Would you like to visit a national park this summer, but you don’t have a reservation? Would you prefer not to have to ride the crowded busses? Fortunately, there are national park alternatives which have remained under the radar of many travelers. They are there for you to explore without a reservation or the crowds.
Wallace Stegner, an American environmentalist and writer, declared national parks to be the greatest idea ever devised. Like so many other great inventions, the park system became enormously popular over time.
In 2022, more than 300 million people visited US National Parks – that’s 75% more than in 1970! While its primary purpose was to introduce people to nature’s splendors, these are also its drawbacks. The crowds have overwhelmed these parks. Consider national park alternatives.
State parks safeguard America’s iconic sights, such as redwood trees and wild ponies, the Big Sur coast, Lake Tahoe, and Niagara Falls. Even so, some national park alternatives face similar resource constraints and overcrowding issues as the most popular parks. Yet there are plenty of others that offer nature lovers a chance to get away from it all.
These alternatives are operated by four different administrations:
Bureau opf Land Management / US Forest Serevice / State Parks / National Wildlife Refuges
Here are ten of the best alternatives but least visited alternatives.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Utah’s BLM park is visited by a mere 500,000 people annually. Most of them stay within the boundaries of State Highway12 at the monument’s northern border or US Highway 89 to the south.
This monument is named after the Grand Staircase plateaus which descend like giant stone steps in Southern Utah. The other half of the name refers to the Escalante Canyons that were carved by streams into the Colorado River watershed
The park is best known for its mountain biking, hiking, and canyoneering. It also has hundreds of Native American archaeological sites and copious dinosaur digs. Additionally, there are 660 wild bee species.
For a quick visit, you can book an Airstream trailer, cabin, or RV hookup at the hipster hangout Yonder Escalante. A nice day trip could be a visit to Devil’s Garden and Calf Creek Trail, or Peek-a Boo Slot Canyon, all easily accessible by road. With more time, consider a 6-day guided mountain biking trip across the monument with Moab’s Western Spirit Cycling Adventures. The best time to visit Autumn when it is cooler and the canyons are showing their fall colors.
California’s Lost Coast
The Lost Coast is one of the most under-developed coastlines in the country. It stretches 25 miles from Mattole Beach (230 miles north San Francisco) to Shelter Cove (235 miles). Imagine Big Sur as it would look if Highway 1 never existed. The coast and its beautiful backcountry are now protected by Sinkyone Wilderness State Park and the BLM’s King Range National Conservation Area.
The area is home to many wildlife, including elephant seals, other marine mammals, bald eagles, and black bears. It also contains some of California’s last wild salmon streams. You might stop at the upscale Castle Inn or mid-range Inn of the Lost Coast Shelter Cove to surf, fish, or just for fun.
If your schedule allows, you can hike the Lost Coast Trail for a three-day backpack camping adventure along the coast and cliffs. Summer is the best time to visit as it has the warmest temperatures and the least amount of rain.
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
This park covers 43 miles along Florida’s Gulf Coast. It revolves around bays, bayous, and coastal grasslands.
St. Marks was established in 1931 as a federal wildlife refuge. It is one of the oldest federal wildlife refuges in the country. It houses a wide range of wild animals, including alligators and manatees, white-tailed and black deer, bobcats, and black bears. Also thriving in the Refuge are hundreds of bird species, such as the bald eagle, and whooping crane.
The Refuge may be best known for its vibrant monarch butterfly migration and the historic St. Marks Lighthouse that was built in 1831.
Visit the Sweet Magnolia Inn. This bed and breakfast is located in an old building that was previously used as a general shop, brothel, and church.
St. Mark’s offers 45 miles of hiking along the Florida National Scenic Trail. For those long hikes, the Refuge offers seven campsites.
Don’t miss the Monarch Butterfly Festival held each October.
Baxter State Park and Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Maine
The sparsely populated North Woods of Maine offers a wilderness escape for over 25 million New Englanders and Canadians. It covers approximately 3.5 million acres, more land and woods than Yellowstone or Yosemite.
Baxter State Park is the most popular park in the region. The Allagash Wilderness Waterway is another great national park alternative. The two state reserves receive only 65,000 visitors per year, most of them in the summer months.
Baxter State Park contains Maine’s highest peak, , at 5,269 feet. Allagash Wilderness, on the other hand, provides a 92-mile corridor of wild rivers and lakes. Henry David Thoreau praised this wilderness in his 1864 travel tale about his journey through The Maine Woods.
If you’re just passing through, book a room in the rustic Big Moose Cabins, Mount Katahdin or any other lodgings in Millinocket. Then drive to Baxter State Park for a day of hiking. For a longer visit, join a weeklong guided paddling trip along the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, with Maine Trails Guide Service. Your best time to visit is June to October.
Wood-Tikchik State Park, Alaska
Wood-Tikchik would likely be a national park if it were in another state.
Here in Alaska, it is a state park with towering snowcapped peaks, a dozen large glacial lakes and pristine forest. Grizzly bears as well as moose, caribou, and other Alaskan wildlife inhabit the park.
This western Alaska reserve covers 1.6 million acres and is the largest and most remote of all state parks in the country. This vast landscape is difficult to access by road. The only options for exploring it are water, air, or a long hike overland.
Wood-Tikchik is a wilderness area that has only two ranger stations, five remote fishing lodges, and five other stations. Anyone who ventures into the park on their own must be able to survive in the wilderness.
The only drive in the park is a 32-mile road from Dillingham leading to boating and fishing. Enjoy these sports in the summer and early fall.
Vermilion Cliffs National Memorial, Arizona
These chromatic cliffs were named for their purple hue. This color is due to iron oxide and magnesium in the red sandstone. They are the focal point of this large BLM park located in Northern Arizona.
Visitation to the swirling “Wave” rock formation is restricted. There is also a lottery system for this site. The rest of the monument is mostly devoid of Instagram influencers or selfie-takers.
Hidden amongst the cliffs is Paria Canyon. Other amazing rock formations are White Pocket, Toadstool Hoodoos, and the Alcove. On a day’s hike, you can view Navajo culture when you stay at the Shash and Dine at Eco Retreat in Page, Arizona.
A longer three- to five-day backpacking trip down the length of Paria Canyon starts from trailheads in Southern Utah. Viewing the Vermilion Cliffs is not recommended in the summer due to very high temperatures.
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington
Mount St. Helens was a typical snowcapped peak until May 18, 1980, when it erupted in a catastrophic eruption releasing 24 megatons of thermal energy. This Forest Service national monument is highlighted by a large crater, extensive debris fields, and a blanket of dead trees around Spirit Lake.
The park’s primary activities include hiking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing. To reach Mount St. Helens, take Highway 504 to Johnston Ridge Observatory and follow the Eruption Trail through lava terrain. Or take Highway 99 to Windy Ridge for views of the crater or Spirit Lake.
You can drive around the volcano in two to three days using the Loowit Trail for a 30-mile journey. Plan your journey for either summer of early fall.
Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument, Colorado
The country’s newest national monument, created by presidential decree on Oct 12, 2022, features an impressive expanse of Colorado’s High Country. This monument combines outdoor recreation with military history and stunning Rocky Mountain scenery.
The Forest Service manages the park, including 20 miles of the Continental Divide Trail. Camp Hale housed troops from the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division where they trained during World War II. Some of these soldiers helped to fuel American snow sports, resulting in the creation of more than 60 winter-time resorts after the war. This park offers plenty of opportunities for snowmobiling and backcountry skiing in winter. During the summer, visitors can participate in backpacking and climbing.
Leadville is a great base from which to explore the park’s military history, and shorter hikes. Take a multi-day ski tour or summer hike with overnight stays at the park’s 10th Mountain Division Huts.
Na Pali Coast, Hawaii
The opening scene of the original movie “Jurassic Park” was shot on the Na Pali Coast. It is a primeval area that looks and feels like Kauai Island.
Na Pali’s rusty-colored cliffs are surrounded by lush tropical vegetation. They rise behind isolated Pacific beaches. Just beyond the coast lies Waimea Canyon. This gorge is 3,000 feet deep and is often called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”. The only way to explore this largely undeveloped region is by foot or boat.
Na Pali Canyon and Waimea Canyon are home to many rare birds and plants. These are protected by natural areas and forest reserves within a 10-mile radius. Contrary to the movie, no dinosaurs live here.
During the summer, when it’s warmer and has less rain, you can backpack any or part of the Kalalau Trail (up to 5 days).
Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho
Idaho’s Salmon River, Sawtooth Mountains, and other areas are worthy of national park status. They are some of the most impressive ranges in the Rocky Mountains. The remote area and its wild rivers are protected by many national forests, including.
Some areas can be accessed by road. Others require you to bring a backpack and some good hiking boots. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is the largest federal wilderness area in Idaho. It covers 2.3 million acres of wooded, water, and snowcapped peaks.
Take the 25-mile Custer Motorway Adventure Road to historic sites in 19th- Salmon-Challis century Yankee Fork Mining District. Join Holiday River Expeditions for a six-day whitewater trip down the River of No Return, also known as the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Summer in the best time to explore this forest.
You can enjoy these national park alternatives without fighting the crowds, viewing from a bus, or paying fees. Find a bit of heaven or enjoy the peace and quiet. Take the road less travelled and experience the beauty that others are missing.
Fact: Buckle up for an awesome road trip and an unforgettable experience
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