear Watching.
Where to stay: Make your headquarters in Kodiak. Search for lodging here.
Escape to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park
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 my favorite side of the Grand Canyon but the journey’s worth it. I explain in North Rim: The Grand Canyon’s Other Side.
Plan your visit between May and late September because the North Rim closes when the snow begins. Lodging is scarce and books early so don’t procrastinate making a reservation.
Where to stay: Grand Canyon Lodge
Explore New River Gorge National Park
Meet the new park on the block: New River Gorge National Park! While most travelers to the Southeast head for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the savvy boomer will seek out the uncrowded vistas in West Virginia’s New River Gorge.
Want to go? James Richardson shares tips for active fun in New River Gorge National Park. From hiking (the Thurmond to Minden trail leads to a ghost town) to whitewater rafting the rapids of the New River, active travelers will find plenty to do. And then there’s the tour over the famous New River Gorge Bridge.
Where to stay: The Resort at Glade Springs is a good choice. Prefer a bed and breakfast? Consider the Historic Morris Harvey House in Fayetteville. For a stay of more than 1 or 2 days, book a cabin or chalet.
Discover John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
Most folks travel to Oregon for the beautiful coastline or to visit the mighty peaks of the Cascade Mountain Range. They forget all about eastern Oregon. That’s a mistake because that means they miss out exploring John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
When Alan and I visited, we enjoyed a short hike on Island in Time Trail at Blue Basin. And we could have spent hours at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Instituted located in the visitor center.
Next time, we’ll include the Painted Hills and the Clarno Unit on the itinerary. Spring or fall would be a great time to return (summer is too hot for us).
Where to stay: The Best Western John Day Inn in the town of John Day is the closest accommodations to the national monument. The Riverside Schoolhouse Bed and Breakfast in Prairie City is another good choice (but requires more driving). We’ve enjoyed stays in both.
Hike Big Bend National Park
Located on the rugged southern border of Texas, Big Bend National Park is definitely isolated. And very hot in the summer. It also takes effort to arrive at the park, one of the reasons you won’t find crowds.
Known for geographic diversity and an abundance of wildlife, Deborah Lonargen and her husband came to Big Bend to hike. She shares her experience in Hiking Adventure in Big Bend National Park.
Where to stay: Chisos Mountain Lodge is the only lodging available within Big Bend National Park.
Enjoy Shenandoah National Park
When visiting the eastern U.S., you may be tempted to spend all of your time in Great Smoky Mountains National Park or on the Blue Ridge Parkway (part of the national park system). Don’t make the mistake of ignoring Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
This long, narrow park travels along the Blue Ridge Mountains. With miles of trails (over 500), it’s an outdoor paradise for active baby boomers.
Suzan L. Jackson shares six of her favorite Shenandoah National Park hiking trails. Yes, waterfalls and views are included.
Where to stay: Big Meadows Lodge, located within the park, makes a lovely headquarters.
Experience a Bumpy Ride in Canyon de Chelly National Monument
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, which helps with crowd control. In fact, on a summer visit, you may see more sheep than people.
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.
Admire Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
I’ll be honest. Some reports say that Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan is being loved to death. However I’ve included it on this list of US national parks that aren’t crowded with the caveat that you avoid prime time (middle of summer).
Relatively unknown to many national park visitors, Pictured Rocks can be experienced on foot or from the water. Alan and I have certainly added this picturesque national lakeshore to our to do list.
Jim Tobalski shares his tips for exploring Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Discover Western Graffiti at El Morro National Monument
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.
We visited in early June and practically had the place to ourselves. It’s really true that History’s Written in Stone at El Morro.
And while you’re in the area, hike the volcanic trails at El Malpais National Monument. But avoid any off-road explorations if the dirt roads are wet or there’s rain in the forecast. You’ll get stuck and the tow truck won’t pull you out anytime soon.
Where to stay: Best Western Grants Inn, Grants, New Mexico
Explore Capitol Reef National Park, a less crowded Utah national park
When Alan and I arrived at the edge of Capitol Reef National Park while driving the Burr Trail, we made a pact to return to this less-crowded national park in Utah. Unfortunately for us, our Highway 12 road trip didn’t include enough time for a visit.
While we haven’t made it yet, Kate Convissor did. Her boomer travel tips for Capitol Reef National Park will get you started hiking, four-wheel adventuring and exploring this stunning national park.
Where to stay: Capitol Reef Resort in Torrey, UT is 30 miles from Capitol Reef (and some of the closest accommodations). The resort also has a restaurant, Pioneer Kitchen, making it very convenient for this isolated area of Utah. A vacation rental is another good option as there is so much to explore in the area. That’s what Alan and I plan to do on our next Utah road trip.
Appreciate Misty Fjords National Monument from the air or the water
Alan and I have visited Misty Fjords National Monument twice. Our first experience was during a cruise to Alaska. When the ship called on Ketchikan, we opted for a seaplane tour of Misty Fjords to get away from the hordes of cruisers.
Our second time in Misty Fjords was during a small ship cruise with UnCruise. On a zodiac ride, Alan and I joined a couple of other guests to explore the national monument. Darting inside of a large sea cave to see starfish and other sea creatures was my favorite part of the adventure.
Where to stay: For accommodations “in” Misty Fjords National Monument, a fishing lodge is your best choice. When on UnCruise, our group took a seaplane over to Yes Bay Lodge. You’ll arrive to a location deep in the Tongass National Forest, 50 miles from Ketchikan, for great fishing and hiking.
Walk With Stone Soldiers at Chiricahua National Monument
Here’s another Arizona canyon meant for exploring from the inside out and you may be the only hikers around. 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.
If you enjoy traveling Off-the-Beaten-Path in the Chiricahuas, this one’s for you. And while you’re in the area stop by Fort Bowie National Historic Site.
Where to stay: Wilcox is the closest town. Start your search here. Sadly, our favorite, Sunglow Ranch, is no longer in business.
Look to the Sky at Natural Bridges National Monument
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 in Utah offers an uncrowded alternative to Arches National Park just up the road.
Visit the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
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. Talk about one of the less crowded national park—we saw a handful of people. Bonus points: Paonia, one of Colorado’s coolest mountains is located close by.
Where to stay: We stayed Leroux Creek Inn in Hotchkiss. Sadly, it’s no longer in business as a bed and breakfast. Check other choices here.
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Here’s a Wyoming national park adventure that Alan and I have been wanting to experience. Bighorn Canyon National Recreation actually spans two states: Wyoming (Southern district) and Montana (Northern district). But they aren’t connected by any roads.
Teresa Otto shares tips on how to explore Bighorn Canyon on the Wyoming side. You’ll learn about the great kayaking, hiking and scenic views this out-of-the-way area offers. There are also wild horses to see in the Pryor Mountains.
Where to stay: Limited lodging is available in Lovell, Wyoming.
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Although our selections may not be included on any least visited national parks list, they are relatively uncrowded. But 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 how many other travelers are experiencing it with you.
Off-the-Beaten-Path National Parks wish list
Yes, Alan and I have a wish list of national parks we’d still like to experience. And, you guessed it, they are all off-the-beaten-path. Here’s our current list:
Great Basin National Park, Nevada. Visit Lehman Caves, hike one of the many trails or drive Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. You’ll see bristlecone pine trees!
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota. This is a park to explore on boat or foot. Some hiking trails are reached by road, but others require a boat to get there. Or you could wait until winter and snowshoe. Known as a water-based park, most folks explore Voyageurs from the water: boat tour, kayak, or seaplane.
North Cascades National Park, Washington. Alan and I have both driven State Route 20 through the park (but not together). We’d like to return for the more moderate hikes. And I have always wanted to take the Lake Chelan Boat Ferry from Chelan to Stehekin for a fun day trip into the Stehekin Valley.
Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota. Hike the rolling prairie trails. Drive the Wind Cave geology tour into the scenic Black Hills. Wildlife watching is a big part of this park experience. You’ll see bison and possible sightings of elk herds, prairie dogs and owls that burrow into the ground. Of course taking a park ranger-led cave tour is a must.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas. With a varied landscape of mountains, canyons, desert, and even sand dunes, Guadalupe is a feast for the eyes. Of course there are hikes to experience as well as visiting abandoned ranch houses. Avoid a summer visit due to the heat. Instead, plan a fall trip to see Guadalupe Mountains National Park decked out in autumn hues.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado. Home to the tallest sand dunes in North America, of course you’ll want to go sand sledding when visiting. But after you’re sandy fun is done, there are still hikes to take, a four-wheel-drive on Medano Pass Road to experience and night skies to admire.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska. America’s largest national park and a World Heritage Site, requires planning. Day hikes can be found in a region that’s divided into three areas: Copper Center, McCarthy Road and Kennecott, and Nabesna Road. Or you could drive McCarthy Road to visit mining history at Kennecott (don’t drive this road in a rental). You’ll probably get the most out of joining a guided tour or exploring by sightseeing plane.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California. Unfortunately, as of August 2021, the entire park is closed due to the Dixie Fire that’s active on the east side of the park. As I’ve learned from living in the West, forest fires don’t mean that the entire region is destroyed. When Lassen reopens, some easy explorations include driving Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway, visiting Sulphur Works or taking an easy hike around Manzanita Lake.