The United States has 59 National Parks and 13.88% of total land area 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 325 million people who visited the parks in 2016 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 in 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!
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!
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.
When you arrive at Goblin Valley you’ll be greeted by sprawling valley of sandstone hoodoos resembling spires, toadstools, and all types of wild formations. It’s an playground for both adults and children! The best part is the park places almost no restrictions on where you can and can’t go. Scramble up and down hoodoos, crawl through tunnels, rappel into “The Goblin’s Lair”. It’s easy to spend an entire day getting lost in the labyrinth of Goblin Valley.
Keep in mind: It is really easy to get lost – whether you mean to or not – so make sure you bring lots of water and some extra snacks in case it takes you a little longer to get back than anticipated.
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:
Goblin Valley 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 $25 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, it also has running water, flush toilets, and piping hot showers – all the amenities of home!
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 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!
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.
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 be one of a select few lucky visitors to have the whole place to yourself.
Camping and Amenities:
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.
Keep in mind: Camping in White Sands can be difficult as they do regular missile testing with only 24 hours notice which causes the monument to close. You’ll need to check the day before to make sure that a missile test isn’t planned for the following day.
Buckskin Gulch, Utah
Zion is one of the most stunning of the 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 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.
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 it 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.
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!
Keep in mind: you’ll have to come back out the way you came in and keep an eye on the weather. If it starts to look like rain head for home immediately. Even a little bit of rain can result in a significant rise in the water level or even a flash flood and there are very few escape routes from Buckskin Gulch.
Camping and Amenities:
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 trail head 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.
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 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.
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 thatn 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!
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:
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.
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’s your heart could ever desire, you’ll also find miles of 4×4 roads, secluded campsites, magnificent sunsets, and stunning night skies!
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 a interstate there are no guardrails and there are a number of dirt roads heading off into the desert on both sides of main highway.
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:
There are no designated campground within the Sonoran Desert so just pick a promising looking dirt road and start exploring. Many off 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.