Looking to escape the crowds and still get that big National Park experience? These eight suggestions will help you do just that.

By Abby Epperson

2020 was an incredibly busy year for our National Parks, with attendance at an all-time high, and it looks like 2021 is shaping up to be much of the same. If you are looking for a National Park vacation that’s got the wows you’d expect from Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon, but you’d like to avoid the big crowds that come with those parks, then read on and find your park today.

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Photo: Our Wandering Family

Theodore Roosevelt National Park | 91st most visited NPS site

North Dakota has discovered that most Americans with a plan to visit all 50 states end up in the “Peace Garden State” last. So much so that they encourage it by inviting people who visit North Dakota last to the “Best for Last” club. If you stop at the Fargo visitor center, you get a free T-shirt. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, near Medora, is the most visited destination in the state, but it’s still rarely crowded. Especially if you make the trek to the more remote North Unit. Here you’ll find the same wind-swept vistas and epic sunsets that a lot of western national parks boast — and it’s an excellent place to find bison and wild horses. When Theodore Roosevelt’s wife and mother died on the same day, the day of his daughter’s birth, Teddy came to this place to rehabilitate his spirit. It’ll do the same for you. 

Dinosaur National Monument | 135th most visited NPS site

National Monuments often get overlooked just due to the lack of the “National Park” moniker, but many of our country’s national monuments rival our best national parks in every category, whether it be size, wildlife, scenery, or recreation. Dinosaur National Monument, on the border of Northern Utah and Colorado, is a perfect example. It’s a mountainous landscape known for its dinosaur bones, of course, but it’s also home to cavernous canyons, petroglyphs, dramatic trails, and world-class whitewater rafting along the Green and Yampa rivers. 

Wind Cave National Park | 101st most visited NPS site

Lots of national parks get overlooked because they’re named after one feature. Most of our cave-related parks, especially, have so much more to offer. Wind Cave National Park is an excellent place to visit the Black Hills of South Dakota without all the hustle and bustle of Custer State Park or Mount Rushmore. It’s home to excellent trails, meadows full of elk, and is one of the best places to see Bison without having to deal with the Yellowstone traffic jams. There are several dirt park service roads that will help you find more removed areas of the park. And it even has it’s own gateway community, the town of Hot Springs, South Dakota. Hot Springs won’t be full of tourists blocking the sidewalks but still offers lodging, coffee shops, and attractions. 

Photo: Our Wandering Family

Voyageurs National Park | 136th most visited NPS site

Voyageurs National Park is a trek to get to – it’s on the Canadian/Minnesota border. It’s a maze of interconnected waterways that you really need to get on a boat to see. The park operates tour boats that take you out to several islands, and you can rent your own. Several commercial campgrounds surrounding the park have canoes to rent, and you can even camp on many of the islands if you’re of the tenting variety, or want to rent a houseboat. When you’re not out on the water, there’s quite a bit of shoreline trail. It’s one of the best places in America to see moose, nesting bald eagle pairs, and even the occasional northern lights.

Photo: Our Wandering Family

Mesa Verde National Park | 130th most visited NPS site

Mesa Verde National Park is known for its incredible early indigenous cliff dwellings. Hundreds of them. It was a veritable city at one point. But even if you’re not into cliff dwellings, this park has some dramatic vistas to please any park lover. We highly recommend the petroglyph trail, which will have you squeezing through stone hallways and scrambling up rocks along a magnificent canyon. 

Gila Cliff Dwellings and Gila National Forest | 260th most visited NPS site

Speaking of cliff dwellings, in a remote New Mexico forest, you can find the Gila Cliff Dwellings, the least visited park service site on our list. The Gila park service site is really just a few hours’ visit, but it’s surrounded by nearly 1000 square miles of the Gila National Forest, which offers mountain lakes, scenic drives, deep canyons, and sprawling meadows. 

Photo: Our Wandering Family

Guadalupe Mountains National Park | 178th most visited NPS site

The Guadalupe Mountains are like no other, an ancient uplifted seabed still being revealed by erosion. Guadalupe is a hiker’s paradise in the far western corner of Texas. So much so, that it’s easier accessed through New Mexico. The valleys within are filled with hidden treasures, including a surprising deciduous forest that doesn’t feel like it belongs within a thousand miles of where it is. 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park | 162nd most visited NPS site

Guadalupe’s sister park, Carlsbad Caverns is home to one of the greatest accessible caves on earth, with dozens of rooms the size of cathedrals. It’s popular to go underground, to be sure, but virtually nobody takes advantage of this park’s trails, or rugged scenic drive overlooking Rattlesnake Canyon. The drive into the park is wonderful as well, with scenic overlooks dotting the waysides that rarely get a visitor. 

Have a park you think should be on the list? Let me know in the comments below!


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