5 National Parks With Spectacular Scenery and No Crowds

Forget mingling with the masses at Yellowstone and Yosemite this summer and head to these overlooked treasures.

Utah's Canyonlands National Park. (Photo: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

May 28, 2015· 5 MIN READ
Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco Bay Area–based health, science, and travel writer who contributes regularly to Forbes.com and numerous national magazines.

If three-deep crowds shouldering for selfies isn’t your thing, you can be forgiven for thinking a summer national park tour isn’t for you. And indeed, with 4.5 million people ogling the Grand Canyon every year and 3 million to 4 million inching their way around both Yosemite and Yellowstone, you’d be right to stay away from some parks in the peak-season summer months.

But within America’s 138 national parks and monuments, there are snow-topped peaks, towering forests, ochre-walled canyons, and steaming volcanic cauldrons that rival or even surpass the top tourist draws. Throw in national historic sites, seashores, rivers, and recreation areas and you’re talking 407 parks covering 84 million acres. And many will be seen by very few. Spend your summer vacation exploring some of these spectacular wilderness “also-rans” and you won’t need to photoshop anyone out of your shots.

Lassen National Park, California

(Photo: Michael Benanav/Getty Images)

Pick your way among the steaming, burbling fumaroles at Lassen’s Bumpass Hell (opening earlier than ever this year, in early-to-mid June), and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Yellowstone. Until you realize there’s no one photo-bombing your pictures. And nowhere in the mainland United States can you witness so much active geothermal and volcanic activity, from hissing steam vents (also named Devil’s Kitchen) to geyser-like spouts to a boiling lake.

But wait, there’s more: Lassen Volcanic National Park is a twofer, offering mountain peak climbs as well. Don’t let the 2,000-foot elevation gain dissuade you from making it to the top of 10,457-foot Lassen Peak, where the sulfur smell lingering over the Devastated Area won’t let you forget you’re standing on an active—though dormant —volcano. Begun in 2010, the long-awaited peak trail renovation was completed in October, and the path will reopen for the first time in July.

And with its location far north of the San Francisco Bay Area’s light pollution, Lassen is a “dark sky” destination, with spectacular stargazing, plenty of astronomical programming, and even a Dark Skies Festival every August.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

(Photo: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The sculptural sandstone towers and bridges of Arches National Park are justifiably famous, but just 45 minutes away in Canyonlands you can find equally dramatic rock formations, and you’ll have them all to yourself.

Much larger than Arches, Canyonlands is divided into three evocatively named sections: Islands in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze, with most visitors only making it to the first two. (The remote desert landscape of The Maze should rightly deter all but serious outbackers.) First stop is Islands in the Sky, a high mesa punctuated by sandstone canyons whose sheer walls are at least as colorful as those of their more famous neighbor to the north. Leave time for the short hike to Mesa Arch, with its picture-perfect framing view of canyons and rock spires.

The Mars-like landscape of red rock caves, mushroom-like rock towers, and deeply cut river washes known as The Needles looks like nothing so much as the backdrop to every Western you’ve ever seen. From Devil’s Kitchen to Paul Bunyan’s Potty, there are draws aplenty to keep you busy for a week, with eerie Druid’s Arch among them.

In nearby Horseshoe Canyon, serious outbackers who brave up for 32 miles of rutted dirt track and a tough seven-mile hike will be rewarded with a glimpse of the Great Gallery, a panel of spectacular 3,000-year-old pictographs.

RELATED: Will Cell Phone Companies Ruin National Parks by Installing Wi-Fi in the Wilderness?

Four-wheel-drive is a huge plus in Canyonlands, where many of the wildest outcrops and slot canyons are accessed via graded dirt roads, but a paved loop makes it easy to see the most popular canyon viewpoints on the Islands of the Sky mesa.

North Cascades National Park, Washington

(Photo: BrewBecks/Flickr)

Substitute the aquamarine waters of North Cascades National Park’s Diablo Lake for those of better-known Crater Lake, and you’ve got just one of many reasons wilderness lovers are beginning to discover this pristine mountain range just a few hours from Seattle.

To get a picture of the hiking and camping possibilities, imagine that almost 95 percent of North Cascades National Park is designated wilderness, within which are 127 high mountain lakes, 300 glaciers, and a network of trails snaking along river canyons and switchbacking up peaks. Whitewater addicts prize the rapids of the Skagit and Stehekin rivers, while more relaxed float trips provide prime viewing for the bald eagles that nest and feed along the upper Skagit River. These mountains are home to numerous endangered and threatened animals; be on the lookout for Canada lynx, gray wolves, and grizzlies as well as wolverines, cougars, black and brown bears, deer, and river otters.

The Pacific Northwest is unusually rich in federally protected wilderness areas, many of them largely undeveloped or less traveled. Within the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest near Washington’s Canadian border, the Pasayten and William O. Douglas national wilderness areas are studded with alpine lakes and 7,000-plus-foot peaks and traversed by hundreds of miles of little-traveled trails.

In Oregon, explore the granite peaks and tumbling rapids of Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness, part of the Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forest. And one view of the powerful plumes of Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area should banish any lingering regrets you might have about missing out on Yosemite.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

(Photo: Jay Zantos/Facebook)

Did you know that Great Smoky Mountains National Park gets more than 9 million visitors a year? You will when you get there and try to find a campsite or parking space. But just 120,000 visit Congaree National Park, the largest intact forest preserve in the Southeast, where ancient forests of native hardwood trees shade rivers, streams, and sloughs perfect for kayaking, canoeing, and fishing. Or take a “big tree hike” to learn about the park’s 75 different species of trees and see the “champion trees,” the largest known survivors of their species. Go on a nighttime “owl prowl” and let a ranger introduce you to the calls, nests, and haunts of these shy and haunting birds.

Lake Clark, Alaska

(Photo: Gavriel Jecan/Getty Images)

With glacier-studded granite peaks, lakes as blue and clear as Tahoe, active volcanoes, and the craggy coastline of Cook Inlet, Lake Clark National Park packs a tremendous wilderness punch. And the wildlife viewing is mind-blowing, from beluga whales and sea otters to black and brown bears, moose, Dall sheep, and wolves. Then, of course, there’s that herd of more than 100,000 caribou.

The problem: You can only get there by plane. That said, it’s just a two-hour flight from Anchorage, 100 miles away, and it’s the only national park in Alaska that offers such diversity. And of course, you can thank the lack of access for keeping the crowds away. Just 5,000 people make it to Lake Clark each year.

The good news is that once you get there, the rest is relatively easy. Start in the park’s main community of Port Alsworth, where lodges and guide services can help you plan your visit, whether you’ve come to hike, raft, kayak, or fish for salmon.

And no trip would be complete without a pilgrimage to the cabin of adventurer and ultimate DIY-er Dick Proenneke, who spent three decades in a log cabin constructed with handmade tools, documenting his experiences in photos and films.

While there, you might be moved to join the fight to block the proposed Pebble Mine in the park’s southwestern corner on Bristol Bay. Currently, Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals seeks to open North America’s largest open-pit mining operation, seeking gold, copper, and molybdenum worth an estimated $400 billion. The enormous potential damage to fish, wildlife, and the region’s entire ecosystem has a coalition of environmentalists, native people, and others fighting the project.