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State Park Alternatives to 7 Popular National Parks

The summer months are ideal for enjoying the beauty of many national parks, including the Grand Canyon and the Grand Tetons. Less grand: the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that also wants to experience them. Good thing the roads to equally incredible state parks (there are thousands!) are often much less traveled. They are great options if you can’t get a national park reservation, or if there are occasional government shutdowns.

Here are state park alternatives for some of the US’s most visited national parks in 2023. These spaces provide space to wander and see wildlife up close. Make sure you remember to practice “leave no trace.”

Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia

Go instead: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Appalachian region is home to the most visited park in the national park system, the Great Smoky Mountains, which attracted a whopping 13 million visitors in 2023. But the great thing about Appalachia is that it is vast, spanning 13 states. appreciated from a lot of (less busy) vistas. Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia is a good example of this. Here you will find the Allegheny Mountains, part of the Appalachians, without the crowds of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Blackwater Falls State Park reported about 850,000 visitors in 2015.) Come to Blackwater in the fall and you can enjoy fall foliage as stunning as what you’ll find in North Carolina and Tennessee. If you take a photo of Blackwater Falls against the deep oranges and reds, you might not even need to edit people out of your shot.

Bonus: If you’re looking for an alternative to a national park, consider Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The park attracted only 1.58 million visitors in 2023, but it is home to 500 miles of Appalachian hiking trails. Plus, it’s an incredible fall foliage road trip thanks to the Skyline Drive, which winds 107 miles through the park.

Where to stay: Blackwater Falls State Park Lodge

Consider a stay at Blackwater Falls State Park Lodge, which was renovated from top to bottom in 2022. Madeline Weinfield, an Afar employee, recommends the stay, especially with the views it has to offer: “With just 54 rooms, the lodge feels as close to nature as you can get from the comfort of a real bed. The location allows for immersive stargazing and – if you wake up early enough – to see the sun rise over the falls.”

River bending through red rocks

Dead Horse Point State Park overlooks Utah’s Canyonlands National Park.

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Go instead: Grand Canyon National Park

The Colorado River carved its way through the Colorado Plateau 5 to 6 million years ago and helped forge the landscapes of the 1.2 million-acre Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona. The park attracted 4.73 million people to its south, north, west and east edges in 2023. To see a completely different view of the winding Colorado River with almost as dramatic geological formations, drive about six hours northeast and admire the scenery of Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah. Although it has a less enticing name, Dead Horse Point State Park attracts only about a million visitors annually and also offers views of the Colorado River curving through layers of southwestern rock (the park overlooks Canyonlands National Park in the southeast). Adventure on wheels also abounds here, as travelers can get up close and personal with the landscape on the Intrepid Mountain Biking Trail system.

Where to stay: Dead Horse Point State Park

The state park has two campgrounds, the Kayenta Campground and Wingate Campground, to choose from. You can even book several yurts on the reservation website.

The entrance to Goblin Valley State Park in Utah is marked by a row of the park's main attraction of the same name: sandstone hoodoos, or

The entrance to Goblin Valley State Park in Utah is marked by a row of the park’s main attraction of the same name: sandstone hoodoos, or “goblins.”

Goblin Valley State Park, Utah

Go instead: Zion National Park

Utah’s “Big 5” parks – Zion, Arches, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon – attracted more than 10 million travelers in 2023, with Zion alone welcoming 4.62 million visitors. Although the dangerous Angels Landing hike cannot be repeated, many of the park’s features, including sandstone cliffs, slot canyons, hoodoos (rocks that have eroded into top-heavy formations), and arches, can be found throughout the state Zion is known for its hoodoos and alien walkways. And the park’s status as an International Dark Sky Park means these rocks frame some of the country’s best starry skies, adding more incentive to choose this alternative.

Where to stay: Goblin Valley State Park

Goblin Valley State Park is one of the best state parks in the country for camping. There are 25 sites available at Goblin Valley State Park, as well as two yurts.

A herd of bison on grassy land

Custer State Park is home to more than 1,000 bison.

Photo by Anh Luu/Shutterstock

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Go instead: Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park

As the first national park in the United States, Yellowstone receives a lot of fame and visitors: the park had approximately 4.5 million visitors in 2023. The neighboring Grand Teton National Park also received a lot of attention from travelers and attracted 3.4 million people. to its incredible mountain landscapes in 2023.

Alternatively, you can visit Custer State Park, a place about 450 miles east that is visited by only half of the travelers. Like Yellowstone and Grand Teton, its vast spaces and wildlife make it one of the best state parks in the region. Custer covers almost 71,000 acres of rolling plains, and the approximately 1,300 bison that roam these parts can be spotted without binoculars (you can see them up close on trails like the Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway). Certainly, Yellowstone’s geothermal features (such as Old Faithful) are not found here. But this park also has some gems: granite rock towers and pillars that reach thousands of meters into the air. And one of the country’s most famous rock formations, Mount Rushmore, is just 20 miles north.

Where to stay: Under Canvas Mount Rushmore

Glamp at Under Canvas’s Mount Rushmore outpost, less than four miles from Mount Rushmore National Monument and about 30 minutes from Custer State Park. The enclosure offers nine different tent options, including a Stargazer tent, which comes with a viewing window above the king-size bed.

Sunset over a tree-covered mountain

Golden Gate Canyon State Park is only about 30 miles from Denver and 25 miles from Boulder.

Photo by Andreas Gamst Laursen/Shutterstock

Golden Gate Canyon State Park, Colorado

Go instead: Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is known for its scenery, which covers more than 60 peaks at least 10,000 feet tall – one is a fourteener (a mountain peak over 13,000 feet) – and mountain lakes. The park attracts quite a few visitors, with approximately 4.1 million people coming to hike, bike and explore the 266,000-acre park; it has even implemented a reservation system to keep crowds to a minimum. If you want to enjoy the tranquil scenery of the Rockies, head to the 12,000-acre Golden Gate Canyon State Park, which had just 1.58 million visitors in 2021. The park is located 25 miles south of Boulder and has a distance of more than 35 miles. of hiking trails, with plenty of places where you can see the aspens change color in the fall.

Bonus: In addition to the state parks, the wilderness areas also include scenic hiking trails and views comparable to those of a national park. (Wilderness areas are federally owned land, but differ from national parks in that they are intended to remain relatively untouched.) Colorado’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is one of them, just outside Aspen, and is home to several fourteen, including Castle and maroon peaks.

Where to stay: St. Julien Hotel & Spa

Although there are a ton of campsites available in Golden Gate Canyon, drive back to Boulder and spend the night at one of the best hotels in the state. The St. Julien Hotel & Spa has a 10,000 square foot spa (no wonder). spa is in the name) and a great view of the surrounding mountains.

Boardwalk that goes through tall trees

Pfieffer Big Sur State Park is home to redwood trees and waterfalls.

Photo by BDLane/Shutterstock

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, California

Go instead: Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park, located in central California, attracted 3.9 million visitors in 2023 thanks to its towering redwoods and waterfalls. (Fun fact: Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall on the continent.) But drive about 210 miles west to the Pacific coast, and you’ll find the less-visited Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which travelers have nicknamed “mini Yosemite” for its diverse landscapes and tranquil atmosphere. The approximately 1,000 hectare park also offers beautiful waterfalls, such as the 18 meter high Pfeiffer Falls.

Bonus: Numerous national forests in the state offer scenery similar to that of Yosemite National Park, including Sierra National Forest. The forest is less than a 10-minute drive from Yosemite and is home to portions of the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail (which overlap). Since both areas include parts of the Sierra Nevada, visitors will find many similar geographic features, from lakes and waterfalls to granite peaks and pines, with a hint of more ruggedness.

Where to stay: Post Ranch Inn

Post Ranch Inn is located five miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, on a bluff 1,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Afar employee Kathryn Romeyn writes that wellness plays a big role in the hotel experience, with offerings ranging from shaman healing sessions to meditation sessions in the nearby woods.