The unofficial numbers are in and 2014 was a record breaking year for visitation in the National Parks system. Over 20 million more people took to the National Parks, Monuments, Memorials, and Recreation Areas last year than in 2013. This data is a little skewed due to the 2013 October government shutdown. Still, it's a sign that for whatever reason more folks are getting out to explore our natural and historic wonders.
While the increase in visitation is fantastic for the parks and local economies, it does mean that many of the most crowded parks are getting even busier. While these ten parks represent a fantastic spectrum of places throughout the country, each of them has an equally wonderful alternative (minus the crowds). Here is the list of the top 10 most visited National Parks in 2014, and some lesser known alternatives you might consider this upcoming year.
#10 - Glacier, Montana
Glacier barely edged out Cuyahoga Valley for the number 10 slot, with an estimated 2,350,000 visitors in 2014. While Glacier is a very large park with an extensive backcountry, most visitors flock to highlights such as Many Glacier and Going-To-The-Sun Road. Factor in that the primary visitation season is only a few short months in the summer, and you can imagine the crowds.
Instead:Get your glacier kicks at North Cascades National Park, Washington
North Cascades might just be the best undiscovered park in the United States, measuring in at just above 23,000 visitors this year. It has mountains, wildlife, trails, big trees... But what about the glaciers you say? Well guess what! North Cascades is the most heavily glaciated part of the US (outside of Alaska) with over 300 glaciers and year-round snowfields, AND it is one of the snowiest places ON EARTH. How many active glaciers does Glacier National Park have? A mere 25.
#9 - Acadia, Maine
Acadia offers visitors a unique mix of rocky New England shorelines, rounded mountains, and beautiful foliage. Its classic appeal brought in 2,600,000 visitors last year, and while it can be experienced year-round, there is not a lot of room for all those people on this small island.
Instead:Explore nearby Baxter State Park (Maine) or rocky Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)
The unique blend of amenities Acadia offers can be hard to substitute, but Baxter State Park, located 4 hours to the north, offers the classically rugged Maine mountain hiking and fall foliage experience. If boating appeals to you then head west to Lake Superior and bring your kayak. Isle Royale National Park was one of the least visited parks (only 14,000 people annually) and offers Maine-esque shorelines along the 45 mile long island.
#8 - Grand Teton, Wyoming
Grand Teton does a good job of spreading around its annual 2,800,000 visitors. Rock climbers, backpackers, auto tourist, hikers, bikers, and families are equally welcome and happy at this park. However, there are still crowds to be found, especially at highlights such as Jenny Lake, Signal Mountain, Colter Bay, and Jackson Hole.
Instead:Hit it in the off-season or head to the Wind River Range, Wyoming
Prime time at Grand Teton runs mid-June through the first week in September, so try visiting just outside that range. You'll still get fairly consistent weather, but the crowds will be much smaller. Hikers and backpackers should head to the Wind River Range to the southeast. The "Winds" are a rugged option that are often overshadowed because they don't have a National Park status. Fun fact -- Gannet Peak is the highest point in Wyoming and is centrally located within the Winds.
#7 - Zion, Utah
Zion snagged the #7 spot this year with over 3 million visitors. The progressive shuttle system that serves the popular valley of the park helps to move those people throughout the park's many highlights. Still, popular spots like the Narrows and Angels Landing are swarmed by hundreds of people during the late spring and summer months.
Instead:Explore a wrinkle in the landscape at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Capitol Reef offers the same monolithic sandstone walls that make climbing, canyoneering, hiking, and backpacking so spectacular at Zion, but with one-fifth of the visitors. This park is located along a 100 mile "wrinkle" in the earth surface called the Waterpocket Fold, just 3 hours east of the park.
#6 - Rocky Mountain, Colorado
Visitors from nearby cities flood Rocky Mountain National Park during peak summer weeks (late June through mid-September). While an extensive network of backcountry and front country trails helps to alleviate the crowds, they are still easy to find at hot spots such as Longs Peak, Bear Lake, along Trail Ridge Road, and at the park's campgrounds. Almost 3.5 million people visited Rocky Mountain last year.
Instead:Sneak over to the western side at State Forest State Park, Colorado
State Forest State Park borders Rocky Mountain National Park on its western edge. You'll find 71,000 acres of forest, peaks, alpine lakes, mile of trails, and over 600 moose here with a miniscule percentage of the people. Why not explore the rocky mountains through the backdoor?
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#5 - Yellowstone, Wyoming / Montana / Idaho
Even though Yellowstone is tucked away in a very remote part of the country, it still receives almost 4 million visitors each year. This park is large and offers many roadside attractions to help disperse the crowds, however the season is short and most people visit within a three month period. Forget about any sense of solitude if you're visiting places like Old Faithful, Lower Yellowstone Falls, or Mammoth Hot Springs.
Instead:Get your geothermal kicks at Lassen Volcanic National Park (California) or watch wildlife at Custer State Park (South Dakota)
While Yellowstone holds the most geothermal areas in the United States; hot springs, fumaroles, mud pots, and geysers can still be found elsewhere. Check out Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California for geothermal activity and a beautiful southern Cascade volcano. Or if it's wildlife you are interested in, head east to Custer State Park in South Dakota, home one of the largest publicly-owned bison herds in the world.
#4 - Olympic, Washington
Olympic National Park provides a fascinating mix of alpine, rainforest, and marine ecosystems. Last year nearly 4 million people took to the trails and beaches found throughout this park. It is a little surprising that Olympic consistently ranks as one of the most visited parks, because there are still a lot of quiet places to be found. Unfortunately, most of them require backcountry travel which a large number of visitors are not interested/able to do.
Instead:Soak in the rainforest at Stratacona Provincial Park, British Columbia
Head north into Canada to Stratacona Provincial Park (located in the middle of Vancouver Island) for some more frontcountry solitude. This is British Columbia's oldest Provincial Park and has very similar alpine and rainforest environments to explore.
#3 - Yosemite, California
Despite having another rough year of wildfires, Yosemite was still visited by almost 4 million people. What makes Yosemite feel so crowded is that most of those visitors spend their time in the 7 square miles that make up Yosemite Valley instead of exploring the many backcountry and high country wonders.
Instead:Visit stunning Kings Canyon or Sequoia National Parks, California
Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks offer the same deep granite canyons, huge old-growth trees, and hiking opportunities with a fraction of the people. Drive the 50 mile Kings Canyon Scenic Byway to Roads End, hike through Grant Grove, or climb at Charlotte Dome to get a small taste of what these parks have to offer.
#2 - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Though there are bountiful opportunities for backpacking and rafting found in Grand Canyon National Park, most of the 4 million plus visitors flock to the south rim which holds most of the park's amenities.
Instead:Go to the North Rim
An easy fix is to visit the north rim of the Grand Canyon instead. It is located a little higher in elevation so the season is shorter, but offers equally spectacular views without the crowds. While the "south-rimmers" are butting elbows trying to get a look into the canyon, you can be sitting in peace on the other side.
#1 - Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina / Tennessee
With year-long access and close proximity to major metropolitan areas (like Atlanta), it should come as no surprise that Great Smoky Mountain topped the list again last year. Although the over 10 million annual visitors are spread out over the year and a fairly large expanse, this park still feels very crowded.
Instead:Explore nearby State Parks
There are many nearby state parks located throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains that provide equally inspiring outdoor opportunities. Check out Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee or Tallulah Gorge, Georgia to get your hiking and waterfall fix. While the state parks are smallers, there are so many you could easily spend months exploring all of them!
There are so many great National Parks that didn't even make this list. Places like Channel Islands, CA; Canyonlands, UT; Death Valley, CA; Black Canyon of the Gunnison, CO; Voyageurs, MN; and Biscayne, FL; are just a few of the other lesser known National Parks. Moreover, the National Park system has over 400 units, including National Parks and Monuments that are equally breathtaking.
So when you are trying to decide where to travel next year, whether it's one of the most crowded parks or most forgotten, remember that these parks are all unique treasures worth seeing.
What are your favorite National Park alternatives?