Happy 100th Birthday, National Park Service! Ken Burns aptly named you “America’s Best Idea”, (and if you haven’t seen his PBS series on the National Parks, it’s a “don’t miss”). 59 National Parks and over 100 National Monuments are managed by the NPS, which got a total of 307 million visits in 2015! Here’s a little about the 10 most popular parks, and some good alternatives for a similar experience where there’s fewer people to share it with.
1- GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina
Known for the diversity of its plant and animal life and the beauty of ridge after ridge of forested ancient mountains, this park is the most visited in the US with 10.7 million visitors. — With only 1.3 million visitors, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia offers a less crowded option with 500 miles of trails, in 300 square miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains from forests to waterfalls. 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail run through this park, or drive the 105 mile Skyline Drive.
2- GRAND CANYON National Park, Arizona (photo)
The immense size and spectacular, colorful geography make this Canyon oh, so Grand! The park service has done a great job of managing the 5.5 million visitors by restricting park access and providing well scheduled bus shuttles throughout. Even so, a summer day, especially during holidays, can be pretty crowded at the South Rim. One option to see this, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the Natural World: visit the more remote, harder to access North Rim for far fewer crowds and a different perspective on the canyon. But check first to be sure the North Rim hasn’t been closed or restricted due to weather conditions. — For a more intimate experience, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona offers four canyons of twisting, turning red rock walls, ancient ruins and rock drawings in the heart of the Navajo Reservation. The depth varies from 30 to about 1000 feet: smaller in scale than it’s grand cousin, with less than 20% of the visitors of Grand Canyon at about 800,000.
3- ROCKY MOUNTAIN National Park, Colorado (photo)
4.16 million people come to visit the home of mountain majesty. This park boasts 72 peaks taller than 12000 feet including a handful of “thirteeners” and 14259 foot Longs Peak. When the traffic’s light, don’t miss Trail Ridge Road, which peaks at an elevation of 12183 feet. — If the crowds are too much, Colorado’s State Forest State Park, which borders RMNP to the northwest, offers a less crowded and less busy alternative for outdoor alpine mountain activities. It’s also considered the moose capital of Colorado. The Mount Evans Scenic Byway, located in the mountains west of Denver, is a good alternative to Trail Ridge Road. Not for the faint of heart: after a steep, narrow, twisting, turning road, the highest paved road in America reaches an elevation of 14130 feet. Probably the best place in Colorado to sight bighorn sheep.
4- YOSEMITE National Park, California
4.15 million visitors visit Yosemite for it’s waterfalls, valleys, meadows, giant sequoias, and of course, rock cliffs iconic for climbing. Camping, lodging and backpacking are popular – so much so that especially in the summer, reservations are required, and traffic in the park can be very heavy. — John Muir called King’s Canyon “a rival to Yosemite”, and it’s known as Yosemite’s Natural Twin for rock climbing and camping. With less than 500,000 visitors, it’s easier to access Kings Canyon National Park’s (photo) 13000 and 14000 foot peaks, and the deepest canyon in the continental US at 8200 feet.
5- YELLOWSTONE National Park, Wyoming (photo)
The name Yellowstone conjures up bubbling murky pools, bears peering in your car windows, and buffalo roaming the meadows. 4.1 million of us visit to see wildlife and geothermal activity at the world’s first national park – but with that many of us it can be hard to get up close and personal. — At Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota only 580,000 visitors come to view bison and other wildlife roaming the badlands. Lassen Volcanic National Park in CA sees less than 500,000 visitors who come to view geothermal activity, with camping hiking, climbing, and beautiful mountain views.
6- ZION National Park, Utah
This impressive display of the power of erosion, with sandstone cliffs and canyons, attracted 3.6 million people last year. While it’s geography is unique, — a good alternative for a similar experience is Capitol Reef National Park, Utah (photo). Home to Chimney Rock and the Waterpocket Fold, a wrinkle in the earth, less than a million visitors per year see the reef’s numerous geologic wonders demonstrating the power of water, which sculpted the desert landscape into cliffs even more colorful than Zion
7- OLYMPIC National Park, Washington
This vast park encompasses nearly a million acres with a wide range of ecosystems, attracting 3.3 million visitors in 2015. — With about a third of the visitors, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington offers temperate rain forest, old growth forest, subalpine meadow, lakes and the mountain itself. Beyond enjoying her beauty, there’s hiking and climbing. The only thing missing is shoreline and 2 million people.
8- GRAND TETON National Park, Wyoming
Granite pinnacles, crystal lakes, brilliant glaciers, peaceful river: 3.1 million of us couldn’t resist the allure last year. Photo safaris of the West’s iconic wildlife are among the park’s most popular tours. — North Cascades National Park, Washington (photo) gets less than 25,000 visitors per year. Full of Rocky Pinnacles, wide alpine valleys, saw toothed peaks, monster waterfalls, sheer rock cliffs, glaciers and year round snowfields; come for sightseeing, hiking, and mountaineering.
9- ACADIA National Park, Maine
The tallest mountain on the US Atlantic coast meets the sea in the first eastern national park. 2.8 million visitors came in 2015 to hike, camp, climb, bird watch and just enjoy the natural beauty. For a shoreline you don’t have to share with quite so many others, Isle Royale National Park, Michigan sees only 14000 annual visitors. This quiet park offers vistas reminiscent of Maine along the shoreline of the 45 mile long island off the Minnesota-Canada coast of Lake Superior. It’s accessible by seaplane or boat from Grand Portage, MN or Houghton or Copper Harbor, MI.
10- GLACIER National Park, Montana
2.4 million visitors came seeking solitude in this wilderness paradise of forests, mountains, meadows and lakes. In 1850, there were 150 glaciers in this patch of land; today only 25 remain. North Cascades National Park, Washington (photo above) is only about 3 hours from Seattle and gets less than 25000 visitors per year. There’s climbing and mountaineering in its rocky pinnacles, wide alpine valleys, saw toothed peaks, monster waterfalls, sheer rock cliffs and over 300 glaciers and year round snowfields. Come for sightseeing, hiking, and mountaineering.
*visitor counts from 2015