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When it comes to planning a trip, it’s natural to set your sights on the most popular national parks and trails. But, instead of elbowing your way through the country’s natural wonders, consider these spectacular alternatives.
Learn more about less-frequented parks and trails to visit to avoid crowds and tourist traps.
Try Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Compared to the Grand Canyon’s staggering almost 6 million annual visitors, Canyonlands hosts less than 900,000 a year making for a more relaxed and leisurely experience.
What makes this area of southeastern Utah so unique is its division into four districts catering to different exploration opportunities. The Island in the Sky district offers expansive views from its lofty mesa, while the Needles district showcases colorful rock formations and unique hiking trails. The Maze district is more remote and challenging to access, making it a haven for experienced adventurers. The riverside district of Horseshoe Canyon houses ancient Native American rock art.
Check out the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. This land stretches from north Florida up into southeast Georgia spanning more than 350,000 acres. Compared to the nearly 1 million visitors the Everglades get a year, this refuge is a hidden spot for around 400,000 annual guests.
One of the largest freshwater ecosystems in the United States, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is comprised of swamps, marshes and pine uplands providing homes for a wide range of plants and animals. Visitors can explore the refuge by boat, kayak or canoe, and have the opportunity to observe these creatures in their natural habitat.
Okefenokee also offers several trails for visitors to explore. The Swamp Island Drive is a popular auto tour featuring a scenic overview of the refuge, while the Canoe Trails offer an up-close experience through the waterways.
Explore other parts of North Carolina on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MTS). This a long-distance trail that stretches across the state from the Great Smoky Mountains all the way to the Outer Banks. While it intersects with the Appalachian Trail, it offers its own unique sections within the state, allowing hikers to experience several diverse landscapes including mountains, foothills and beaches.
Or journey west to another popular trail, the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). The CDT spans approximately 3,100 miles along the continental divide of the United States, from the border of Mexico to Canada. Like the Appalachian trail, it passes through five states (New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana) and offers breathtaking mountain scenery.
Discover Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in California. While it is located near the more well-known redwood parks, it tends to receive fewer visitors, providing a quieter and more secluded adventure. Of course, this forest has groves of distinguished redwood trees for visitors to wander and marvel.
This site also boasts several camping opportunities. These facilities include traditional campsites and rustic cabins. Spending a night amidst the towering redwoods can be a memorable experience, allowing you to fully appreciate the peacefulness and tranquility of the forest.
Consider Castle Trail also in South Dakota. Avoiding the tourist trap of Notch Trail which sees many of the 1.2 million Badlands annual visitors, Castle Trail spans approximately 10 miles (round trip), making it one of the longer trails in the park. Due to its length and moderate difficulty, it tends to attract fewer visitors than some of the shorter and more popular trails. This provides an opportunity to enjoy the solitude and peacefulness of the Badlands.
Travel to North Cascade National Park in Washington. One of the state’s best-kept secrets, sightseers are met with crowds of less than 20,000 instead of the almost 2.9 million found in Montana. This park of often referred to as the “American Alps” thanks to its rugged mountain peaks, glaciers and deep valleys. The park is home to stunning summits including Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker, offering impressive alpine scenery and ample opportunities for hiking and photography.
The North Cascades Highway (State Route 20) extends through the park, giving access to unforgettable views of the surrounding mountains, forests and waterfalls. The drive offers a chance to appreciate the park's beauty from the comfort of your car.
If you’re willing to travel, hit the road to New Mexico for the Jemez Hot Springs. The Jemez Hot Springs offers three soaking pools of different sizes and temperatures, allowing visitors to choose their preferred level of warmth. These natural pools are set in a picturesque environment, surrounded by the beauty of the Jemez Mountains and the nearby Jemez River.
Or venture even further to the Chena Hot Springs outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. Several legends of the spring's magical properties have spread throughout the decades, with tales of maladies cured by the waters. While it may be one of the most remote locations, you can’t beat bathing in a hot spring under the Northern Lights.
See the sights of the Ka’aha Trail. Located along the rugged coastline of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, the Ka’aha Trail offers a different perspective compared to the high-altitude hike of Mauna Loa. Visitors can explore lava fields and see ancient Hawaiian cultural sites.
Whether you’re trying to avoid tourist traps, beat the crowds or just want an unmatched unique adventure, any of these popular state park and trail alternatives can do just that. For more travel ideas, check out these other popular national park locations.