Cave with white bulbous formations along the walls of the cave and pool of water.

10 national parks to avoid the summer crowds

From rugged hiking trails to pristine beaches, upgrade your summer at these under-the-radar wilderness areas.

Two spelunkers explore Lechuguilla Cave—currently reserved for scientific research—in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, home to some of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns in the U.S. 
Photograph By ROBBIE SHONE, Nat Geo Image Collection

The most popular national parks in the U.S. such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon attracted record crowds last summer. For some, it might be worth fighting traffic or walking packed trails to see the towering granite monoliths in Yosemite or fireflies in Great Smoky Mountains. But, there are 63 national parks across the country, many with far fewer visitors—and just as many hikes with epic views, wildlife-spotting opportunities, and kid-friendly excursions. 

Here are 10 of the country’s least trafficked parks, plus what to see and do in them.

Best water excursions

Channel Islands National Park, California

Hikers and kayakers find ample ways to explore this constellation of five wild islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. Beginner-friendly paddling trips, like the one from Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island, let visitors take in abundant sea caves, kelp forests, and wildlife such as gray whales, dolphins, and sea lions. Strong currents and shifting weather make going with a guide a smart move. 

Remote islands like Santa Rosa have hiking trails through rugged mountains with glimpses of wildlife, including tiny, endemic island foxes, at dawn and dusk. Spend the night at Santa Cruz Island’s only lodging option, Scorpion Canyon Campground, a half-mile hike from the beach.

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

More than a third of this Northwoods network of boreal forests and rocky islands is covered by water—four huge lakes plus 26 smaller ones. New environmental protections make now an ideal time to experience these waterways via a tour boat, canoe, or kayak. Easy-access shoreline campsites line the park’s major lakes, but the wildest, quietest destinations sit deep in the interior of the Kabetogama Peninsula. Reserve a backcountry campsite along the Chain of Lakes or on the central peninsula’s waters, where your only companions for a spectacular aurora borealis show will be the loons and moose.

(Here’s the best place to see northern lights in the U.S.)

Best wildlife viewing 

Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

This coast-meets-mountains reserve takes wildlife watching to the next level. Use the park’s only maintained long trail to the outlook over Harding Icefield for breathtaking panoramic views of this expansive, icy landscape. Along the way, keep an eye out for grizzlies, black bears, wolverines, lynx, wolves, and mountain goats. From a kayak or tour boat, look out for orcas, humpback whales, and dolphins among the waves and Steller sea lions and harbor seals on the beaches

(Here’s how to see wildlife from your car.).

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Brazilian free-tailed bats are a star attraction at this Chihuahuan Desert park. Each year, these flying critters make their way back from their winter grounds in Mexico to roost in the park’s intricate network of limestone caves. August and September bring the best bat watching when the year’s babies take to the skies with their parents. Around sunset, the bats spiral out of the cavern’s Natural Entrance by the hundreds of thousands to eat insects.

Best hiking trails

North Cascades National Park, Washington

Known as the “American Alps,” this park holds more than 400 miles of trails that take hikers and horseback riders to wildflower meadows, old-growth forests, glacier viewpoints, and remote lakes. One standout is the Desolation Peak Trail, which leads to a mountaintop lookout cabin where Jack Kerouac spent a summer. North Cascades remains well off the radar: Just over 30,000 people visited last year, a mere 2 percent of the traffic of its southern neighbor, Mount Rainier. The terrain is so remote and wild, the park is considering restoring grizzly bear populations here.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Explore the sunset-colored canyons that ancestral Pueblo people called home in Mesa Verde. Here, skillfully designed cliff dwellings, some with up to 150 rooms and large enough to house one hundred people, remain tucked into protected stone alcoves, just as they’ve been for 800 years. In summer, rangers lead hiking tours inside some of them, including Cliff Palace, the largest such village in North America, and Balcony House, which involves climbing up cliffside ladders and crawling through rock tunnels. After dark, look up. Mesa Verde’s skies are well-protected from light pollution, earning it International Dark Sky Park status in 2021.

Best cultural experiences 

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Accessible only by boat or seaplane, this park offers pristine beaches, exceptional snorkeling, and the chance to explore the historic Fort Jefferson. Located on Garden Key, the second largest of the park’s seven islands (70 miles from Key West), the military stronghold was the largest masonry fort in the Western Hemisphere during the mid-1800s. During the Civil War, it became one of the nation’s largest prisons.

(Here’s where to see thrilling underwater shipwrecks around the world.)

Visitors who brave the two-plus-hour trip by boat or 40-minute ride by plane to get here can tour the grounds where Union prisoners (like the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg) were imprisoned during the Civil War. After strolling the grounds, explore Dry Tortugas’s other major attraction: superb snorkeling among coral reefs where you might see octopi, nurse sharks, reef squid, and barracudas.

Haleakalā National Park, Maui, Hawaii

More than 30 miles of trails wind over ancient lava flows and through endemic silversword patches before plunging into the summit crater of Haleakalā. Native Hawaiians consider the summit a sacred site, where they held religious ceremonies, studied the stars, and quarried basalt for centuries. On the other side of the park, visitors can still see their village ruins and fishing shrines at tropical Kipahula, an 800-year-old coastal settlement that’s now better known for its crashing waterfalls and the idyllic Seven Sacred Pools of ‘Ohe’o Gulch. 

Best for family

Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana

Kids will find more than just a day at the beach in this welcome pocket of nature amidst the nearby bustle of Chicago, a 45-minute drive away. An impressively diverse number of ecosystems in this compact park let families explore wetlands, oak savannas, pine forests, prairies, and 15 miles of sandy shoreline in a day. 

(Here’s how to avoid overtourism in U.S. national parks.)

There are also opportunities for kayaking the coast of Lake Michigan or canoeing the Little Calumet River (the park was upgraded from national lakeshore status in 2019). The in-progress Indigenous Cultural Trail features murals and interpretive signs that teach about the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, two of the area’s original peoples.

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Escape the summer heat by exploring a labyrinth of underground caverns that maintain a refreshing temperature of 54°F year-round. To see the caves, you’ll have to take a ranger-guided tour. These vary in difficulty, with options for families with young kids to enjoy the stunning stalagmites, stalactites, and tunnels. Or for the older kids, try the longer, more challenging tours by lantern light. 

(Plan an epic road trip to Tennessee’s coolest caverns.)

During the guided tours, park rangers point out remnants of early inhabitants’ mining activity dating back to 1200 B.C. and tell the stories of enslaved Black cave guides from the 1830s and the “Cave Wars” between rival tourism developers in the early 1900s.

Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan is a freelance journalist who focuses on climate, environment, outdoors, and travel.

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