The United States has 59 National Parks and 13.88% of the total land area is earmarked as protected (for reference, Venezuela comes in at #1 in the world with 53.9% of total land area protected). Unfortunately, that’s not a lot of room for the 300 million people who visited the parks in 2018 to find a bit of solitude and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
For example, if you plan to visit the amazing Arches National Park in the height of the summer, you’ll likely spend several hours sitting in your car waiting to enter the park and then have a rough time finding parking once you finally make it inside!
We recently spent 6 months driving from Portland, Oregon to the Florida Keys and back again. We put over 20,000 miles on our Ford Bronco, spent over 120 of those nights in a tent sleeping under the stars, and had the opportunity to check out 26 of our National Parks along the way. And during our US road trip we learned a few lessons:
- National Parks are best visited during the shoulder season.
- There are so many more beautiful National Monuments, State Parks, and public lands that are far less populated but every bit as beautiful!
So we’ve compiled a list of our favorite alternatives to the National Parks to help you avoid the crowds while experiencing the best that the USA has to offer!
Don’t forget to check out our web story: Awesome Alternatives to the US National Parks!
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10 Awesome Alternatives to the US National Parks
1. Goblin Valley State Park, Utah
The unique and magical hoodoo formations of Bryce Canyon National Park are amazing to witness, but you’ll certainly contend with crowds if you’re there in the popular summer months. Plus who wants to simply hike among hoodoos when you can climb them in Goblin Valley State Park!
Getting to Goblin Valley
Goblin Valley is located about 30 miles south of I-70 near… well, nothing really. The small town of Hanksville is 30 miles south and offers a small market and a couple of gas stations (including one particularly unique one built inside of a cave). Make sure you stock up on all the necessities before you head to the park. The entrance fee is $12 per car.
Explore Goblin Valley
When you arrive at Goblin Valley you’ll be greeted by a sprawling valley of sandstone hoodoos resembling spires, toadstools, and all types of wild formations. It’s a playground for both adults and children! The best part is the park places almost no restrictions on where you can and can’t go. Hiking in Goblin Valley is truly a choose-your-own-adventure kind of experience.
Scramble up and down hoodoos, crawl through tunnels, and rappel into “The Goblin’s Lair”. It’s easy to spend an entire day getting lost in the labyrinth of Goblin Valley. There is no doubt it’s one of the best state parks in the USA.
While Goblin Valley is loads of fun to explore during the day, you find that it transforms into a whole other world at night. Bring along a high-powered flashlight and get lost all over again as you wander through the hoodoos under a brilliant night sky!
Camping and Amenities in the Park
Goblin Valley State Park has only 24 campsites available per night which are likely to be full if you are planning to go on a Friday or Saturday night. It is highly recommended that you reserve a site in advance – you can do so on Reserve America or by calling 1-800-322-3770. Campsites are $30 per night and include your entrance fee to the park. There are also 2 yurts available to rent if glamping is more your style (but be sure to reserve early).
Not only is the campground in an amazing setting as it is surrounded by massive pink and white cliffs, but it also has running water, flush toilets, and piping hot showers – all the amenities of home!
2. White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
The tallest dunes in North America are in Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. And while they are impressive, (in our humble opinion) they don’t hold a candle to the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico which offers a fairy tale setting of pure white sand stretching out to a horizon of mountain peaks.
You’ll have an absolutely amazing time wandering around the largest gypsum field in the world!
Getting to White Sands
The White Sands National Monument Visitor Center and Dunes Drive is located off of Highway US-70 between Alamogordo and Las Cruces. Alamogordo is 15 miles west of the monument and offers all the services and supplies you’ll need.
Explore White Sands
Due to the sheer vastness of the area and the fact that there are no real landmarks to help figure out where you are, it’s relatively easy to get lost while exploring the dunes. The rangers have used markers to lay out a loop but we’d recommend downloading an offline map and using your GPS to make your way back to your car. Sunset is spectacular in the dunes so make sure to bring a blanket and some snacks to catch the amazing color show that is about to unfold before you.
If you’re not camping, the park closes right after sunset so you’ll need to head out. If you are staying to camp, you are one of a select few lucky visitors to have the whole place to yourself.
Camping and Amenities in the National Monument
There are 10 primitive backcountry camping sites available on a first-come-first-serve basis. No advanced reservations are allowed. You’ll need to arrive at the Visitor Center at opening time to obtain a backcountry camping permit and get assigned a campsite. Then you’ll hike ~1 mile to your campsite and pack in and out everything you’ll need for the night.
3. Buckskin Gulch, Utah
Zion National Park is one of the most stunning landscapes in the US National Park system and offers two of our favorite hikes in the US – Angels Landing and The Narrows. But don’t expect to find any solitude along The Narrows, especially on a hot summer day when the water level is low (ideal hiking conditions). We hiked the Narrows in dry suits in November while the snow was falling and surprisingly still had plenty of company.
Amazingly, most people don’t realize that just 90-minutes southeast of Zion is the deepest slot canyon in the US and the longest in the world – the stunning Buckskin Gulch.
Buckskin Gulch runs over 25 miles and to hike it from start to finish you’ll likely want to make it an overnight trip and arrange a car shuttle. You’ll also need one of 20 daily permits which are doled out by the BLM Ranger Station 30 miles up the road in Kanab, Utah. However, you can reach the most impressive part of Buckskin Gulch easily on a day hike.
While in Kanab, stop by the BLM Ranger Station for more detailed info on this and all the amazing hikes you can do in this area. Plus you can pick up a good topographical map and check to see if there is any danger of flash flood before hiking down into Buckskin Gulch.
Getting to Buckskin Gulch
From Kanab head east on Highway 89 for 38 miles. Then head south on House Rock Valley Road – it’s a bumpy, dusty dirt road, but navigable with a 2-wheel drive vehicle as long as it’s dry (we’d advise not to attempt it in the rain). After rattling along House Rock Valley Road for 8.3 miles you’ll come to Wire Pass Trailhead.
Here you’ll find a small parking area, a drop toilet, and a trail register. This is actually where you would begin hiking to the famous Wave rock formation. But you’ll need a permit to go there and they are incredibly difficult to come by. Read more about The Wave permit process.
For a day hike in Buckskin Gulch, all you’ll need to do is jot your name in the trail registry, pay the day-use fee of $6 per person (be sure to bring cash and exact change), and take off down the Wire Pass trail.
Explore Buckskin Gulch
You’ll hike about a mile through the dry riverbed before descending into the slot canyon of wire pass. Follow this down until it opens up into Buckskin Gulch proper. From there just hang a right and head down Buckskin Gulch as far as your heart desires. The canyon just gets deeper and more dramatic the farther you go!
Camping and Amenities Nearby
There are several campgrounds in the Kanab area. The State Line Campground is located a little over a mile up the dirt road from the trailhead but it fills up fast. White House Campground is about 30 minutes away but it tends to be less crowded. You can also pay a fee to camp at one of the RV parks in Kanab.
4. Alvord Desert, Oregon
When most people think of Oregon they imagine the lush Columbia River Valley filled with moss-covered trees and endless waterfalls. While that part of Oregon is indeed spectacular and picturesque, you’ll find yourself competing with ~500,000-weekend warriors from the nearby city of Portland. For some solitude head up and over the Cascades and then keep driving east, for about 8 hours.
In the far South-Eastern corner of Oregon, you’ll find an expansive dry lake bed set in the shadows of the Steens Mountain. This is the Alvord Desert – a veritable playground for anyone who enjoys mobbing around in their 4×4, soaking in hot springs, and gazing up at the stars with virtually zero light pollution.
Getting to the Alvord Desert
The Alvord Desert is out there. WAY out there. It can be reached via the Fields-Denio Road (East Steens Road) from either the north (from Burns) or the south (from Fields). From the north, drive ~41 miles south on the dirt Fields-Denio Road from Highway 78. From the south, drive 23 miles north (12 miles of which are paved). Find an easy-ish route to drive right out onto the playa.
Be sure to fill up on gas in Fields! It’s a blast to try to set your own land speed record as you barrel aimlessly across the playa in your car so you’ll likely use more gas than you expect and you don’t want to get stuck way out here!
On your way out of the Alvord make sure you stop at Fields Station for their world-famous hamburgers and milkshakes. The title of ‘world famous’ may be self-bestowed, but the burgers and shakes are delicious and most certainly worth the stop!
Explore the Alvord
The world is your oyster in the Alvord! You can hike up the dunes at the far end of the playa for fantastic views or just drive as far and as fast as your heart desires! (But beware of other campers!)
Camping and Amenities in the Desert
You can pick anywhere on the lake bed to set up camp for the night but keep in mind that it is flat as far as the eye can see. So if you need to use the toilet you’ll be “shit out of luck”, pun intended, so plan ahead. Set up your camp right in the middle of the playa and then build a fire and spend the evening stargazing.
The Alvord Hot Springs (and small convenience store) is privately owned and they have the only bathroom in the area. You’ll most definitely want to take a soak in the springs if nothing else to gain access to their toilet and shower! They also sell some groceries and firewood in case you don’t come well-stocked.
5. Sonoran Desert National Monument, Arizona
Who hasn’t dreamed of sleeping under a Giant Saguaro cactus? It’s the stuff of John Wayne Western films and thousands of #DesertVibes Instagram posts! You may be tempted to head to Saguaro National Park to get your giant cactus fix.
But you’ll find yourself competing for 1 of only 18 campsites in the whole park, each of which is in close proximity to neighboring campers. And with downtown Tucson less than 20 miles away, the light pollution will impede your perfect starry sky.
For a real desert adventure, check out the massive 496,400-acre Sonoran Desert National Monument. Not only will you find all the Giant Saguaro cactus your heart could ever desire and you’ll also find miles of 4×4 roads, secluded campsites, magnificent sunsets, and stunning night skies!
Getting to the Sonoran Desert
Pick up all the groceries, water, beer, and tequila you need before leaving Phoenix as you won’t find many amenities where you’re headed. First head south to Maricopa and then west towards Gila Bend which will take you through the northern part of the National Monument and give you a quick introduction to the desert.
Most of the 4×4 roads in this northern part of the park are closed to allow for vegetation rehabilitation so enjoy the views but don’t try to camp here.
Once you arrive in Gila Bend you can make a quick stop to top off your gas tank and your ice chest (be sure you have plenty of gas and water). Now head south out of Gila Bend and hop on the I-8 heading east. You immediately notice that even though this is an interstate there are no guardrails and there are a number of dirt roads heading off into the desert on both sides of the main highway.
Explore the Sonoran Desert
There are no specified trails in the area. Just wander around among the uniquely shaped cacti and be careful where you step!
Camping and Amenities in the Desert
There are no designated campgrounds within the Sonoran Desert so just pick a promising-looking dirt road and start exploring. Many of the roads have barbed wire gates strung over them, but for the next 22 miles this is all public land – just open the gate, drive through, and make sure you close it behind you!
How deep you want to drive into the desert is totally up to you. We found a lovely camping spot just a few miles in. Save these GPS coordinates if you want to follow in our footsteps: 32°53’26.9″N 112°35’43.9″W.
6. Black Hills National Forest
The Black Hills National Forest is a mountain range located in western South Dakota and extending into Wyoming. As it is a vast area, it offers many opportunities to explore while appreciating the natural beauty of the landscape.
Getting to Black Hills National Forest
As the Black Hills is a mountain range, you can start your scenic drive from Rapid City in South Dakota, heading toward Mount Rushmore for about 24 miles. From there, it is an easy 20 miles to Custer State Park, which is famous for its bison herds and wildlife.
Explore Black Hills National Forest
The best way to explore the Black Hills is by embarking on a scenic drive through the canyons, valleys, and rock tunnels. You can drive your way to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial or the lesser-known Crazy Horse Memorial – a monument featuring the image of Crazy Horse, the Oglala Lakota warrior, being carved into a mountaintop.
Another option is to take a day trip and head out to the Devils Tower Monument, which is about 107 miles from Rapid City. Devils Tower is a butte rising 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River and standing at 867 feet from summit to base. It’s a great area to do a bit of light hiking or look for signs of alien life!
Camping and Amenities in the National Forest
Custer State Park offers about 71,000 acres of outdoor activities, and it has around eight campgrounds and 50 camper cabins. It is located at 13329 US Hwy 16, Custer, SD 57730.
Bed and breakfasts and cabins are available throughout the Black Hills.
7. Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area is open year-round and provides views of dunes, forests, and the Pacific Ocean.
It is one of the largest expanses of wind-sculpted sand dunes in the US – some even stand as tall as 500 feet above sea level – and the perfect place to try out some off-highway vehicle (OHV) adventures.
Seasonal winds constantly change the patterns in the sand, so at times it seems the sands marches forward and it can even smother the forest! With 31,500 acres of sand extending over 40 miles along the coast, going on an adventure here won’t disappoint.
Getting to Oregon Dunes
The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area is located about 11 miles north of Reedsport, Oregon, on the west side near mile marker 201. Florence, Oregon, is another close town about 22 miles north of the Oregon Dunes visitor center. It is a small town by the Siuslaw River from where you can see the towering sand dunes. The entrance fee is $5 per vehicle.
Explore Oregon Dunes
You can go on a thrill ride with a guided OHV tour to explore the expansive dunes, but if that doesn’t appeal to you, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, biking, fishing, photography, canoeing, horseback riding, and camping.
Start your visit at the visitor center to check out the interpretive exhibits, maps, and brochures. Then, head out on a hiking adventure by following the 1.25-mile loop of Bluebill Trail to see the southern areas of the dunes and miles of open sand.
Camping and Amenities in the Dunes
The Oregon Dunes offers campground camping as well as RV camping. Reservations may be required in advance, but these can be done online. If it is privacy you’re searching for, then check out the Sutton campground, which provides you access to the Sutton and Darlingtonia area.
If it’s an OHV adventure you seek, then the Driftwood II Campground will provide you with direct access, but it is less ideal for tents. For water adventures, the Tahkenitch Landing will provide you with water and hiking access.
8. Monument Valley, Utah
Monument Valley in Arizona is considered one of the natural wonders of the world! You may even recognize Monument Valley from classic Hollywood films as the location has served as a backdrop in more than two dozen major movies and television shows (think Easy Rider and Westworld!).
As you drive through this iconic landscape, you’ll notice how much it is filled with towering sandstone formations, some of which can reach up to 1,000 feet.
Getting to Monument Valley, Utah
Monument Valley is located on the border between Arizona and Utah. You can get there by taking Scenic Byway 163 (I-163), as it will take you straight to the buttes of the valley. The valley isn’t close to anything. Make sure to stock up on essentials as you make your way to see this landscape.
The valley is run by the Navajo Nation. The park entry is $20 per vehicle for up to 4 people and $8 for each additional person.
Explore Monument Valley, Utah
You will have two options to visit Monument Valley – book a guided tour or do a self-guided driving tour. Start by heading out to the visitor center to explore the museum. There is also a Navajo archaeology exhibit and a variety of arts and crafts.
If hiking is more your style, then you can proceed to do the 3.2-mile loop hike on the Wildcat Trail. It’s well worth the effort, as the hike offers one of the most scenic views of the valley. You’ll feel right at home in the Wild West! The hike is moderate and takes around 2-3 hours to complete with sand, dirt, and rocky terrains.
Camping and Amenities in the Valley
The View Campground is located inside the park and offers dry RV (no hook-ups) and camping sites with views of the Mittens. The area also has one hotel, the View Hotel, offering 96 rooms and a restaurant.
Outside the park, there is Goulding’s RV Campground, which is about five miles from the park. They offer RV sites with hook-ups and tent camping. There’s also Goulding’s Lodge, which used to be a trading post, offering 152 rooms, a restaurant, and an indoor swimming pool.
9. Custer Gallatin National Forest
Located in south-central Montana, the Gallatin National Forest is home to six separate mountain ranges. Within the national forest, there is the Gallatin Petrified Forest which boasts unique mineralized fossils.
If you love scenic drives, then this is certainly one for the books. Take to the road, and you’ll come across beautiful Montana landscapes, including snowy peaks and alpine meadows.
Getting to Gallatin National Forest
The Gallatin National Forest headquarters is located in Bozeman, Montana. You can access it off Interstate 90 south on US Highway 89 or US 191, depending on where you’re coming from (either Livingston or Bozeman).
Keep in mind that the forest is home to grizzly and black bears, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions, so be cautious!
Explore Gallatin National Forest
Gallatin National Forest is a great place to do some hiking and camping. You can hike to the Champagne Falls – a seven-mile trail near Bozeman, Montana. It takes around 3+ hours to complete.
Another option if you prefer to stay in the city is to hike to Gallagator Trail – also known as the Linear Trail. It’s a popular trail that starts at an old train depot connecting the Montana State University Campus and Downtown Bozeman.
Camping and Amenities Nearby
Gallatin has several cabins for rent with a rustic old-timey feel and accommodation that used to be ranger stations and fire lookouts. Some cabins don’t have water or electricity, but they still offer shelter from the elements and wildlife that a tent wouldn’t provide.
10. Pisgah and Nantahala National Forest
Located in the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina, the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forest is one of the first national forests in the eastern US.
There are three major river streams – Bent Creek, Mills River, and Davidson River – with many long-distance trails to explore.
Getting to Pisgah and Nantahala National Forest
The Pisgah and Nantahala National Forest offers two scenic drives – Blue Ridge Parkway and Forest Heritage Scenic Byways. The visitor center is located at 1001 Pisgah Highway, Pisgah Forest, NC and it is free to access the forest.
Explore Pisgah and Nantahala National Forest
Stop by the Pisgah Ranger Station to learn about the latest information on the hiking trails, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails and to check out the exhibits. You can then stop at the Wildlife Education Center to learn about the natural history of the area.
For a hiking adventure, check out the Looking Glass Rock. It is a slightly difficult 6.5-mile hike, so plan to spend about four hours on the trail. It’ll be worth the effort to see the views. Other areas worth the effort include Sliding Rock and Cradle of Forestry. With so many cool hikes, you won’t want to leave!
Camping and Amenities Nearby
Pisgah National Forest has about 18 campgrounds that you can choose from for your stay. If you’re here for some rock climbing, then check out the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. Lake Powhatan Campground would be the ideal place for water-centered activities, and for some fishing, check out the Rocky Bluff Campground.
Davidson River Campground is ideal as it is in the middle of many hiking trails. For some horseback riding, stay at the Wolf Ford Horse Campground. The campgrounds are geared toward whatever activities you wish to do during your stay at Pisgah National Forest!
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