If you’ve been to Yellowstone during peak tourist season, you’d think the national park system has an overtourism problem. But it’s not that too many people are going to the parks — it’s that too many people are going to a specific few parks at the same time. In 2020, just six parks brought in a quarter of the entire system’s 237,064,332 visitors.
“It’s like going to a movie for the seven o’clock show on Saturday night and expecting to get a good seat — it’s not going to happen,” says Will Shafroth, chief executive of the National Park Foundation. “If you want to go to those places, you need to be thoughtful about what time of year, what time of day, what day of the week.”
You don’t have to skip national parks altogether this summer. There are more than 84 million acres to work with, and planning a trip to one the lesser-known parks can help you avoid crowds and have a better time.
To find the best alternatives, we spoke with Kent Taylor of My Private Ranger. Taylor has been guiding private tours of the national parks since 2004, and he’s also the founder and director of the National Park Society. Here are his tips.
Instead of Great Smoky Mountains National Park …
Because Great Smoky Mountains National Park is within driving distance of several major metropolitan areas, it’s America’s most visited national park with more than 12 million annual visitors. Taylor recommends travelers head to North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest and Transylvania County instead.
“It is known as one of the waterfall capitals of our country,” he says. “While everybody else goes to the Great Smoky Mountains, [people can go] see these fantastic waterfalls in Transylvania County and have many of them almost to themselves.”
Taylor takes travelers to Nantahala Outdoor Center if they’re into activities like canoeing, white-water rafting and zip-lining, and the Cherokee Reservation to learn about the culture of the region’s Indigenous people.
Instead of Yosemite National Park …
For a more temperate alternative to Yosemite with less parking issues, Taylor recommends visiting Sequoia National Park, home to the largest trees in the world (not the tallest — those are in Redwoods National Park).
“Sequoia doesn’t get the national notoriety that Yosemite does, but it’s fascinating, has good hiking and very good photography,” Taylor says. “The great Sequoia trees are absolutely awesome and there’s good wildlife here. I always see bears every time I go.”
His other West Coast picks are Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California, Mount Shasta and the scenic Klamath River Corridor.
Instead of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park …
To avoid further crowding Hawaii’s most-visited national park, Taylor recommends planning trips to Haleakala National Park on Maui or Waimea Canyon (also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific) on Kauai.
The drive’s 10,023-foot summit elevation discourage many travelers from Haleakala. but Taylor says it’s part of the magic.
“It’s an absolutely gorgeous drive to get there through this beautiful pastoral countryside that you would not expect in Hawaii,” Taylor says.
Instead of Yellowstone National Park …
Taylor says Yellowstone attracts so many visitors for the wildlife, “but it’s hard to appreciate when they’re sharing it with 35,000 other people on any given day.”
He points travelers instead to National Bison Range nature reserve near Missoula, Mont. And luckily, many airlines are making it easier to get there this summer by adding new flights to the state.
“They have all the same animals, basically, that you would find at Yellowstone, with the exception of grizzly bears and wolves,” Taylor says.
His other picks include Montana’s Glacier National Park, South Dakota’s Custer State Park and Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming.
Instead of Zion National Park …
Taylor says one of the reasons Zion gets such high tourist numbers is because of its easy day-trip access from Las Vegas. To weed them out, plan to get there before 10 a.m., or skip it altogether and head 85 miles northeast to Bryce Canyon National Park.
“It’s one of our most beautiful national parks, and it only gets about a million visitors per year, whereas the Zion gets about three-and-a-half million visitors per year,” Taylor says.
Keep traveling north on the Scenic Byway 12 and you’ll get to Capitol Reef National Park, one of the country’s newest parks that Taylor calls an undiscovered gem. Aside from natural beauty, Taylor says the park has cultural draws with its Native American and Mormon historic attractions.
Instead of Grand Canyon National Park …
Taylor says northern Arizona has a wealth of alternatives to visit to avoid the masses at the Grand Canyon this summer. There’s the Petrified Forest National Park, the Painted Desert, Walnut Canyon National Monument, Oak Creek Canyon and Meteor Crater. He recommends making Flagstaff, Ariz., a home base for your trip.
“Every direction that you go out of Flagstaff, there’s something new and interesting to see,” Taylor says.
If you’re traveling with kids, Taylor recommends going to Meteor Crater, where a meteor struck about 50,000 years ago.