As the largest canyon in the U.S. and the second most-visited national park, the Grand Canyon has impressive credentials. While there is no place on Earth exactly like it, there are camping alternatives to Grand Canyon National Park with similarly awe-inspiring landscapes to explore, including some other notable canyons.
Like the Grand Canyon, these parks offer outdoor recreation in breathtaking locations, but each has its own twist, allowing you to expand on your love of the Grand Canyon while experiencing something different.
Or, maybe you can’t make the journey to northern Arizona or want to avoid the crowds at the popular park. No matter your reason, these trip alternatives to Grand Canyon National Park deserve a spot on your camping list.
Grand Canyon Alternative With Unique Geology
Badlands National Park is one of those locations that takes many visitors by surprise. This small park doesn’t even make the top 15 list of most-visited national parks, despite its location in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a travel destination that receives quite a lot of buzz.
Though nearby Mount Rushmore National Monument draws in more than 2 million visitors a year, the Badlands gets less than half as many. Clearly, this location is one of the best-kept secrets of the National Park Service (NPS), as many who enter through its gates later declare it a favorite.
What makes Badlands National Park so special is its otherworldly terrain, made up of colorful buttes and craggy pinnacles that seem to rise out of nowhere amid open grasslands. Bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs are just some of the wildlife that call this area home.
Unlike many national parks, Badlands allows open exploration, making it possible for you to run, walk, and climb through the park’s jagged landscape. Designated trails are also found here, with varying levels of difficulty. The biggest payoff comes from the Notch Trail, which involves scaling a rickety log ladder up to a ledge, providing access to panoramic views.
Many excellent camping accommodations can be found near Badlands National Park, including notable dispersed camping locations, NPS campgrounds, and nearby private parks.
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Grand Canyon Alternative With Another “Grand” Canyon
It seems fitting that the supersized state of Texas is home to another supersized canyon. While Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest in the U.S., it is not quite a household name like the Grand Canyon—and yet, it is impressive to view.
This 120-mile-long canyon reaches depths of 1,000 feet, which is comparable to the height of the Eiffel Tower. However, the views aren’t found by just looking down, as the surrounding landscape is also dramatic, with deep red hoodoos and ragged hills. Lighthouse Rock, a prominent hoodoo, rises more than 300 feet to a jagged pinnacle.
One thing the Grand Canyon doesn’t offer that Palo Duro Canyon does: musical productions. The TEXAS Outdoor Musical tells the story of the Lone Star State throughout the summer season. Other activities include hiking, horseback riding, and wildlife watching. Palo Duro Canyon State Park offers a campground with beach access.
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Grand Canyon Alternative With a Different Vibe
Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is quite a contrast to the Grand Canyon, with a lusher, more verdant landscape. It is strikingly narrow where the Grand Canyon is spectacularly wide. Some depths of the Black Canyon are shrouded in shadow for all but a few minutes of midday, giving the canyon its name. The Gunnison River makes a dramatic drop as it shoots through the rocky chasm.
If you’re up for a challenge that includes rock scrambles and steep inclines, several inner canyon routes provide pathways to reach the depths of the canyon, which is a little easier to reach than the floor of the Grand Canyon. But, the canyon views can be enjoyed without the struggle by taking a scenic drive along one of the rims. Several overlooks make it easy to soak in the dramatic views without the sweat.
Take along a fishing pole, as several miles of the Gunnison River are designated as Gold Medal and Wild Trout waters, providing some of the best fishing in Colorado. Two developed campgrounds are offered within the park, and a campground on the canyon floor is accessible through the national park, though technically within the bounds of the Curecanti National Recreation Area.
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Grand Canyon Alternative That’s a Bucket-List Attraction
While the U.S. is full of breathtaking locations, few are household names in the way that the Grand Canyon is. Niagara Falls is another natural attraction that has earned a spot on many bucket lists. Even if you are turned off by its touristy reputation, it is still a ponderous sight to behold.
The falls are confoundingly huge. Both the U.S. and Canadian sides offer various ways to experience the falls, including the chance to take a boat ride to the base, where the roaring waters are even more impressive. Or, go to one of the observation decks where you can get soaked by the waters.
While the touristy parts of the American side outside of Niagara Falls State Park have seen better days, the Canadian side is hopping with activity. Plus, some enjoy the views from the Canadian side more. Make sure to note that U.S. visitors will need a passport to cross the border.
For a totally different waterfall experience, take a road trip to Watkins Glen State Park, which is slightly more than 150 miles east of Niagara Falls. A 2-mile trail passes by 19 waterfalls that tumble through a picturesque gorge. This narrow canyon is another amazing contrast to the vastness of the Grand Canyon, while still inspiring awe.
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Grand Canyon Alternative for a Grand Road Trip
If you are looking for vast red landscapes that will remind you of the Grand Canyon, consider a road trip through Utah’s “Mighty Five.” Five national parks call the Beehive State home, each offering a slightly different variation of the region’s red rock landscapes. The parks are close enough in proximity to make for a short but epic road trip.
Zion National Park has technicolor mountains and iconic hikes. Arches National Park has mind-boggling natural arches, as you might guess from the name. Bryce Canyon National Park has views of towering hoodoos amid a vast canyon. Canyonlands National Park and Capitol Reef National Park are known for their vast landscapes.
Grab an America the Beautiful pass from the NPS for a lower-cost way to gain entry to all five parks, plus many more, for a full year.
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The Grand Canyon is one of those places most people have heard of, but if you venture off the beaten path, you can find several alternatives with their own unique “grandness.”