5 national park destinations that aren’t parks

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Many of the 63 national parks across the United States have seen an explosion of visitor numbers both during and after the pandemic, which often has led to booked campsites, clogged trails and timed entry requirements in an attempt to limit crowds.

The big-name national parks, however, are just one category of public lands under the purview of the National Park Service. And the designation does not necessarily imply a superiority of scenery and activities — many of the lesser-known national historic sites, monuments, recreation areas and seashores also provide excellent spots to explore the varied natural beauty and attractions of the United States, but without the big ticket crowds.

“Regardless of formal designation, each of the 424 sites in the National Park System offer visitors a variety of opportunities for inspiration, relaxation, recreation and education,” said Kathy Kupper, a public affairs specialist with the NPS.

Here are five suggestions for less-crowded alternatives to national parks in this busy summer season.

If you’re looking for the striking shoreline scenery of Acadia National Park in Maine, consider …

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan’s upper peninsula)

It’s a wild, rocky coastline surrounded by lush woodland and striking cliffs — but on Lake Superior, not the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. The 42-mile shoreline of Pictured Rocks is a stunning destination for those looking for hiking, camping and waterfront recreation, and in 2022, this national lakeshore received about a quarter as many visitors as Acadia National Park. The namesake Pictured Rocks, sandstone cliffs covered in vibrant swaths of color from mineral deposits, rise up to 200 feet from the water and can be explored via boat tour, kayak or hiking trail.

Acadia National Park in Maine, May 14, 2021. (John Tully/The New York Times) Acadia National Park in Maine, May 14, 2021.(John Tully/The New York Times)

If you’re looking for the wooded mountain beauty of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, consider …

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia)

The chance to hike through and camp in the densely forested mountains of Appalachia are major draws of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which was the most visited national park in 2022, drawing close to 13 million recreational visitors. Find a similarly stunning environment in the 24,000 acres of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, which received fewer than 750,000 visitors last year. The Gap, a natural pathway through the Appalachians, was a trading route for Native Americans and, later, a route for pioneers heading West. In addition to 85 miles of trails rich with lookouts, waterfalls and wildlife, tour the historic Hensley Settlement or Gap Cave, home to striking stalagmites and bats.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan in July 2021. (Stephen Hiltner/The New York Times) Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan in July 2021. (Stephen Hiltner/The New York Times)

If you’re looking for a river trip through the geologic marvel of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, consider …

Dinosaur National Monument (Colorado and Utah)

Rafting through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River is a bucket list activity for many. As such, it’s a trip that can require extensive advance planning; last year, the park saw more than 4.7 million visitors. Comparably epic and decidedly more accessible, rafting the Green and Yampa Rivers through Dinosaur National Monument offers a similar experience of racing rapids, towering canyon walls and remote mountain and desert wilderness (and received just 350,000 visitors in 2022). And, as its name implies, the National Monument is a destination for ancient dinosaur fossils and petroglyphs.

A rafting trip in Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona in March 2023. (Raymond Zhong/The New York Times) A rafting trip in Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona in March 2023. (Raymond Zhong/The New York Times)

If you’re looking for the otherworldly hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, consider …

Chiricahua National Monument (Arizona)

Hoodoos, the name for spindly, towering spires of rock, are the major draw of Bryce Canyon National Park, which boasts the largest number of these rock formations on the planet — and over 2 million visitors a year. The hoodoos at Chiricahua National Monument in the Chiricahua Mountains in Southeastern Arizona lack the distinctive orange hue of Bryce Canyon, but are still numerous, striking and comparably crowd-free; the park received just over 600,000 visitors in 2022.

Hoodoos, eroded towers of rock that date back tens of millions of years, are seen from the Navajo Loop Trail in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, May 9, 2023. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times) Hoodoos, eroded towers of rock that date back tens of millions of years, are seen from the Navajo Loop Trail in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, May 9, 2023.(Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

If you’re looking for the wildlife-spotting opportunities of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, consider …

Point Reyes National Seashore (California)

The Pacific Coast location and wide-open grasslands of Point Reyes in the West Marin region may not seem like an obvious alternative for the towering peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. But if your passion is wildlife spotting — a major draw for some of the Rockies’ 4 million visitors in 2022 — Point Reyes is a fitting choice. The seashore received half as many visitors as the National Park last year and is home to a Tule Elk Preserve, along with elephant seals, extensive bird species and, in certain seasons, migratory gray whales.

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