We love a last-minute road trip, especially to pristine, protected areas like national parks. But with parks being so busy these days, many high-trafficked destinations have implemented reservation systems that require a timed-entry permit to visit. Even if you plan ahead, these reservation tickets can be hard to score for places like Arches, Acadia, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Haleakala, or Zion.
To be fair, the reservation system is, for the most part, a good thing. It helps control some of the most overcrowded areas, maintain visitor safety, and help protect wildlife, natural and cultural resources.
And while they might not be ideal for the non-planning types among us, there are still plenty of national parks to visit that also offer jaw-dropping views and picture-perfect moments, without the crazy crowds.
Here are some of the top non-big-name national parks you can explore this summer instead that won't leave you scrambling to make reservations.
This stunning national park is located in the southwestern part of Texas, bordering Mexico along the Rio Grande. The park consists of 1,252 square miles of pure adventure and offers nearly 150 miles of hiking trails that weave through several rivers and mountainous desert terrain.
Not only is Big Bend a must-see destination for hikers, campers, and backpackers, the park's remote location makes it a perfect place to visit for those looking to stargaze. But wait, there's more! If you love to birdwatch, you'll want to pack your binoculars too because there are over 450 different species of birds.
You may have already heard of Canyonlands National Park because it is located in Moab, Utah. Only 30 minutes away from Arches National Park, Canyonlands offers the same otherworldly terrain with a lot less crowds and no reservations required.
It's well-known for its expansive canyon views, colorful landscape, desert scenery, and countless mesas and arches. It is also the largest national park in Utah, spanning over 257,000 acres. You can go hiking at the Needles and see colorful spires of sandstone or even try white water rafting in Cataract Canyon. If you choose to visit Canyonlands this summer, there's no doubt that there will be something for everyone in the family to see and do.
North Cascades, a.k.a. the American Alps, in Washington State has the largest glacial system in the U.S. (other than Alaska). This park has over 300 glaciers and 300 lakes, plus mountains that rise 4,000 to 6,000 feet above their bases. It's truly one of the most underrated parks in the nation, in our opinion.
Not only will you see rocky mountain peaks and emerald-green slopes, but you'll also find a ton of wildlife—keep an eye out for elk, moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, otters, and marmots. In addition to all of this, North Cascades has over 400 miles of trails and you can even fish the lakes, Whether you're looking for a short scenic stroll or an intense steep mountain hike, there's a trail for everyone on the trip!
When visiting this California-based national park, be prepared to see some of the world's largest trees, including the General Sherman Tree, which stands 275 feet tall and is over 36 feet in diameter at the base. (If you're curious, it weighs about 1,385 tons or 2.7 million pounds). Not only will you see giant sequoias, but you will also get the chance to witness vast wildlife, deep canyons, and gushing waterfalls. You can also enjoy numerous outdoor activities that suit your preferences, including hiking, backpacking, fishing, rock climbing, and winter activities like cross-country skiing.
This hidden gem located in South Carolina spans over 26,000 acres and is home to magnificent trees, towering pines, waterways, forest landscapes, and diverse plant and animal life. While it is one of the smallest national parks in the U.S., it still has so much to offer visitors —including hiking, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and camping.
Plus, the park offers educational ranger-led programs like guided hikes and talks for visitors of all ages, and it allows dogs. Congaree could be a great choice for those looking for a peaceful yet immersive and enriching experience in nature.
Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado is home to the largest dunes in North America (the tallest dune measures 750 feet tall). Visitors can go sandboarding or sand sledding on the dunes, however, if you're not feeling up to it, you can still go hiking, biking, fishing, or birdwatching on the park's trails and wetlands. In addition, this 149,000-acre park offers visitors a look at immaculate alpine lakes, diverse ecosystems, and rugged mountains.
Grand Teton in Colorado is famous for its spectacular mountain views, pristine lakes, and various wildlife. Take a drive along Teton Park Road to enjoy the surrounding landscapes and scenic viewpoints. Along the way, you may also spot some wildlife, including grizzly and black bears, bison, moose, and elk. The park also provides over two hundred miles of trails, so it truly is a paradise for hikers and backpackers.
If you're looking for something else to do, Grand Teton has several lakes including Jenny Lake and Jackson Lake where visitors can go fishing, boating, kayaking, or canoeing.
If you're looking to take a quick road trip, Petrified Forest is the perfect park for you! This national park in northeastern Arizona is an absolute hidden gem that allows you to see so much just from your car and a few stops at overlooks. You'll see everything from mesas, buttes, badlands, wildlife, flowers, and ancient petroglyphs. You can also hike on maintained trails in the park and see one of the largest and most colorful concentrations of petrified wood, historic structures, and displays of 225 million-year-old fossils. The park also offers backpacking, horseback riding, and bicycling. Another perk is you get to bring your furry little friends, too!
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