As spring turns to summer and the warming weather melts the historic snowpack in the Western United States, hikers, bikers and campers everywhere are itching to get outside and explore. And while it’s awesome that the pandemic motivated people across the country to venture into the outdoors to enjoy our nation’s many spectacular national parks, the influx of visitors is still straining our national parks system.
In fact, fan-favorite Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, has switched to a timed entry reservation system after record-breaking visitor numbers that had rangers closing the gates as early as 8:30 a.m. in the fall of 2022. Neighboring Zion National Park only allows shuttle buses within the park to try to manage traffic and requires permits for its most famous hike, Angels Landing. Overcrowded national parks across the country are following suit with reservation and permitting systems.
So, what’s a national park lover to do to beat the crowds? Visit these under-the-radar but equally incredible national parks instead.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Located near the small town of Chester in northeastern California, this out-of-the-way showstopper is one of the least visited national parks in the West. Lassen Volcanic National Park is well-named, as it is home to all four types of volcanoes found on Earth – composite, shield, cinder cone and plug come. And while the park’s surface is alive with hydrothermal activity, its crystal-clear mountain lakes, wildflower-filled meadows and incredible dark night sky are a calming respite from the hot volcanic activity that surrounds the infamous Bumpass Hell Trail.
Another thing that sets Lassen Volcanic National Park apart? It’s world-class ranger programs. From trips to Bumpass Hell and snowshoeing tours or astronomy programs and ranger-led tours that explore everything from the boiling pools, mud pots and fumaroles to Lassen Peak – the largest plug dome volcano in the world.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is unlike any other in the United States. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Dark Sky Park, Mesa Verde preserves the cultural heritage of 26 Pueblos and Tribes that called the cliffs and mesas of southwestern Colorado home 1,500 years ago. And while the park is now home to thousands of species of plants and animals – some of which are endemic to the park – it’s the habitants of the past and the mark they left that people really come to see.
To really experience Mesa Verde, you need to take a ranger-guided tour of one of the three ancestral cliff dwelling sites (Balcony House, Cliff Palace and Long House). These tours allow you to (delicately and respectfully) tour one of the 600 cliff dwellings that were home to the Ancestral Pueblos from 600 to 1300 CE. While incredible, these cliff dwellings only scratch the surface of all the things “Green Table” National Park has to offer.
Capitol Reef National Park
If Capitol Reef National Park isn’t on your bucket list, it should be! One of Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks, it’s second in size only to Canyonlands National Park and is easily one of the best yet least-visited national parks in Utah. Why, however, is anyone’s guess because this park is filled with canyons, cliffs, domes and so many unique features – most notably the immense Waterpocket Fold.
The Waterpocket Fold is a massive geologic monocline (AKA a wrinkle on the earth) that extends nearly 100 miles and divides the park into three different sections: the Fruita Historic District, the Cathedral Valley District and, of course, the Waterpocket Fold. The Fruita Historic District is the easiest to access (and is the most-visited, as a result) and holds some of Capitol Reef’s most popular areas – including historic orchards nestled in the shade of desert red rock cliffs. More remote but well worth the drive, the Cathedral Valley district is home to incredibly scenic drives, impressive rock formations and the famous monoliths known as the Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon.
So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and explore our precious parks – far from the crowds and smartly packed with your favorite jerky to fuel your summer adventures.