The national parks are designated as such for a reason: They’re some of the most spectacular places in the country. But they’re also often crowded, heavily trafficked, and, highly regulated. Here are some other nearby options that are just as beautiful and slightly more accessible.
Instead of Mt. Rainier National Park, go to the Enchantments
The highest mountain in Washington State is a sight to behold, even from downtown Seattle—but it looks almost as good from far away. For dramatic views, head north to the Enchantments in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Considered one of the most beautiful hiking areas in the Northwest, the Enchantments are a series of high-elevation alpine lakes surrounded by spiky formations, including the highly photogenic Prusik Peak. Summer camping here requires a permit that’s obtained through a lottery system, but hikers might also enjoy making a day of trekking through the park’s rugged trails. The area is 19 miles from end to end, and climbs steeply from both trailheads.
Instead of Canyonlands or Arches, go to the San Rafael Swell
Moab has long been the heart of dirtbag desert culture because there are a handful of incredible climbing, biking, paddling, and canyoneering opportunities right outside of town. But there’s also a heck of a lot of people. However, just northwest of Utah’s national park hub is the San Rafael Swell. It’s loaded with slot canyons, rock art and an endless variety of trails and scenic roads. Try climbing the Buckhorn Wash or San Rafael Reef, or float down the San Rafael River. Best of all, the park’s peaceful solitude makes it likely you won’t have to share the space with too many other tourists.
Instead of Grand Teton National Park, go to the Bridger-Teton National Forest
Jackson Hole is the access point for both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, so there’s certainly no shortage of beautiful mountains in the area. Some of the best and most accessible recreation is outside of the parks, though. There’s incredible fishing in the Wild and Scenic Gros Ventre River, backcountry skiing and riding on Teton Pass, and a ton of backpacking and hiking, too. The Bridger also allows for hunting and snowmobiling, two activities not permitted in the parks.
Instead of Yosemite, go to Bishop
The Yosemite Valley and its towering face of El Capitan is one of the most iconic sights in the country. The climbing culture and innumerable classic routes draw in climbers and photographers from all over the world. On a busy weekend it also seems to draw in most of the population of the Bay Area, so travelers in search of a slightly more secluded climbing and hiking scene should head to Bishop, on the far side of the Sierras, instead. Just outside of town you can climb the Bishop Boulders. There are also a ton of classic backcountry skiing lines, including Mount Tom in the mountains to the west. Mt. Whitney—the highest peak in the Lower 48—isn’t too far off either.
Instead of the Great Smoky Mountains, go to the Blue Ridge Parkway
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a part of the International Biosphere Reserve, is the most visited park in the country. It’s home to a diverse range of wildlife and there are tons of places for hiking or wetting a line for trout. However, what some adventure seekers might not know is that to the north, the Blue Ridge Parkway also has all of these things in spades, and an endless amount of beautiful road biking, too. Travelers can also take advantage of a hike up Mount Pisgah, or enjoy live bluegrass at the Blue Ridge Music Center.