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5 Worst National Parks for Crowds: And Where To Go Instead

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Seeking Solitude? Avoid These Top National Parks for Crowds

An RV trip to a national park can be an incredible adventure, but dealing with huge crowds can, at times, take away from the nature experience. You may find that some of the most popular national parks can be filled with traffic jams, limited parking, packed trails, and sometimes a lot of noise.

If you are looking for a more serene nature experience, consider alternative destinations for a more peaceful and enjoyable experience. By heading off the beaten path, you may find some hidden gems that you will enjoy even more than a national park experience. In this article, find out which are the worst national parks for crowds and discover other impressive ideas for places to visit instead.

The Most Crowded National Parks and Their Alternatives

Almost every national park is crowded during the park’s peak weather season. While most of us expect some crowds, especially over the summer, there are ways to still have an incredible experience while avoiding the national park crowds. Here are the five most crowded national parks in the US and a great alternative to each so you can still enjoy your trip!

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

mountain scene from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Photo by Scott Russell of TheAdventureDetour.com

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a natural mountain paradise straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, offering stunning mountain landscapes. As beautiful as this mountain park is, the crowds and traffic can be unbearable, especially in the summer and fall months.

In fact, Great Smoky Mountains National Park usually has around double the number of visitors per year compared to other parks. The millions of visitors each year make this park the most visited national park in the United States.

With approximately 14 million visitors per year, you can expect crowded trails, congested scenic drives, and limited availability at popular campgrounds. We have visited during the fall when people flock to the park to witness the fall foliage, and it can feel a little bit more like a circus than a serene nature experience!

For a less crowded national park visit, consider going in the off-season during winter or the shoulder season of spring. Or skip the park altogether and enjoy another gorgeous mountain nature spot in either Tennessee or North Carolina.

Less Crowded Alternative: Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina

If you’re looking for a similar outdoor mountain experience with fewer crowds, consider visiting Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. This large beautiful national forest covers over 500,000 acres and features stunning waterfalls, loads of hiking trails, and plenty of picture-perfect mountain backdrops. 

In Pisgah National Forest, you can enjoy a variety of outdoor activities, such as hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and rock climbing. The park is also known for its abundant wildlife, including black bears. The best part is the lack of crowds in this somewhat hidden gem not far from the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Top Things To Do in Pisgah National Forest

Scenic Drives

Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway

This 76-mile scenic mountain drive is one not to be missed. While you could do the entire route, the most spectacular section is the 15-mile section that begins on US 276 near Brevard.

This part of the scenic byway takes you to the most popular parts of the park, including the Davidson Campground, Looking Glass Rock Hike, Looking Glass Falls, Sliding Rock, and the Cradle of Forestry area.

While this scenic route passes the famous Blue Ridge Parkway twice, you may also want to explore more of the Blue Ridge Parkway during your trip.

Pisgah Loop Scenic Byway – For 4×4 Vehicles

For a one-of-a-kind scenic drive, check out the Pisgah Loop Scenic Byway. This drive is 47 miles and takes about 2.5 hours, depending on how often you stop. It’s a great way to enjoy mountain views and untouched forests with large hemlocks, magnolias, and white pines.

Don’t miss the stunning Wiseman’s View area, where you will find two stone observation decks overlooking a gorge. It’s one of the best views in the area. Note that the section of road near the Linville Gorge Wilderness is unpaved and requires a 4×4 vehicle. Additional OHV trails are available in the Brown Mountain section of the park.

Sliding Rock

This natural rock slide is a blast for both the young and the young at heart. The smooth rocks make the perfect natural waterslide. 

This swimming hole is very popular, so it’s not exactly the place to go to avoid crowds, but it is a blast. The water is also freezing, so heads up if you aren’t a fan of splashing into the frigid water.

Looking Glass Falls

There are other waterfalls throughout the national forest, but the largest and most spectacular is Looking Glass Falls. Since you can access the viewing platform from near the parking area, this can also be a bit of a popular spot during peak hours, but it is a must-see.

A staircase is available to take you to the foot of the falls, where you can swim around and even under the waterfall if you like. It’s a can’t-miss stop.

Cradle of Forestry

This museum features buildings with exhibits on the history of forestry in the US with a focus on conservation. The exhibits are outside along 3 paved trails that are approximately 1 mile each. There is also a film on the Biltmore Forest School and the beginning of the conservation movement in the US.

Hikes

Spend some time researching trails that meet your abilities before picking a hiking area. Many park trails are challenging due to the rocks and steep changes in altitude. Here are some great options.

Looking Glass Rock Trail
  • Length: Approximately 6.5 miles round trip
  • Difficulty: Moderately strenuous out and back
  • Description: This popular park trail leads to the summit of Looking Glass Rock, a large granite dome offering panoramic views of the surrounding area. The trail ascends steadily, providing a challenging but rewarding hike. The summit is a steep drop-off and not appropriate for some children.
Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain Loop
  • Length: Approximately 5.8 miles loop
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Description: This loop trail takes you through a high-elevation grassy bald known as Black Balsam Knob. Enjoy expansive views of the surrounding mountains and the opportunity to hike multiple peaks, including Tennent Mountain.
Graveyard Fields Loop
  • Length: Approximately 3.5 miles loop
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Description: This loop trail takes you through a picturesque valley known for its wildflowers and waterfalls. The trail includes two main waterfalls, Upper Falls and Second Falls/Lower Falls, and offers a great opportunity for photography.
Mount Mitchell Summit Trail
  • Length: Up to 12 miles out and back (can be done as a section hike)
  • Difficulty: Strenuous – 4,000 feet elevation gain
  • Description: This trail leads to the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, Mount Mitchell. The trail starts at the Black Mountain Campground and climbs steeply through a dense forest to the summit, offering stunning views along the way.
Art Loeb Trail
  • Length: Approximately 30.1 miles (can be done as a section hike)
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Description: The Art Loeb Trail is a popular long-distance trail that traverses through Pisgah National Forest. It offers a challenging and rewarding experience for experienced hikers, passing through beautiful forests and rugged ridges, and offers panoramic views.
Linville Gorge Wilderness Loop
  • Length: Various options ranging from 7 to 20+ miles, depending on the chosen loop
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Description: Linville Gorge, also known as the “Grand Canyon of the East,” offers a range of challenging loop hikes. These trails take you through rugged terrain along the gorge’s rim and provide breathtaking views of the Linville River and surrounding cliffs.

Where To RV Camp Near Pisgah National Forest

There are several excellent RV campgrounds near Pisgah National Forest, offering convenient access to the forest’s numerous attractions. One popular option is right in the park at the Davidson River Campground. The best part of RV camping right in the national forest is the convenience.

Not only is the Davidson River Recreation Area close to all the outdoor activities in the national forest, but it’s also located on the Davidson River, where you can tube and swim right from the campground. What a great way to cool off after hiking or exploring in the forest.

This campground offers both electric and nonelectric campsites. Some of the campsites are big rig friendly, but not all. There are bathrooms located in each of the 8 campground loops. 

Check out Pisgah View RV Park for a big rig-friendly campground option. This campground has campsites with full hookups and also some pull-through sites available.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park, located in northwest Arizona, is one of the most popular national parks in the United States. This iconic American park attracts over 5 million visitors per year. 

This natural wonder’s popularity causes overcrowded viewpoints, long lines, and difficulty finding parking or camping spots. The South Rim, in particular, can be quite congested during peak season.

Less Crowded Alternative: Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

If you’re looking for a less crowded national park alternative to the Grand Canyon, consider visiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northeastern Arizona. This lesser-known gem offers stunning canyon vistas, ancient cliff dwellings, and a more intimate experience with nature. This preserved Native American site is one of the longest continuously inhabited areas in the US.

Top Things To Do at Canyon de Chelly

Scenic Drives

The park features two paved drives along the rim with several overlooks to stop at for incredible canyon views below. The North Rim Drive is better in the morning and takes about 2 hours if you stop at 3 overlooks for pictures.

The South Rim Drive is better photographed in the afternoon light and also takes about 2 hours to explore the 6 overlooks. Driving time depends on how long you spend at each stop.

Hike

Take a self-guided hike beginning at the White House Overlook located on South Rim Drive. This is the only trail open to the public in the park and takes about 2 hours.

The trail is an out-and-back with an elevation gain of 600 feet on the way back up. No pets are allowed on the trail.

Ranger Tours

Park rangers often lead narrated group hikes during the peak season. Check the park’s schedule for more information.

Private Tours

Want to learn more about the history of the area and have a more intimate experience in the park? Consider hiring a private guide or taking a group tour. Tours are available with a backcountry permit for hiking or horseback riding.

You can explore the monument via a scenic drive, guided tours, or hiking trails. Some highlights include the White House Ruin, Spider Rock, and Antelope House Ruin.

Where To RV Camp Near Canyon de Chelly

Dry camping is available by permit within Canyon de Chelly National Monument at the Cottonwood Campground. This is a popular choice due to the convenience of staying near scenic drives and hiking trails. Visit the Navajo Parks and Recreations website for permit information.

Full hookup RV camping is very hard to find in this area. Consider staying farther north in the 4 Corners area and driving down to visit Canyon de Chelly. 

Consider staying at Cadillac Ranch RV Park in Bluff, Utah, for full hookup, pull-through, big rig-friendly campsites. The views from this campground are incredible.

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park, located in the southwestern part of Utah, is famous for its towering sandstone cliffs, stunning rock formations, and canyons carved out by the beautiful Virgin River. The park has various activities, such as hiking, canyoneering, and camping, to entertain visitors. 

As beautiful as Zion is, it’s extremely crowded during the peak summer months. Zion is the most visited national park of Utah’s Mighty Five, and it was my family’s favorite park in the state. Even though the park uses a mandatory shuttle system to ease traffic and parking, the trails and overlooks are still congested and noisy from crowds.

Less Crowded Alternative: Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

For a much less crowded national park alternative that is still incredibly beautiful, consider visiting Capitol Reef National Park. This park, also in Utah, features unique geological formations, colorful cliffs, hidden arches, and Native American petroglyphs. 

Capitol Reef provides ample opportunities for hiking, exploring canyons, and enjoying the region’s natural beauty. While Capitol Reef may not be as well-known as Zion, it still has plenty to offer. 

Top Things To Do in Capitol Reef National Park

Scenic Drives

Capitol Reef Scenic Drive

The Capitol Reef Scenic Drive along Hwy 24 is a stunning 25 miles that offer spectacular park views of rock formations, canyons, and cliffs. There are many overlooks to stop for photos on this must-see drive. Be sure to stop at Panorama Point, Sunset Point, and Goosenecks Overlook for photos.

Capitol Gorge

At the end of the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, you can extend your drive on the unpaved Capitol Gorge Road. This 2.3-mile gravel road isn’t suitable for large RVs as it takes you through the winding canyon. It ends at where the Capitol Gorge hike begins.

Cathedral Valley

For a more remote, off-the-beaten-path scenic drive, consider the Cathedral Valley Loop. This road is unpaved and rugged, which is why it is less crowded. 

A high-clearance vehicle is best for this scenic drive. The views include many towering rock formations to explore. The loop takes about 4 hours but can be longer if you decide to take a short hike or two.

Loop-The-Fold Driving Tour

A really interesting scenic drive in the park is the “Loop-The-Fold.” Loop-The-Fold Drive is a 25-mile unpaved road that begins near the Capitol Reef Visitor Center. It winds through the park’s geological features, including the Waterpocket Fold, a massive wrinkle in the Earth’s crust that stretches for nearly 100 miles.

The drive offers breathtaking views of colorful cliffs, towering mesas, deep canyons, and unique rock formations. Loop- The-Fold is a gravel/dirt road, so a four-wheel drive vehicle may be necessary, especially after rain or during periods of wet weather when the road can become muddy. It’s always a good idea to check with park rangers or the visitor center for current road conditions before attempting the drive.

Historic Fruita District

The Fruita District in Capitol Reef National Park is a historic area known for its preserved homesteads, orchards, and unique glimpse into the region’s past. The Fruita Historic District preserves a collection of historic buildings, including the Gifford Homestead, which is a charming farmhouse turned museum. 

Explore the homestead to learn about the early pioneer life and agricultural practices in the area. You can also purchase freshly baked pies, jams, and other local products at the Gifford Homestead.

One of the highlights of the Fruita District is its thriving orchards. Planted by the early Mormon settlers in the late 1800s, these orchards continue to produce a variety of fruits, including apples, pears, peaches, and cherries. 

Visitors can pick fruit during the harvest season (usually from June to October) by purchasing a picking permit at the visitor center. There is a self-pay system in place to weigh and purchase picked fruit.

Hiking

Always be mindful of canyon hiking in the park. Rain can cause flash flooding that can quickly turn deadly in narrow slot canyons.

Hickman Bridge Trail
  • Distance: 1.8 miles (round trip) 
  • Difficulty: Easy to Moderate 
  • This popular trail leads to Hickman Bridge, a massive natural bridge spanning a scenic canyon. The hike offers great views of the surrounding cliffs and is suitable for hikers of various skill levels.
Cassidy Arch Trail
  • Distance: 3.5 miles (round trip) 
  • Difficulty: Moderate 
  • Named after the famous outlaw Butch Cassidy, this trail leads to Cassidy Arch, a stunning natural arch perched on a sandstone cliff. The hike involves some elevation gain and provides sweeping views of the park’s landscapes.
Cohab Canyon Trail
  • Distance: 3 miles (round trip) 
  • Difficulty: Moderate 
  • Cohab Canyon Trail is a picturesque hike that takes you through a narrow canyon with towering cliffs. Along the way, you’ll encounter colorful rock formations and enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding area.
Grand Wash Trail
  • Distance: 4.4 miles (one way) 
  • Difficulty: Moderate 
  • Grand Wash Trail is a scenic canyon hike that offers a unique experience of walking through towering cliffs and narrow slot canyons. The trail can be hiked in either direction, allowing for a variety of options, including connecting with other trails.
Capitol Gorge Trail
  • Distance: 1 mile (round trip) 
  • Difficulty: Easy 
  • Capitol Gorge Trail is a relatively easy hike that takes you through a narrow gorge with towering sandstone walls. Along the trail, you can see pioneer inscriptions and enjoy the serene beauty of the surrounding cliffs.
Rim Overlook Trail
  • Distance: 4.3 miles (round trip) 
  • Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous 
  • Rim Overlook Trail offers breathtaking panoramic views of Capitol Reef National Park from high above the cliffs. The trail involves some steep sections but rewards hikers with stunning vistas of the park’s canyons and formations.

RV Camping Near Capitol Reef National Park

If you’re planning on RV camping near Capitol Reef National Park, there are several options available. One popular choice is the Fruita Campground, which is camping located within the national park. 

This campground is dry camping, but there is a dump station. This campground is better for smaller RVs. Its convenient location means that you can go hiking right from the campground. National park campsites are popular and go fast, so always book as far in advance as possible.

For a big rig-friendly campground with full hookups, check out Thousand Lakes RV Park. This campground offers full pull-through campsites, a pool, and even jeep rentals for exploring the area.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park is a popular mountain destination in Colorado, known for its stunning grand vistas, scenic drives, and diverse wildlife. With over 4 million visitors per year, Rocky Mountain NP is one of the most crowded National Parks in the United States. This high level of visitation can lead to long wait times, crowded trails, and limited parking.

Less Crowded Alternative: San Juan National Forest

San Juan National Forest, located in southwestern Colorado, offers an equally stunning yet less crowded alternative to Rocky Mountain National Park. Encompassing over 1.8 million acres of picturesque landscapes, this national forest features majestic mountains, lush meadows, and crystal-clear lakes and rivers.

Top Things To Do in San Juan National Forest

Scenic Drive

The San Juan Skyway, a 233-mile scenic loop that passes through several historic towns and mining areas and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. This scenic route is also part of the Million Dollar Highway, which is one of the most scenic drives in the US.

Hiking

The area is home to the beautiful Needle Mountains and the rugged Weminuche Wilderness, which offer stunning views and challenging hiking opportunities.

Ironton and Colorado Boy

This unique hike takes you through the old Colorado Boy mining town, where historic mining buildings are left standing. This easy out-and-back trail is 1.3 miles with a 200-foot elevation gain.

Bear Creek Falls

This beautiful out-and-back hike provides stunning mountain views and a glimpse of the town of Telluride. The 5-mile hike has an elevation gain of around 1,000 feet. The highlight of the hike is the 80-foot scenic Bear Creek Falls.

Rainbow Hot Springs

If you are up for a longer day hike or an easier overnight backpacking trip, consider the 6-mile hike out to Rainbow Hot Springs. Take a soak in one of the 3 amazing natural pools found there.

Chicago Basin

One of the most interesting hiking opportunities for backpackers is the Chicago Basin Trail Loop. You can take the Durango and Silverton train to the Needleton stop and then get off to begin a 6-mile hike into the Chicago Basin. Then those hikers looking to conquer a fourteener have 3 options that begin in the basin.

Chimney Rock National Monument

This recently designated national monument is part of the national forest. It protects the site of one of the largest Pueblo communities in Colorado. Learn more about the unique history of this area on a daily guided walking tour via the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association.

Durango and Silverton Narrow Guage Railroad

This is one of the most stunning train rides in America, and it runs right through the national forest. Hop aboard this historic train which takes you along steep ledges and through the Animas River Gorge. This is one ride you won’t forget!

RV Camping Near San Juan National Forest

Silverton Lakes RV Resort is one of the best RV campground options near San Juan National Forest. This well-maintained campground features spacious big rig-friendly pull-through sites, full hookups, and OHV road and trail access. This campground is a convenient home base as you explore the beauty of San Juan National Forest.

Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia National Park, located on the coast of Maine, is known for its dramatic rugged coastline and picturesque views. The park attracts millions of visitors every year, making it one of the most crowded national parks in the United States. Although it’s undeniably beautiful, its popularity and scenery make it an often overcrowded destination, especially in peak season.

The best way to avoid crowds in Acadia is to visit during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. Another great option is to visit the separate, less crowded, but equally beautiful Schoodic Peninsula section of Acadia. Keep reading for another nearby park to explore for an uncrowded Maine nature experience.

Less Crowded Alternative: Baxter State Park

Instead of getting in wherever you can fit in with the masses at Acadia National Park, consider venturing to Baxter State Park, which is situated further north in Maine. 

This less popular park still offers breathtaking natural beauty without all of the crowds. It is home to some of Maine’s most stunning mountains, lakes, and dense forests.

Top Things To Do in Baxter State Park

This state park is an unspoiled piece of north Maine woods. It’s a great place for hiking, paddling, and camping. This park is also bordered by Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument for even more outdoor adventure opportunities.

Hiking

The main attraction in this park is Maine’s highest peak Mount Katahdin. There are many trail options to reach the summit, but all of them are steep and strenuous. Allow at least 12 hours to hike to the summit.

Katahdin Summit (Via Abol Trail)
  • Distance: Approximately 8.8 miles round trip
  • Difficulty: Very Strenuous
  • Description: This iconic trail leads to the summit of Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine. It offers breathtaking views and is a challenging, strenuous hike that requires proper preparation and experience. The elevation gain is 3,982.
Knife Edge Trail
  • Distance: Approximately 1.1 miles one-way
  • Difficulty: Very strenuous
  • Description: Knife Edge is a thrilling and exposed trail that traverses the narrow ridge between Pamola Peak and Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin. It requires scrambling and can be dangerous in adverse weather conditions. Be mindful of steep drop-offs.
Chimney Pond Trail
  • Distance: Approximately 3.3 miles one way
  • Difficulty: Moderate 
  • Description: This trail leads to Chimney Pond Campground, with views of Chimney Pond, a picturesque alpine pond nestled beneath the peaks of Mount Katahdin. The trail is rocky and offers beautiful scenery while it gradually gains elevation.
Hunt Trail
  • Distance: Approximately 5.2 miles one way
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Description: Hunt Trail is another route to the summit of Mount Katahdin and one of the most popular. It offers stunning views and Katahdin Stream Falls.

Fishing

This park boasts both stream and pond fishing. Some stream fishing holes are Nesowadnehunk Stream and Wassataquoik Stream. Popular pond fishing areas are Fowler Ponds, Daicey Ponds, and Grassy Ponds.

Waterfalls

The most popular waterfalls are Big Niagara Falls and Little Niagara Falls. These falls are reached by an easy 2.3-mile section of the Appalachian Trail that begins by Daicey Pond. 

RV Camping Near Baxter State Park

Camping opportunities for large RVs are very limited. If you have a big rig, you may need to stay farther away and drive to Baxter State Park. 

One campground near Baxter that may be able to fit a larger RV in select campsites is Wilderness Edge Campground. However, this campground is very wooded. It’s a great place to stay for those with ATVs and has a pool.

Katahdin Shadows Campground is near Baxter State Park and is better for small to medium RVs. There are some full hookup campsites and some sites that are water and electric only.

For large RVs, a good choice is the Houlton/Canadian Border KOA Journey. While this campground is farther from the state park, it has campsites to fit any size RV. This campground also has access to ATV trails.

RV Trip Planning Resources

Looking for an easier solution to help you find a campground, avoid low clearances, and plan your entire RV trip? Check out RV LIFE Pro.

RV LIFE Pro has everything you need to plan your entire RV trip. From looking for campgrounds using RV LIFE Campground Reviews, getting turn-by-turn directions with an RV Safe GPS in the RV LIFE App, and planning out all of your stops in the trip using the RV LIFE Trip Wizard. It has everything you need to plan your next RV adventure!

Now that you have discovered five less crowded alternatives to well-known national parks, I hope you set out on your next adventure to enjoy nature’s beauty and serenity without fighting the crowds. Each of these alternatives provides stunning scenery, unique wildlife encounters, and a range of outdoor activities. So what are you waiting for?

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