The 7 Best National Parks to Beat the Crowds

Jul 14, 2021 | News

The 7 Best National Parks to Beat the Crowds

By Madeleine Balestrier

In early 2021, a survey found that 76-percent of Americans plan to travel more than they did in 2020. As vaccination rates rise and companies continue working remotely, Americans are taking to the road with four wheels. What’s best seen and navigated by car? National parks.

But with Americans traveling more frequently, national parks are bound to be overrun with campers, van-lifers, and RVers. So where should you go that’s off the beaten path? Escape the crowds and explore one of the least visited national parks in the United States.

Navajo National Monument ruins

Navajo National Monument | Kayenta, AZ – Photo by: Marshall

Navajo National Monument, Arizona

The Navajo National Monument is a constant sunset reflected into cliff dwellings scattered around northeast Arizona. This stop is home to Keet Seel, Betatakin, and Inscription House—three of the largest Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.

RV parked next to a road.

Sunset View Campground | Kayenta, AZ – Photo by: FulltimeRVexplorer

Where to Camp

This national monument houses two free campgrounds.

It’s all in the name for Sunset View Campground. This RV-friendly campground has 31 sites that accommodate up to a 28-feet length and provides the most picturesque sunsets in the national monument.

Although both campgrounds rarely fill up, nearby Canyon View Campground is the spot to nestle under the quiet of the night sky. Larger RVs are prohibited.

Also, note that dispersed camping “is not permitted in the park and on the Navajo Nation,” according to the National Park Service (NPS).

What to Do

  • Take the Sandal Trail to the Betatakin Cliff Dwelling: Sandal Trail is the only place in the park where you can see the cliff-dwelling village without a guide.
  • Hike the Keet Seel Trail: Only 20 hikers a day are allowed to travel on the Keet Seel Trail, but for those who can snag a permit and are prepared for the grueling conditions, the 17-mile trek to a 700-year-old Navajo sandstone relic is worth the effort.
View of a lake at sunset.

Sunset Bay Campground | Allouez, MI – Photo by: BAD Johnson

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Isle Royale National Park is where Michigan’s Lake Superior washes up on a rugged shoreline of balsam fir and birch trees. Though technically located in Michigan, this park is one of the most remote in the lower 48 states and accessible only by boat or seaplane.

RV camped across from the water.

Sunset Bay Campground | Allouez, MI – Photo by: Bob

Where to Camp

Like the rest of the national park, the 36 campgrounds scattered across this rugged island are only accessible by foot or water transport. All campgrounds offer tent sites, outhouses, and a water source. You will need a permit to camp.

Wake up to Lake Superior kissing the shores of camp at Lane Cove Campground, one of the quieter and smaller sites on the island. This spot is ideal for hikers and boaters looking to explore nearby caves and beaches.

If you’re looking for a mainland home base, a stay at Sunset Bay Campground in Allouez offers stunning sunset views over Lake Superior. Plus, this campground offers RV hookups, phone service, and Wi-Fi. The nearby town of Houghton offers ferry and seaplane service to Isle Royale.

What to Do

  • Explore Lighthouses: The park houses three active lighthouses to explore: Rock Harbor Light, Menagerie Island Light, and Passage Island Light.
  • Catch a Glimpse of a Wolf: “It is largely accepted that wolves arrived on Isle Royale by crossing an ice bridge that formed between the island and the Canadian mainland during the winter of 1948,” according to the National Park Service (NPS). It’s rare to see one today, but just maybe, you’ll get lucky.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico

The National Park Service deems this national park the “Center of an Ancient World.” Chaco is a bit of a bear to get to, but you won’t want to leave once you’re there.

RV parked next to canyon rocks.

Gallo Campground | Nageezi, NM – Photo by: Dave’n’Kim

Where to Camp

Gallo Campground is the only place to camp in the park and is tucked in near the cliffs of Gallo Wash. Beware the cliffs give this campground no shade—just petroglyphs and incredible views. Reservations are strongly recommended; all unreserved campsites become first-come, first-served after 11:00 AM. There is no other camping nearby, so be sure to arrive with a reservation or be prepared to drive the long, bumpy dirt road back out to find somewhere else to stay for the night.

What to Do

  • Stargaze: Deemed an International Dark Skies Park, this historical relic is a stargazing dream with endless stars.
  • Hike to the 12 Chacoan Great Houses: This 9-mile loop will bring you to many of the best-preserved Chacoan structures in the park.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska

Did you know that Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the largest national park in the United States and one of Alaska’s best-kept secrets? While it’s home to nine of the 16 highest peaks and one of the largest active volcanoes in the United States, it’s also a natural masterpiece painted with the rhythm of rivers, the cool shading of the tundra, and piercing colors of glaciers and volcanoes.

Where to Camp

Unfortunately, there are no campgrounds directly in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park but there are several campgrounds in the surrounding area. There are plenty of great pull-outs to boondock in, too!

What to Do

  • Drive the McCarthy Road: Follow the railroad tracks through the last frontier.
  • Adventure Through the Park: If you want to backpack in one of the least visited national parks, you can hire a guide and head into the backcountry.
Ruins at Hovenweep National Monument.

Hovenweep National Monument | Montezuma Creek, CO – Photo by: Navigating Wonderful

Hovenweep National Monument, Colorado & Utah

You can find the bricked Ancestral Puebloan villages spread out across Allen and Hovenweep Canyons, where Colorado merges into Utah.

Van parked next to a shade structure in the desert.

Hovenweep National Monument | Montezuma Creek, CO – Photo by: Chris&David

Where to Camp

Hovenweep Campground is the only campground within the park. It has 31 sites with mostly tent camping but a few options for RVs up to 36-feet in length. Sites include fire rings and picnic tables, but no hookups.

What to Do

  • Birdwatch: There are at least 100 species of birds to track within the park, including the Greater Roadrunner and the Long-Eared Owl.
  • Stargaze: Hovenweep has been an International Dark Sky Park since 2014 and is known for its incredible stargazing.

Oregon Caves National Monument, Oregon

The Oregon Caves National Monument is only one of five national parks or monuments in Oregon, and it’s still one of the least visited national parks in the United States.

Where to Camp

Cave Creek Campground is situated just four miles away from the cave’s entrance in a mossy haven under the trees. There are 17 first-come, first-serve sites for campers with tents or vehicles smaller than 20-feet in length. Each campground offers fire rings, water, and vault toilets.

What to Do

  • Tour a Cave: The park offers various guided tours for visitors to marvel at the calcite formations and fossils and learn about caving techniques and conservation

North Cascades National Park, Washington

North Cascades National Park is a gem of glaciers, brilliant blue waters, and piercing peaks just three hours outside of Seattle, Washington. The park earns its name from the North Cascades mountain range, also known for the most expansive glacial system in the continental United States.

RV parked in the woods.

Newhalem Creek Campground | Marblemount, WA – Photo by: MNJBee

Where to Camp

This park also offers six drive-in campgrounds that can be reserved at certain times of the year. Many sites are tent-only, but Newhalem Creek Campground, the largest campground in the park with 107 sites, offers access for mid-sized RVs. When you stay here, you’ll wake up to the cascading water of the Skagit River. Boat-in camping and backpacking are also popular here.

What to Do

  • Stop to Marvel at Diablo Lake: Diablo Lake’s hues of turquoise result from melting glaciers and is a “can’t miss” stop in the national park.
  • Backpack a Section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT): Apply for a backcountry permit and backpack for a night on the 18-mile section of the PCT that intersects with the park.