Yellowstone National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the U.S. And while its rainbow thermal pools, iconic Old Faithful, and place in history as the first official national park definitely warrant a visit, the crowded views and traffic jams during high season can ruin the best of visits.
Everything Yellowstone is known for, though—geysers and hot springs, wild bison herds, crisp waterfalls, breathtaking views—can be found at other, lesser-known state parks, national parks and monuments, and wilderness areas. So, if you're looking for all the natural beauty but a lot more solitude, check out these alternatives to Yellowstone's biggest draws.
To See Extraordinary Hydrothermal Features
Go to Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.
Yellowstone is known for its geothermal features, such as hot springs, geysers, mud pots, and fumaroles, which are there because the park sits atop the caldera of an ancient supervolcano. According to the NPS, the park has the largest concentration of active geysers in the world with more than and houses more than 500 of them. That already makes up more than half of the geysers in the whole world.
Because it's such a hot spot, the famous Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Springs have become packed with tourists.
Meanwhile, Lassen Volcanic National Park in California features eight hydrothermal areas that mimic Yellowstone—but it's also the least visited park in California. Lassen Volcanic's hot pools are distinct in their own ways though: A short hike can take you to to Boiling Springs Lake, where the lake actually bubbles and reaches a high temperature of 125 degrees, or to Cold Boiling Lake, where cold gases bubble to the lake's surface, portraying boiling water. And as its name implies, Lassen is home to numerous volcanoes, including the world's largest plug dome volcano (a rare type of lava dome that forms when highly viscous lava gushes into a crater). Plus, Lassen Peak is also considered an active volcano (don't worry: Its last eruption was about 100 years ago, according to the NPS.)
To See Majestic Herds of Bison
Go to Custer State Park in South Dakota.
Yellowstone has one of the largest bison populations in the U.S. which roams freely all over the park. But combine that high number with ignorant tourists and you get the wild stories we hear every year about bison attacking visitors to the park.
One of the largest state parks in the nation, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park is homes to only around 1,500 bison but also to tons of whitetail and mule deer, antelope, mountain goats, elk, coyotes, burros, bighorn sheep, birds, wild turkeys, and prairie dogs. You can even see most of the park's wildlife from your car.
To Drive Down Scenic Highways & Hike Trails
Go to Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Montana.
Beartooth Highway is a noteworthy, scenic drive that actually leads to Yellowstone National Park. This National Scenic Byway is one of less than 30 designated All-American Roads and is recognized as one of the prettiest drives in the nation because of its diverse range of terrain.
Also known as U.S. Route 212, the 68-mile path climbs 10,947 feet above sea level, takes at least three hours to complete, and traverses the Montana-Wyoming border between Red Lodge and Cooke City. The picturesque road features towering granite walls, alpine lakes and meadows covered in flowers, some of the world's oldest rocks, and glacial cirques that lead into snow-covered valleys (yes, even in the summer). But instead of taking it into Yellowstone, head the opposite way to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness instead.
Although a road trip on Beartooth Highway is a grand adventure alone, the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness it runs through has 943,648 acres to explore. This massive terrain is a hiker's paradise with hundreds of miles of hiking trails and plenty of untouched backcountries. The Beartooth Mountain Range also lies in this region and consists of 20 peaks that reach over 12,000 feet in elevation, including Granite Peak, Montana's highest mountain at 12,799 feet.
For Breathtaking Waterfalls
Go to North Cascades National Park in Washington.
There are over 290 waterfalls in Yellowstone, but most of the more popular waterfalls, such as Lower Falls, Union Falls, and Upper Falls, are very accessible and, therefore, very crowded. If not full of people, they're likely up long hikes, like in the southwest section of the park known as Cascade Corner or Bechler.
North Cascades National Park, actually the least-visited park in the lower 48, has the most extensive glacial system in the lower 48, with over 300 glaciers decorating its mountains, and is just three hours from Seattle. It's often overshadowed by the more popular Mount Rainier and Olympic National Park nearby. But North Cascades offers some of the best backcountry adventures with its rugged mountainous terrain, milky green-blue lakes, and cascading waterfalls. You can visit Colonial Creek Falls, the state's tallest waterfall cascading 2,566 feet down Colonial Peak, within 13 distinct drops. Ladder Creek Falls and Gorge Creek Falls are also powerful waterfalls worth checking out, and the hiking trails to get there are much easier to trek.
For a Nearby National Park To Check Off Your List
Go to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
If you want to visit Yellowstone because you're working through all the national parks in the country, add Grand Teton National Park to your itinerary and spend more of your time in this less crowded park. Grand Teton is only 30 minutes from Yellowstone's southern entrances, making it a convenient drive to tack on. It's much smaller than Yellowstone and can be explored within a day or two. Keep in mind that this park gets pretty crowded in the summer. So, you can expect some traffic on the way to popular attractions such as the parking lot for Jenny Lake.
Enjoy the outdoors?
Sign up for daily stories delivered straight to your inbox.