When travel opened up in late spring and into the summer, visitation numbers at national parks skyrocketed. Crowds of people stood shoulder to shoulder to watch the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone erupt, and lines of RVs crept bumper to bumper through Yosemite Valley. Outdoor recreation became one of the only ways stir-crazy families could (sort of) safely get out of their house—so they did.
This crowding will likely continue into the fall at the more popular parks; but with 62 national parks spread across the US, exploring a lesser-known option could turn into a downright fun and unique vacation. Here are a few ideas to get your imagination stirring.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
What to do here: Hiking, kayaking, boating, wildlife watching
This long, narrow island is only accessible by boat, which may or may not contribute to the fact that it sees fewer visitors in a year than Yellowstone gets in one average summer day. Suffice it to say, you’ll have a lot of space to yourself.
Visitors have the option of “thru-hiking” the 45-mile length of Isle Royale on a well maintained, moderate trail. Summer is high time for mosquitos around Isle Royale, and the park closes in the winter, so this national park is at its prime in early to mid-fall. Find out more about Isle Royale here.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado
What to do here: Hiking, photography, fishing, scenic drive
Plunging walls, narrow corridors, and dark precambrian rock create a dramatic landscape on par with more famous canyons in the national park system—minus the crowds! Grab a fishing permit and hit the Gunnison River at the base of the canyon, or pitch a tent in one of the in-park campsites.
Both the North Rim and the South Rim have easy-to-moderate hiking trails along the rims and down into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Wilderness Area. The most adventurous visitors can head into the canyon itself, with details on this endeavor here. Check out more about the park here.
Badlands, South Dakota
What to do here: Hiking, backpacking, wildlife viewing
Looking out at the buttes, mesas, rockbeds, and other geologic formations, you can imagine the prehistoric life that made its home here millions of years ago. Badlands National Park encompasses nearly a quarter-million acres of rocky expanses and windswept prairie.
The unique rock formations are the product of minerals, rock deposits, and erosion, creating jaw-dropping vistas stretching as far as the eye can see. Visitors to this vast park can go camping and backpacking; remember to pack your binoculars to spot bighorn sheep, herds of bison, and the endangered black-footed ferret. Find out more about Badlands here.
Great Basin, Nevada
What to do here: Hiking, backpacking
Getting into the backcountry of Great Basin is a far cry from the mad dash to reserve campsites and backcountry permits in the more popular National Parks. You don’t need reservations here, and you don’t even need a permit. Walk up, chat with the friendly front-country rangers, get some tips for the best overnights, and you’ll be on your way.
The trails are well signed and maintained, and there are beautiful lakes and passes to explore between the bald peaks. The best part? You’re pretty much guaranteed to have your campsite to yourself. Much of Great Basin sits at a high elevation, so hit this park in early fall to avoid freezing temperatures and snowfall. Find out more here.
What to do here: Hiking, backpacking, night sky viewing
Despite being one of the Mighty Five—Utah’s famed collection of national parks—Canyonlands can feel quite solitary. There are a few popular day hikes, but most visitors never venture beyond the closest arches and vistas. This park is also immense and broken up into districts, so pick the one you want to visit and know that if you want to see the other places, you’re committed to a drive—driving from the Islands in the Sky to the Needles District will take over two hours.
The backpacking and hiking range from short day hikes to epic overnights, but permits can be tough to grab and a good water strategy is critical. Stay on top of your planning and you won’t be disappointed by the epic spires, canyons, and otherworldly formations of one of Southern Utah’s finest regions. Find out more here.
What amazing lesser-known national parks did we overlook? Leave us a comment below! We could especially use some East Coast beta for the GGG community!