Updated 04.01.2019: When looking for national park adventures, Alan and I are on a mission to avoid the crowds. It seems that U.S. national parks are becoming more and more popular, which equates to traffic-congested roads and busy hiking trails.
I’m not sure if it’s the great press that national parks receive on social media, an improving economy that’s filling our pockets with more travel dollars or an increase in the world population. Whatever the reason, Alan and I are on the lookout for off-the-beaten-path national parks and monuments that are less crowded.
You already know our 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, Alan and I recommend beating the crowds by going off-the-beaten-path.
Our Favorite Off-theBeaten-Path National Parks
We’re big fans of traveling where everyone else is not. So here are itinerary ideas for uncrowded national parks to get your 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 check the National Park Service site for more choices beyond major 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, 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.
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.
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: Comfort Inn, Grants, New Mexcio
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.
Walk With Stone Soldiers at Chiricahua National Monument
Here’s another Arizona canyon meant for exploring from the inside out and they may be the only hikers that you see. 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: Sunglow Guest Ranch Resort
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.
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
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.
Where to stay: Desert Rose Resort & Cabins, Bluff, Utah
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. 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: Leroux Creek Inn
Need help planning your next National Park Adventure? Our National Park Travel Planner features the best online resources, guides and products. We update it frequently so be sure to click on through.
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.
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