National Parks

National Parks to Visit This Summer to Avoid the Crowds

view from Schoodic Peninsula
The view of the Atlantic along the Schoodic Peninsula. credit: Catherine Parker

While some lists include parks that never crossed your mind, this list is about alternatives to the popular parks. National Parks have seen record attendance over the last few years, so some require reservations to drive into the park. Fear not; there are options to those top parks, like other nearby locations and alternative entrances. From Maine to California, here are the least visited National Parks.

11 Least Visited National Parks to Visit This Summer

Acadia National Park’s Schoodic Peninsula 
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Capital Reef National Park
Canyonlands National Park
Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim 
Joshua Tree National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
Redwoods National and State Parks
Shenandoah National Park
Yellowstone National Park’s Eastern Entrance

Acadia National Park’s Schoodic Peninsula in Maine

Located on the Maine coastline, Acadia National Park is stunning with its rocky shore, deep blue Atlantic waters and evergreen trees that touch both. It is also one of the busiest parks on the East Coast. However, that doesn’t need it’s a no-go.

Mount Desert is the most visited portion of Acadia National Park and is closest to Bar Harbor, a popular summertime destination. It uses a shuttle system since most parking areas fill quickly and remain throughout the day.

Another unit of Acadia National Park is across the bay from Mount Desert and near Winter Harbor. The Schoodic Peninsula is just as scenic, and I enjoyed my visit there.

The Schoodic Peninsula has its visitor center and campground at Schoodic Woods Campground and Ranger Station. Visitors will find picnic areas overlooking the water. There is even a great hike on the Schoodic Head, the highpoint. From here, hikers can see for miles over the blue waters of the North Atlantic.

Acadia National Park is open year-round though seasonal closures affect roads and services. A 7-day vehicle pass is $35.

Top 17 Things to Do in Acadia National Park’s Schoodic Peninsula

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado

A visit to Rocky Mountain National Park requires a timed-entry vehicle pass to enter from both sides. To enjoy the rugged mountain scenery of Colorado’s Rockies, then head to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Located in Western Colorado, this park protects the Precambrian rock carved by the Gunnison River.

Where the Grand Canyon is orangey-red and wide, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is craggy, narrow and dark gray. Carved over 2 million years,

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park feature three entrances: South Rim, North Rim and East Portal. The South Rim is most developed and open year-round. During my visit, see the Black Canyon was the top thing to do and easiest way to see it is from its scenic drive.

The South Rim Road is seven miles long and features 12 overlooks, each affording a different perspective. A stop at the South Rim Visitor Center is time well spent. Like most national parks, hiking is popular though know your abilities, especially in higher elevations. Wildlife spotting is another fun thing to do in Gunnison, the Big Horn Sheep can be found clinging to the wall of the canyon. Black beer and mule deer also call the park home.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is open year-round, though seasonal closures affect roads and services. A 7-day vehicle pass is $30.

Top 19 Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park 

Capital Reef National Park and Canyonlands National Park in Utah

Zion National Park’s Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to cars. Arches National Park requires a timed entry reservation. If that sounds not fun, head to Utah’s less busy national parks. It boasts five, and each protects a stunningly different landscape.

Capital Reef National Park protects a geological feature called the Waterpocket Fold, a wrinkle in the earth. Visitors will find golden sandstone, arches and white sandstone domes.

One of the most popular sites is Fruita, a settlement from the 1880s with nearly 2,000 fruit trees. When I visited, I picked apricots fresh from the tree. It is one of the Least Visited National Parks.

Canyonlands National Park is virtually across the street from Arches National Park. Its most stunning features are its epic vistas, like at Island in the Sky district. However, most visitors want to see its Mesa Arch (especially if they couldn’t get into its neighbor park). Its 27 feet long and frames the La Sal Mountains.

Capital Reef National Park is located in Southern Utah and is open year-round, though seasonal closures affect roads and services. A 7-day vehicle pass is $20. Find Canyonlands National Park in eastern Utah, just south of Arches. It will cost $30 to enter with a 7-day pass.

Top Things to Do in Bryce Canyon National Park
North rim of Grand Canyon Visitor Center
The North Rim Visitor Center credit: Catherine Parker

Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim in Arizona

The Grand Canyon is an American icon, and it is busy. The South Rim’s main parking lot reminds me of a mall parking lot. It is so busy that free shuttles are offered within the park and from its gateway community of Tusayan.

However, the Grand Canyon has two sides: the South Rim and the North Rim. After visiting both, I recommend the North Rim for most travelers. It is a greener version with trees and meadows. It is one of the Least Visited National Parks.

The North Rim offers a historic lodge, camping, hiking and stunning canyon views. I recommend heading to the patio at the Grand Canyon Lodge and hiking to Bright Angel Point.

The one big exception to the North Rim is it is closed from December 1 to May 15th each year (lodging and camping close in mid-October). The Grand Canyon’s South Rim is open year-round. Its 7-day vehicle pass is $35 and is good for both sides of the park.

Top Things to Do on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon
Discover Joshua Tree National Park with kids.
The Cholla Cactus might look cuddly, but beware, spiny thorns attract kids and pets alike.

Joshua Tree National Park in California

Summer in the desert is intense. With temperatures soaring past 100 Fahrenheit daily for months, most visitors stay clear. Most National Park activities are shuttered for the summer season, so no ranger programs, excursions, and hiking are at your own risk.

However, I have visited several desert national parks in the summer and enjoyed them. I had the place to myself and limited my activities to scenic drives and short walkabouts to snag photos.

Joshua Tree National Park tops my list of desert parks to visit in the summer. I drove the Pinto Basin Road and saw a cholla cactus. On Park Avenue in the park, I saw Joshua trees and Skull Rock.

Joshua Tree National Park is located east of Palm Springs, California. Its seven-day pass is $30.

Top Things to Do at Joshua Tree National Park 
Take a hike. What to do in Lassen National Park with kids.
Take a hike when visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park to enjoy the mountain scenery. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen National Park is an under-the-radar Northern California National Park. It offers the beauty of Yosemite with a lot fewer people. Visitors will also get something at Lassen that Yosemite doesn’t have—Volcanoes. Thanks to the Cascade Mountain Range and its legendary volcanic activity. It is one of the Least Visited National Parks.

The main road, Lassen Volcanic National Highway, doubles as a 30-mile scenic byway. Hiking is another top thing to do in Lassen with Bumpass Hell topping lists for its name and its odor, thanks to sulphur. When I visited, my youngest said it was a no-go and returned to our car.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is open year-round, but its main road isn’t. The snow is usually cleared in June. A seven-day pass is $30 to enter.

Top Things to Do in Lassen Volcanic National Park 
 New River Gorge in West Virginia
The bridge over the New River Gorge in West Virginia. credit: Catherine Parker

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

This is one of the newest national parks, and it is located in West Virginia. Both of those factors contribute to fewer visitors, and it is one of the Least Visited National Parks. The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is part of the Appalachian Mountains.

In spite of its name, the New River is actually one of the oldest rivers in the U.S. When I visited, I found a stunning location with a New River Bridge spanning the New River Gorge. Finished in 1977, it is 3,030 feet long and on the National Register of Historic Places. To see this single-arch bridgehead, go to the Canyon Rim Visitor Center.

It’s a West Virginia highway, so pedestrians aren’t allowed. However, it is possible to walk under the bridge, which is way better. The bridge’s structure is located under it, and a guided tour is available.

River rafting and hiking are the top activities. Inside the park, visitors will find 53 miles of free-flowing New River. Guided whitewater rafting trips range from calm water to Class V.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is a national park that welcomes dogs with the BARK Ranger program. A new Initiative that encourages exploring with your pup.

B-Bag your waste.

A-Wear a leash.

R-Respect for wildlife.

K-Know where you can go to stay safe.

One of the best features of New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is it is free to enter. It is located in southern West Virginia.

Take a hike as one of the things to do with kids in the Redwoods. Least Visited National Parks
Explore Redwood National and State Parks with your family to meet the tallest trees on the planet. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Redwoods National and State Parks in California

Seeing the towering timbers is a must for California National Park trips. Lucky for you and California, Redwood trees are found in several parks, like Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and Yosemite. The less crowded national park known for redwoods is Northern California’s Redwoods National and State Parks.

Straddling U.S. 101, the Redwoods National and State Parks offers groves of California redwoods, like the Grove of Titans. I am amazed how the redwoods towered over me. Another top grove is the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, named after a former First Lady. I took my kids on this hike since it was used in a Star Wars movie.

Redwoods National and State Parks are free to enter except for the day-use areas in Del Norte Coast Redwoods, Prairie Creek Redwoods, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Parks.

Top Things to Do in Redwoods National and State Parks 

Shenandoah National Park in Virginia

With its location just outside of the Washington, DC metro area, this is another busy park. However, Shenandoah National Park is a long skinny park that runs for 105 miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Front Royal entrance is the busiest since it is closest to DC.

Shenandoah National Park has four entrances and I recommend heading south on Interstate 81 to the Rockfish Gap Entrance, close to Waynesboro. After you enter the park, you’ll be on its scenic drive, Skyline Drive. Just a reminder, you are enjoying the scenery and not making time. The speed limit is 35 mph.

Drivers will pass a scenic overlook every few miles. I recommend pulling off for each one. It’s the easiest way to see the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Hiking is another way to engage with nature. Shenandoah National Park offers over 500 miles of trails. Visitors will find two visitor centers with information, maps and restrooms with water bottle fillers.

Shenandoah National Park is open year-round though seasonal closures affect roads and services. A 7-day vehicle pass is $30.

Tower Roosevelt in Yellowstone Least Visited National Parks
The Tower Roosevelt area in Yellowstone offers trail rides. credit: Catherine Parker

Yellowstone National Park’s Eastern Entrance

This top national park is stunning and one of my favorites (and I have visited over 100 sites). I will not lie; some areas get congested, especially Old Faithful and the parking area for the Grand Prismatic Spring. However, I never felt it was too crowded.

I recommend you base yourself in Cody, Wyoming, east of the park. You can use either the Northeast or Eastern Entrances (or both to do a loop) to see Yellowstone National Park. I found this route stunning as it passes through the Absaroka Mountains.

Lodging and camping reservations are a must, but timed-entry vehicle reservations aren’t used in Yellowstone. I recommend moving around the park to keep driving to a minimum. Early or late in the day is best for spotting animals and securing parking at top spots.

The Grand Loop is a scenic drive, so roll your windows down and take it all in. During your visit, take a hike, a guided tour or even a horseback riding excursion. Lodging ranges from log cabins at Roosevelt Lodge to Victorian-era elegance at Lake Yellowstone Hotel to modern rooms at Canyon Lodge.

Top Things to Do in Cody Wyoming 


Catherine Parker has a passion for travel and seen all 50 U.S. States. As a former flight attendant with one of the largest airlines, there isn't a North American airport that she hasn't landed in at least once. Since clipping her professional wings after 9/11, she combines her love of the open road with visiting architectural and cultural icons. She is based out of Central Texas dividing her time between writing and restoring a pair of 100-year-old houses. She shares her life with her three kids and her husband.

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