Beautiful and Less Crowded Alternatives to the 10 Most Popular U.S. National Parks

These alternatives to the most popular national parks offer geographic similarities and natural wonders with smaller crowds.
people with tent near Easy Pass in North Cascades National Park
(Photo: NPS)

National parks are popular for a reason but with visitation numbers growing each year, some travelers might be looking toward similar experiences with less of the hassle that comes with visiting a top 10 national park. 

I’m Ashley, and I’ve been covering travel and the outdoor space for nearly a decade. Every year, the National Park Service releases annual visitation numbers from the previous year, and as a travel expert and journalist, I think it’s a helpful tool to use when researching national park travel. 

The most visited national parks generally remain the same year to year with some variance due to weather and other events. In 2023, two parks rose to top 10 status, Grand Teton and Olympic, which were further down in visitation in 2022. 

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To help recommend some alternative destinations to the most visited national parks, I talked to Erin Ruane from RV Trader to get her takes on locations that give you the same feel and opportunity for similar activities. 

Instead of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Visit…

Cherokee, North Carolina's Mingo Falls
Mingo Falls in the Qualla Boundary, lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Photo: Raven’s Eye Media)

With nearly 13.3 million visitors last year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP for short) saw 14 percent of the visits across all national parks. There’s so much to see in the surrounding areas that you can get a similar feel and activity offerings just outside the park. 

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To avoid the crowds and parking fees of GSMNP, Ruane recommends visiting Cherokee, North Carolina, which is home to the park’s quieter entrance, Oconaluftee: “Cherokee is home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, one of three recognized Cherokee tribes in the U.S. While it’s a sovereign nation, visitors are invited to experience the area’s culture through arts and crafts shopping, native elk viewing, and historic attractions.”

More options: 

  • Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina
  • Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina 
  • Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Instead of Grand Canyon National Park, Visit…

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park with view of river
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Photo: NPS)

I love the Grand Canyon for families, but there’s no getting around its crowds at popular times of year given that the park attracts 4.7 million annual visitors.

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Ruane recommends another large canyon in Arizona, Sycamore, which is the state’s inaugural designated wilderness area. Ruane loves the canyon’s “vibrant cliffs, towering pinnacles, and desert riparian zones, providing a habitat for diverse wildlife, including black bears, mountain lions, and various other creatures. Encompassed by the Prescott, Kaibab, and Coconino National Forests, key attractions within the wilderness include Sycamore Falls and the Paradise Forks climbing crag.”

More options: 

  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado 
  • Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
  • Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Instead of Zion National Park, Visit…

Snow Canyon State Park near Zion National Park
(Snow Canyon State Parks is one of the amazing spots near Zion Photo: Ashley Rossi)

Zion can be a fickle national park to visit between crowds and weather, you really have to time your visit right to have a go at popular hikes like Angels Landing and the Narrows. 

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Instead of competing with the parks annual 4.6 million visitors, consider activities in the surrounding Greater Zion area, like the Belly of the Dragon hike (bring a flashlight or headlamp), Red Hollow Slot Canyon, and Kanab Sand Caves: “These experiences not only involve a moderate hike but also provide opportunities to enhance your agility. The blend of natural wonders and man-made formations within these sites offers breathtaking views of canyons, creating a genuine sense of adventure as you navigate through captivating caverns,” says Ruane.

More options: 

  • Canyonlands National Park, Utah
  • Snow Canyon State Park, Utah
  • Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Instead of Yellowstone National Park, Visit…

Kayaking on the South Fork of the Madison River, West Yellowstone
Spots like the South Fork of the Madison River in West Yellowstone deliver lots of outdoor adventures (Photo: Eric Melzer Photography courtesy of Visit Montana)

Yellowstone’s geothermal features and wildlife make it one of the most popular parks in the U.S. with nearly 4.5 million annual visitors. 

But the park’s surrounding area offers other similar activities, like in West Yellowstone: “West Yellowstone is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, boasting ATV, UTV and snowmobile trails, fly fishing, and whitewater rafting. The southern Montana town also has year-round family friendly events and restaurants serving up regional specialities,” recommends Ruane.

More options:

  • Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
  • Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota 

Instead of Rocky Mountain National Park, Visit…

View of Crater Lake during the day
Crater Lake National Park showcases mountains and water in the West (Photo: NPS)

With 4.1 million annual visitors and timed entry passes required during peak season, Rocky Mountain National Park has plenty of alternatives that offer similar activities and geography with more flexibility in planning. 

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Ruane recommends the nearby, 1.5-million-acre Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests: “Renowned for outdoor recreational activities such as hiking, camping, and fishing, the forest offers numerous trails and campsites. Visitors can explore the Indian Peaks Wilderness, enjoy scenic drives along the Cache la Poudre River, and witness diverse wildlife.”

More options: 

  • Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
  • Pinnacles National Park, California

Instead of Yosemite National Park, Visit…

view of a giant sequoia and the Giant Forest Museum as seen from a distance in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
The Giant Forest Museum looks small compared to the giants of the forest (Photo: NPS)

California’s crown jewel of a national park attracts nearly 3.9 million visitors every year and requires seasonal entrance passes that need to be reserved in advance. 

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A little over 2 hours south, you’ll find Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks that offer similar landscapes and activities to Yosemite: “Sequoia, situated in California’s Sierra Nevada, is renowned for its towering sequoia trees, including the iconic General Sherman Tree, the largest living tree on Earth … Kings Canyon, adjacent to Sequoia, is characterized by the impressive Kings Canyon, one of the deepest in North America. The park offers a mix of rugged terrain, waterfalls, and scenic canyons. Notable attractions include Zumwalt Meadows, Roaring River Falls, and the majestic Kings Canyon Scenic Byway,” says Ruane.

Instead of Acadia National Park, Visit…

Bar Harbor main street with whale watching boat in the background
Bar Harbor’s downtown (Photo: Dobbs Productions and Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce)

As the only national park in the Northeast, Maine’s Acadia National Park attracts nearly 3.9 million visitors each year.

While it’s the getaway to the national park, Bar Harbor offers plenty to do without needing to enter Acadia: “The town boasts an array of quaint shops and diverse restaurants, providing a perfect setting for leisurely strolls and exploration. The waterfront views are especially captivating, providing a backdrop of rugged coastline and serene harbors. Bar Harbor’s welcoming atmosphere and proximity to Acadia make it an ideal base for those seeking a balance between outdoor adventures and charming coastal experiences,” says Ruane.

More options: 

  • Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, Vermont
  • Voyageurs National Park National Park, Minnesota
  • White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire 

Instead of Grand Teton National Park, Visit…

Snake River whitewater rafting in Wyoming near Grand Teton National Park
The Snake River has relaxing float trips and whitewater options (Photo: kyle vosmus courtesy of the Wyoming Office of Tourism)

Wyoming’s Grand Teton saw 3.4 million annual visitors, adding it to the top 10 list of most visited parks this year.

Instead, Ruane recommends visiting the nearby Snake River, located in the Jackson Hole valley: “A scenic float trip allows for a leisurely drift along the river, providing breathtaking views of the Teton Range and opportunities for wildlife spotting. Alternatively, adrenaline seekers can embark on thrilling whitewater rafting adventures, navigating the river’s rapids for an exciting and immersive experience.”

More options: 

  • Curt Gowdy State Park, Wyoming
  • Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, Colorado and Wyoming
  • Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

Instead of Joshua Tree National Park, Visit…

Channel Island National Park; view of island and Pacific
Channel Islands National Park is a great Southern California alternative to Joshua Tree (Photo: Ashley Rossi)

Southern California’s Joshua Tree is a popular location for weekend trips from Los Angeles and shoulder season travel seeing about 3.3 million visitors each year.

To the southeast you’ll find the state’s largest lake, the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, where there’s “birdwatching, fishing, and exploration of the lake’s distinct desert landscapes. The area’s diverse ecosystem attracts a variety of bird species, making it a haven for birdwatchers,” says Ruane.

More options: 

  • Big Bend National Park, Texas
  • Channel Islands National Park, California
  • Mojave National Preserve, California

Instead of Olympic National Park, Visit…

Ranger looking out at the North Cascades terrain from the Sourdough Fire Lookout in North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park is a great alternative to the busier Olympic National Park (Photo: NPS)

The Washington park went from the 14th most visited park in 2022 to the 10th in 2023, seeing nearly 2.9 million annual visitors.

Enjoy similar landscapes nearby at Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, near Port Angeles: “Visit the Dungeness Spit, a unique sand spit that extends into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It’s a great place for birdwatching and enjoying the coastal scenery,” recommends Ruane.

More options: 

  • North Cascades National Park, Washington 
  • Redwood National and State Parks, California
  • Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forest, California and Oregon

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Ashley Rossi
Ashley is the former Managing Editor at Togo RV and a former Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. You’ll find her stories online at Charlotte’s Got A Lot, NextAdvisor with TIME, Tripadvisor, USA Today, FamilyVacationist, and other publications. She's also appeared on radio shows like NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. Ashley graduated from Boston University's College of Communications with a degree in journalism and psychology.