Data on travel trends this summer show that people are leaning into road trips, camping and RVing, and locations with lots of outdoor activities. In the US, National Parks have seen record crowds as people know these destinations check all of those boxes. Many parks are most easily accessed by car, are best experienced when camping right in the park, and they offer all the outdoor space you could ever dream of!
However, this influx of travelers to our National Parks is a double edged sword. While it’s wonderful that more people are visiting, the parks are also woefully underfunded and understaffed- this year more than ever- and the crowds are taxing park resources. Plus, when you’re hoping to escape crowded destinations, it can be pretty disappointing to get to a park that is severely overcrowded.
But don’t worry- while visiting some of the most popular parks like Yellowstone and Glacier may need to wait for another summer, there are plenty of beautiful and lesser known National Parks that are far less crowded! If you’re looking for National Parks with smaller crowds this summer, check out our list of which parks you may want to visit!
National Parks with Smaller Crowds
Teddy Roosevelt National Park- North Dakota
If you want to experience the wildlife of Yellowstone but don’t want to experience the crowds or get stuck in a three hour bison traffic jam, head to Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Known for it’s large populations of bison, elk, prairie dogs and wild horses, you can experience the wildlife without the crowds of more popular national parks. Located in the Badlands of the Dakotas- the scenery is remarkable too. The South Unit is home to the beautiful Painted Canyon and herds of wild horses, while the North Unit is even more secluded and has more abundant wildlife! Plan to spend at least two days here to explore both the North and South Units.
North Cascades National Park- Washington
North Cascades National Park is in northern Washington and it’s one of the 10 least visited National Parks in the US. It’s a bit ironic, being that it’s located only three hours from Olympic National Park, which is one of the 10 most visited National Parks in the US. North Cascades is an absolutely stunning park with turquoise blue alpine lakes, waterfalls, glaciers, and incredible hiking. The park is pretty remote with limited hotels nearby, so it will take some planning to visit- but it’s entirely worth exploring this park for no other reason than it’s incredible beauty. The fact that there are rarely crowds is just a bonus!
Great Basin National Park- Nevada
Great Basin National Park is located in eastern Nevada near the Utah boarder and contains the Great Basin Desert and most of the South Snake mountains. Take a tour of the Lehman Caves, drive the Wheeler Peak scenic drive, or hike among the ancient bristle cones pines in this beautiful park that sees less than 100,000 visitors per year. There are lots of wonderful day hikes at Great Basin National Park, just be aware of the elevation as the lowest trails in the park sit at over 6,000 feet above sea level while others are as high as 13,000 feet. Great Basin is also a registered International Dark Sky Park and many come to this location specifically for the chance to observe how spectacular the night sky is here!
Wind Cave National Park- South Dakota
Located about two hours west of the more popular Badlands National Park in the southwest corner of South Dakota, Wind Cave is a much lesser known park that is truly unique in it’s own right. Most all of the park is actually underground in the caves! Wind Cave is the densest cave system in the world, with over 150 miles of tunnels mapped by humans, and it was the first cave in the world to be designated as a national park. You can only go down into the caves with a guided tour- but there are numerous tours available that cater to all different ability levels. You can take an easy one hour stroll through the caves or you can take a four hour spelunking tour where you crawl through some of the caves tightest spots! There’s also lots of options in between.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park- Colorado
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is Colorado’s least known national park, and one of the lesser known parks in the entire US. It’s a massively deep gorge carved out by the Gunnison River, with steep walls and dramatic cliffs that may not quite rival those of the Grand Canyon- but are truly incredible in their own right. Plus, this park sees a fraction of the crowds you’ll find at Grand Canyon National Park. It’s not an easily accessible park, but if you’re looking for stunning natural beauty without lots of people around- it’s worth the drive!
Congaree National Park- South Carolina
Congaree National Park is located in central South Carolina and is one of only 16 parks east of the Mississippi. It is home to the largest patch of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the US and is one of the ten least visited national parks. Congaree is home to lots of beautiful walks and hikes. Take a leisurely stroll down the boardwalks if you want something relaxing, or you can tackle a more strenuous hike through the forests. There are a few beautiful waterfalls and even a few gators in the swamp that you might be lucky enough to see. Whichever you choose- be sure to bring bug spray because while there won’t be many human crowds, there may be lots of mosquitos!
Great Sand Dunes National Park- Colorado
Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in southern Colorado, in the shadows of the more popular Rocky Mountain National Park that lies a bit further north. It’s known for its beautiful, towering sand dunes that are otherworldly. Star Dune is the tallest dune in the park (and in North America) standing at 750 feet tall. It’s an all day, 8 mile trek to the top- but if you’re not up for that kind of hiking, just exploring the dunes right off the main road is also incredible! With so many dunes to explore, crowds can spread out a bit so it doesn’t feel like you’re surrounded by huge groups of people in this park.
Hot Springs National Park- Arkansas
Hot Springs National Park is located in central Arkansas and only receives 1.5 million visitors per year, which isn’t all that many when compared with the not too far away Great Smokey Mountains National Park that sees over 12 million visitors annually! With part of the park actually located in Hot Springs, Arkansas- it’s one of the most easily accessible of the national parks. It is home to great hiking trails and of course, the hot springs- which you can bathe in within numerous different bath houses throughout the town and park.
Petrified Forest National Park- Arizona
When it comes to national parks in Arizona, the Grand Canyon and Saguaro get all the attention- and all the crowds. Petrified Forest National Park is located in eastern Arizona and is a truly unique park that doesn’t attract large crowds. The park is named after it’s large deposits of petrified wood, and while looking at wood may not sound exciting, it’s truly incredible when you see it up close! Given it’s geological history, it’s also well known for fossils. The Painted Forest is a must see- but you’ll want to explore this entire park because it’s got numerous different areas that all feel worlds apart even though they’re right next to each other.
Looking for a great way to see some of these national parks with smaller crowds? Consider renting an RV for the ultimate road trip adventure! Be sure to check out our posts on Important Things to Know Before Renting an RV and Different Types of Campsites for RV Camping!
If you’ve visited one of these national parks with smaller crowds- let us know in the comments!