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Makoshika State Park, Montana
Off The Beaten Path Travel

The 10 Best Uncrowded Alternatives to National Parks

America’s National Parks are among the most stunning examples of natural wonders in the world. However, the pristine beauty afforded by theSE parks also draws huge crowds, especially during the summer months. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, for example, saw 12,547,743 visitors in 2019, the number one most visited park in the country. Luckily for outdoor enthusiasts, there are innumerable uncrowded nature preserves located near the popular National Parks. If you’re looking for a comparable experience to visiting a National Park without the crowds, consider these ten State Parks.

Makoshika State Park, Montana

Montana is known for its gigantic mountains and big sky. It is also, home to Glacier National Park, one of the most beautiful preserves in the national park system. However, on the eastern end of the state lies a far different ecosystem with comparable beauty. The badlands—dry terrain where sedimentary rocks and clay-laden soils are eroded by wind and water—of Makoshika State Park are worth the visit. While the haunting rock formations provide the scenery, visitors also have the opportunity to gaze upon fossil remains from Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops at Montana’s largest state park. The park includes scenic drives, hiking trails, 28 camping sites, an outdoor amphitheater, and even an archery site. (Photo credit: Dan Gold)

State Forest State Park, Colorado

Located just west of Rocky Mountain National Park, the country’s third-most visited National Park, State Forest State Park is a gem in a state known for its natural beauty. The park’s 71,000 acres follows the western edge of the Medicine Bow range, continuing on into the northern reaches of the rugged Never Summer Range. The North Park area is often referred to as the moose viewing capital of Colorado and is home to over 600 moose that roam the land year-round. 

Overnight visitors have access to campgrounds (by reservation only) as well as cabins overlooking the North Michigan Reservoir, and a series of yurts dispersed throughout the park. There are also several OHV trails open to those who enjoy off-road exploration. 

Sinks Canyon State Park, Wyoming

While Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park get the most press in Wyoming, there’s a diamond in the rough located in the southern Wind River Range. Sinks Canyon State Park earned its name thanks to a geologic formation known as “The Sinks,” an area where the Wind River vanishes underground at the canyon’s mouth. Sinks Canyon supports a very diverse ecosystem, including everything from sagebrush and juniper in the foothills, to conifer and aspen groves higher up, and alpine tundra above treeline. The geology of Sinks Canyon is perhaps its most spectacular attraction, with Precambrian granite at the top of the canyon, glacial boulders from the most recent Ice Age on the river, and massive sandstone and limestone cliffs that stretch from the canyon floor. 

Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah

The red sandstone rock formations that make popular Utah National Parks like Zion, Arches, and Bryce Canyon – so popular are also found at lesser-visited Kodachrome Basin State Park. The bright shades and photogenic qualities of the area actually inspired its name after the color Kodachrome film. The state park features 67 monolithic stone spires that burst up from the valley floor, each stacked with different sandstone layers that chronicle 180 million years of geological growth. Visitors to Kodachrome Basin can hike, horseback ride, and mountain bike, or just gaze out at the natural wonder.

Willow Lake Park, Arizona

Found just over two hours south of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim near the city of Prescott, Willow Lake Park provides ample opportunities for sightseeing, hiking, kayaking, boating, and fishing. Willow Lake Park is part of the Granite Dells, a formation of unique granite rock formations that, coupled with the waters of Willow Lake, make this park an outstanding location for photographers. While Willow Lake Park is not as remote and wild as the rest of the places on this list, it does offer incredible natural beauty and recreational opportunities close to the urban center of Prescott. 

Baxter State Park, Maine

Each year, thousands of thru-hikers finish their months-long trek of the Appalachian Trail at 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park. Katahdin is the tallest mountain in the state and a true oddity amongst the smaller peaks of New England. Baxter State Park requires reservations at the Katahdin trailhead parking lots in order to limit the number of people on the mountain at once, so be sure to check availability before heading out.  Baxter State Park is truly wild and remote, with zero electricity, running water, or paved roads within its boundaries. The park allows overnight camping in both summer and winter, and 25%of the park is open to hunters and trappers. Visitors will have ample opportunities for wildlife viewing, with a large population of black bears, moose, and white-tailed deer.

Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

Referred to as the crown jewel of Oregon’s state park system, Silver Falls State Park is packed with awe-inspiring natural attractions. The park’s abundant waterfalls are well worth the trek along the Trail of Ten Falls, which weaves through dense pacific northwest forest and featuring several waterfalls rushing down canyon walls. The trail ends at the nationally-renowned South Falls, a 177-foot waterfall that you can actually walk behind. There are several established campsites for overnight visitors, although dispersed camping is prohibited. Mountain biking, hiking, and horseback riding are all allowed within the park boundaries.

Waterfalls at Frozen Head State Park

Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area, Tennessee

Instead of visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most-visited in the United States, head to Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains where Frozen Head holds 24,000 acres of wilderness, complete with dense forest, streams, and abundant wildlife. The park has fifty miles of hiking trails, and the Lookout Tower Trail is open to mountain biking all the way to the summit of 3,324-foot Frozen Head. There’s ample opportunity for birding within the park, as Frozen Head is home to species like the Acadian flycatcher, cerulean warbler, and Louisiana waterthrush. From the observation deck atop Frozen Head, visitors have fantastic views of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Tennessee Valley, and Walden Ridge. There are 20 primitive campsites located within the park, which is also open to backpackers looking for dispersed opportunities.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, California

This natural reserve in California is located at Mono Lake, a huge, 65-square mile body of water that’s over one million years old. Salt and minerals have washed into the lake from the streams coming down from the Eastern Sierra mountains and collided with freshwater springs to form the “tufa towers,” spires and knobs made of calcium carbonate. The evaporation of freshwater from Mono Lake has left it two-and-a-half times as salty as the ocean. Hiking, swimming, boating, and cross-country skiing in the winter are all enjoyed by visitors to the area, but bird watching is perhaps the reserve’s most popular activity. One to 2 million birds visit the lake to feed each year, providing birders with ample opportunities to gaze upon majestic wildlife. 

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Florida

The St. Joseph Peninsula juts out 20 miles into the Gulf of Mexico and is one of the true remaining wildlife areas in Florida. The state park provides white sand beaches and huge dunes along the ocean, and deeper inland, a lush marsh environment. The state park is a key habitat for nesting birds, as well as three species of sea turtles. Camping, bicycling, hiking, fishing, and swimming are all favorite activities of visitors to the peninsula, and the state parks location facing west into the Gulf of Mexico means it’s a spectacular spot to enjoy a sunset on the water.