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Woman standing on ledge in Zion National Park
Simon | Adobe Stock

The 5 Most Crowded National Parks (and Where to Go Instead)

SmarterTravel

National Parks are all about enjoying nature—which can be hard to do when you’re stuck in traffic, waiting in line for parking, or fighting for a view at a scenic vista. If you’re seeking solitude, it’s important to know which parks to skip—Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, sees over 14 million visitors each year. If you want stunning scenery without the crowds, head instead to America’s best kept secret—state parks. 

To determine the best state park alternatives to over-crowded national parks, we used data provided by Google Maps that analyzed the ratings of state parks within a 100-mile radius of the most-visited national parks.

Avoid the crowds at the five most-visited national parks in America and opt for these top-rated nearby state parks instead. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 14,161,548 Visitors

Mountain and tree view from the highest point in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in the US by a huge margin—it hosts more than double the amount of tourists compared to Zion National Park, the second most-visited park on the list. 

The main reason for the park’s popularity? It’s one of just a few national parks that doesn’t charge an entry fee. The park’s location, spanning North Carolina and Tennessee, puts it within easy driving distance for many Americans as well, adding to the appeal. 

Where to Go Instead: Seven Islands State Birding Park (20 miles away). Set on 416 tranquil acres along the French Broad River in nearby Knox County, Tennessee, this state park offers stunning views of the Smoky Mountains. More than 190 species of birds call this park home, hence the name. 

Zion National Park: 5,039,835 Visitors

Aerial view of a canyon in Zion National Park
maislam | Adobe Stock

Otherworldly sandstone cliffs, thrilling slot canyons, and some of the most famous trails in the country make Zion National Park a must-visit. Unfortunately, the park’s fame means it’s extremely crowded in peak season—so much so that visitors have to use often crowded shuttle buses to get around the park as the main road is closed to private vehicles. 

Where to Go Instead: Snow Canyon State Park (34 miles away). Similarly stunning sandstone scenery awaits just a short drive away from Zion National Park at the less-visited Snow Canyon State Park. There are more than 38 miles of hiking trails to explore, along with chances to spot rare wildlife like peregrine falcons and gila monsters. 

Yellowstone National Park: 4,860,242 Visitors

Bison walking on Grand Prismatic hot spring in Yellowstone National Park
west7megan | Adobe Stock

Yellowstone had its busiest year on record in 2021, up 28 percent from 2020. If you want to avoid the crowds in the park, avoid coming in July, which is the most-visited month—a record-breaking one million tourists visited in July 2021. 

One way to leave the crowds behind? Get out of your car and do a few hikes. According to Yellowstone National Park, most visitors stay within a half mile of Yellowstone’s road corridors and parking areas. 

Where to Go Instead: Buffalo Bill State Park (66 miles away). There might not be famous geysers or prismatic hot springs at Buffalo Bill State Park, but there is plenty of history to be found. The park is home to the ranch house and barn that celebrity showman Colonel William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) built. Right next door, the Buffalo Bill State Recreation Area offers camping, hiking, and boating. 

Grand Canyon National Park: 4,523,677 Visitors

Wide view of the Grand Canyon
Wirepec | Adobe Stock

On peak fall weekends, visitors to Grand Canyon National Park can expect to wait in lines of up to two hours to get inside the park via the South Entrance. Although the Grand Canyon is certainly a must-see, if you can’t face the crowds, there are plenty of hidden gems nearby. 

Where to Go Instead: Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park (94 miles away.) As the name implies, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park encompasses miles of blush colored dunes and sandstone canyons. All of the dunes are open for hiking, sand sledding, or exploring, and about 90 percent can be used for ATV riding. 

Rocky Mountain National Park: 4,434,848 Visitors

Bear Lake and surrounding mountains and trees at Rocky Mountains National Park
Sean Xu | Adobe Stock

Rocky Mountain National Park has become overwhelmed with tourists, so in an effort to limit the crowds, reservations are required to visit between May 27 through October 10, 2022. If you weren’t fast enough to snag a timed entry reservation, don’t worry—there’s plenty of natural beauty nearby.

Where to Go Instead: State Forest State Park (29 miles away). Hoping to see a moose on your trip? You’ll likely have better luck at State Forest State Park than you would at Rocky Mountain National Park. The state park is the “moose viewing capital of Colorado,” with over 600 of the giant creatures roaming around. For your best chance of a sighting, download State Forest’s wildlife viewing guide, which offers tips for seeing animals and identifying different types of tracks.

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