With so many health-related concerns about travel during the coronavirus pandemic, one of the most popular choices has been the great outdoors, and that is expected to continue through summer and into 2022. But you may have also seen news reports about jammed parking lots, crowded trails, unattended garbage — a variety of problems caused by this giant nature ambush. So, as you plan your vacation for next year, you may want to forgo that trip to the über popular Great Smoky Mountains or the Grand Canyon and instead explore some of the less crowded of the 62 national parks.
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PHOTO BY: Getty Images
Black Canyon of the Gunnison (Colorado)
Number of visitors in 2019: 432,818
Colorado’s version of the Grand Canyon boasts some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock and sharpest spires in North America, carved by the thundering Gunnison River over a span of 2 million years. This is shock-and-awe territory, with jaw-dropping scenery visible from hiking trails for all abilities and from scenic drives along the canyon’s rims and down to the river. Anglers can fish for plentiful trout, and bird-watchers can sight hawks, vultures, eagles and falcons soaring among the cliffs. Most of the roads close in winter, though the park is open along the rim for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
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PHOTO BY: Alex Messenger
Isle Royale (Michigan)
Number of visitors in 2019: 26,410
This is a unique spring or summer vacation. This park closes for winter, and even when it’s open, you can get there only by boat or plane (no cars allowed). The ferry service was suspended in 2020 but may return next year. You can always hop on a seaplane ($290 to $380 per person, round trip). After you reach the park, you’ll find 166 miles of hiking trails plus havens for scuba divers and solace seekers. You can spend the night at the 60-room, 20-cottage Rock Harbor Lodge, the park’s only full-service place to stay. Ferns, lichens, mosses and 600 flowering plants carpet the landscape. Relish the stillness, breathe the fresh lake air, watch a moose in the boreal forest, and listen to the distant call of a loon.
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PHOTO BY: Jessica Katt
Channel Islands (California)
Number of visitors in 2019: 409,630
Consider this park a Galápagos wannabe. The five islands harbor more than 2,000 plant and animal species, some found only here. Just off the Southern California coast (get there by ferry from Ventura or Oxnard, or book a boat or plane), the park has a Mediterranean-type climate year-round, so it is ideal for a winter excursion. You can hike on easy, relatively flat trails, or opt to swim, dive, snorkel, surf or kayak in the chilly water (wet suits are recommended). And you can spot endemic species of birds; 27 species of cetaceans, including whales, dolphins and porpoises; and breeding colonies of seals and sea lions.
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PHOTO BY: Efrain Padro / Alamy Stock Photo
Guadalupe Mountains (Texas)
Number of visitors in 2019: 188,833
Hosting the state’s four highest peaks and the world’s most extensive Permian fossilized reef, this park goes to extremes. Rugged and high-ridged, the mountains rise from the harsh surrounding desert in a topography that shelters a vast number of animals and plants, some unique to these grounds. Approximately 80 miles of trails snake through woodland canyons to verdant springs, offering easy nature walks as well as daylong mountain hikes. Backpackers can climb the steep trail to the Top of Texas — 8,751-foot Guadalupe Peak — by trekking through a conifer forest to the summit, which offers showstopping vistas on a clear day.
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PHOTO BY: William Mullins / Alamy Stock Photo
Great Basin (Nevada)
Number of visitors in 2019: 131,802
This is a good summer option because temperatures are mild; it’s also terrific for spring vacations. The mountainous desert park has two claims to fame: the best visibility of the Milky Way in the continental U.S.; and Lehman Caves, with some 300 rare shield formations and creatures found nowhere else, such as the pseudoscorpion. From 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak to the sage-covered foothills, Great Basin supports an impressive variety of animals and plants (especially dazzling summer wildflowers) adapted to desert, forest and alpine environments. Prepare to hike among 4,000-year-old bristlecone pines, among the planet’s oldest living trees, and tour mysterious underground caverns.
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PHOTO BY: Per Breiehagen
Number of visitors in 2019: 232,974
The best time to visit this water-centric park is during the frost-free summer. Voyageurs is a maze of interconnected waterways, with world-class fishing and excellent boating. About 40 percent of the park is lake water. In fact, the park’s only lodging, the century-old Kettle Falls Hotel, is accessible only by water, as are the park’s campgrounds, although many visitors rent houseboats. Typical Northwoods animals such as moose, gray wolves and black bears inhabit the forests and wetlands. With no light pollution, the starry night skies can be wondrous. You might even catch the otherworldly greens, yellows and reds of the aurora borealis.
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PHOTO BY: Greg Vaughn / Alamy Stock Photo
North Cascades (Washington)
Number of visitors in 2019: 38,208
Be awed by the alpine landscape of jagged peaks, forested valleys, pristine lakes, feathery waterfalls — and more than 300 glaciers, the most of any national park outside of Alaska. North Cascades features some of the wildest landscapes in the contiguous U.S., ranging from temperate rain forest to dry ponderosa pines. It’s a hiker’s paradise, with rugged conifer-clad mountains that rise to 9,000 feet and nearly 400 miles of trails. Cascade Pass, the most popular trail, is a must-do. Or try a hike in the Big Beaver Creek area, through a wide glacier-carved valley and past thousand-year-old cedar trees.
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PHOTO BY: Shelly Rivoli / Alamy Stock Photo
Dry Tortugas (Florida)
Number of visitors in 2019: 79,200
Come for the 19th-century fort; stay for the kaleidoscopic marine life in translucent waters. That’s the allure of these seven small islands 70 miles from Key West and accessible by ferry service ($180 to $200, round trip) or seaplane (day trips are $634 per person). Once you’re there, explore historic Fort Jefferson, among the nation’s largest 1800s-era fortresses. It was built to protect one of the busiest shipping lanes in North America. Or go snorkeling or bird-watching. An array of colorful coral and fish abound, as well as about 300 species of birds.
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PHOTO BY: Spring Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Number of visitors in 2019: 177,224
A fine winter destination, this is best avoided in summer, when temperatures can exceed 100 degrees. Born of ancient volcanic eruptions, Pinnacles provides spectacular rock formations counterpointed by lavish spring wildflowers, all accessible via 30 miles of trails. This park draws all sorts of adventurers, from hikers and rock climbers to stargazers and cave explorers. Bird-watchers also find much that appeals, as the park brims with avian life: golden eagles, prairie and peregrine falcons, and rare California condors. Solitude seekers can traverse rolling chaparral, oak woodlands and canyon bottoms with nary a soul around. Or they can examine rare talus caves formed at the bases of cliffs or steep slopes.
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PHOTO BY: Adam Mowery
Congaree (South Carolina)
Number of visitors in 2019: 159,445
Hike through the country’s largest contiguous expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest, where giant trees form one of the highest canopies in the world. Admire dominant tree species — upland pines along the elevated bluffs and moss-draped bald cypresses and water tupelos within the floodplain. More than 20,000 acres of forest primeval are available to explore, by foot, kayak or canoe. Winding trails and boardwalks lead to oxbow lakes, the Congaree River or stands of majestic trees. It’s best to visit in the milder spring or fall, and be aware that backcountry camping is the park’s only overnight option.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on October 9, 2020. It's been updated to reflect new information.
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