Get the National Park Experience Without the National Park Crowds
This year, as the National Park Service turns 100, more people are visiting the national park system than ever before. In 2015, more than 300 million people traveled to some part America’s National Park System, 15 million more than the previous year, according to nps.gov. The appeal of the national monuments, national forests and more than 400 National Parks is no mystery, as they give visitors the opportunity to experience the country’s diverse natural landscape. However, this popularity can at times result in overcrowding, especially during peak seasons and in the most visited national parks. For those seeking a more solitary experience with nature, here are some nearby alternatives to three of the country’s most popular national parks.
Yellowstone National Park and Harriman State Park
Most of us have heard of Old Faithful and Yellowstone National Park. Spanning parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, Yellowstone was established in 1872 as the country's very first national park. Visitors flock to Yellowstone (more than four million in 2015 alone) to see the natural geysers, glimpse wildlife like grizzly bears, wolves and bison, and to view the snowy peaks of the Tetons.
However, you can travel only a half-hour away from the crowds, to southeastern Idaho, where you will find the lesser known, 11,000-acre, Harriman State Park. Here, you can experience the same outstanding views, wildlife and fly-fishing as Yellowstone. Harriman boasts more than 24 miles of trails, an eight-mile stretch of the Snake River and abundant wildflower meadows. If you plan to visit some of the area’s more rugged terrain, be sure to come prepared with sturdy hiking boots and layers appropriate for all weather, as the temperature can dip quickly even during the summer.
Consider staying at one of the park’s yurts, which rent for $50 and feature wood-burning stoves and beds for six people.
Acadia National Park and Camden Hills State Park
Set on the picturesque and rugged Maine coast, Acadia National Park wows visitors with both a beautiful seashore and views from atop granite peaks. Much of Acadia is accessible by car or tour bus and is close to amenities in the town of Bar Harbor, and so receives more than two million visits each year. For a less crowded alternative in Maine, consider instead visiting Camden Hills State Park. Also on the coast, Camden Hills is 70 miles from Acadia. The 6,200-acre park features the same rocky beaches and blueberry-covered mountain summits. You can either camp at one of the park’s campsites or stay at a hotel or B&B in nearby Camden.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Grayson Highlands State Park
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee is the country’s most popular national park, with more than 10 million visitors every year. The trails of the park follow the ridge lines of Appalachian Mountains and give hikers panoramic views of the valleys below. To avoid the masses but still experience the lush green beauty of the Appalachian range, consider taking a trip to Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park. Hike along the Appalachian Trail, take in the spectacular overlooks, and catch a glimpse of the park’s famous wild ponies. The park offers 96 primitive campsites as well as a camping lodge which is open from May through October.
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