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Seven Off-the-Beaten-Path National Parks to Avoid the Crowds

Off-the-Beaten-Path National Parks Updated: 04.01.2018

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.

Pink Anasazi ruins tucked into Mummy's Cave in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, one of our recommendations of off-the-beaten-path national parks and monuments.

Visiting Mummy’s Cave is just one of the rewards in Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

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.

Where to stay: Best Western Canyon de Chelly Inn or Thunderbird Lodge.

Sidewalk bordered by a brown fence travels along the base of El Morro's limestone cliff

Walk the path to discover Western graffiti at the base of El Morro’s limestone cliff.

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

Red sandstone cliffs border a hiking trial above the green river bottom in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

This red sandstone trail leads to the cooling waters of Lower Calf Creek Falls.

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.

Where to stay: Boulder Mountain Lodge or Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch.

Rhyolate formations covered in green moss stand tall along the trail at Chiricahua National Monument.

Hiking through the stone formations at Chiricahua National Monument.

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

Sunlight glows orange on the Cape Royal Drive at the Grand Canyon's North Rim.

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon offers a less crowded travel experience.

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

Blue skies accent a natural bridge that spans the trail at Natural Bridges National Monument.

One of many natural bridges that you can explore at Natural Bridges National Monument.

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

A river winds through the deep chasm at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

The view’s impressive on the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

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.

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.

Disclosure: Affiliate links are included for your convenience. However My Itchy Travel Feet receives a small percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you.

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