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I don’t know about you, but when I think of national parks, my mind immediately goes to places like Yellowstone and Yosemite. And most other folks do too – that’s why those parks are packed full of people this time of year.
But the National Park System goes far beyond those big boys. In fact, there are some excellent less-traveled national parks that you can visit in the summer without Yellowstone-sized crowds.
If you’re itching to hit the road for an overlanding adventure, give these 4 parks a shot.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
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If you survey 10 of your closest friends, my guess is that the vast majority of them will tell you that they’ve never heard of Voyageurs National Park (unless you live in the area, of course!).
This little slice of heaven is nearly half water. With waterways that connect to one another and a plethora of lakes, you get the distinct feeling that you’re overlanding on your very own little island.
Sure, there’s bugs galore in the spring (but you can find raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries to munch on), but visiting in the late summer or early fall (when the colors of the leaves are spectacular) should bring some relief in that department. And in the winter, you can cold weather camp, snowmobile, and cross-country ski on the frozen lakes.
Those of you that enjoy photography will love the dark skies that are perfect for astrophotography pursuits, the aforementioned fall colors, and the nightly sunsets in which the explosion of color in the sky is reflected in the calm waters that surround you.
Less-Traveled National Parks: Great Basin National Park, Nevada
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One of the best hidden gem national parks in the West is Great Basin National Park.
Like Voyageurs National Park, there are some incredibly dark skies that give you ample opportunities for astrophotography or just plan old stargazing.
Though it can be a little hot in the summer, the fall is a great time to visit with cooler temperatures and the chance to see the migrating mule deer munch on pine nuts.
The park has a pretty diverse ecosystem, with the plant and animal life varying greatly with its significant changes in elevation – from around 5,000 feet above sea level to more than 13,000 feet. You’ll also find the oldest trees known to exist on earth, fossils, and ancient caves. There’s also more than 200 species of bird, more than 70 mammal species, and hundreds of plant species.
Add in a few glaciers and springs, and intensely beautiful wildflowers in the spring, and you have a recipe for a fun (and uncrowded) trip to a less-traveled national park!
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
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I know, I know…
Grand Teton National Park isn’t exactly a less-traveled national park in the summer, but compared to its neighbor to the north, Yellowstone, the crowds are sparse.
Besides, Grand Teton National Park offers many opportunities to get off the beaten path and away from the throngs of tourists that flood the visitor centers and roadside pull-outs.
You can have lunch at Cattleman’s Bridge (which is just south of the famous Oxbow Bend), dip your toes in the Snake River, and enjoy a peaceful rest in the shade, and are likely to do so with few – if any – people around, depending on the time of year.
The park offers loads of hiking opportunities as well, with well-maintained trails that will be pretty busy, but, again, nothing like you’ll find in larger parks. For a quick and beautiful hike, take the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake and hike to Inspiration Point.
Another option is to head to Two Ocean Lake in the northeast corner of the park. There, you can picnic, hike, and take in some breathtaking views of the Tetons.
In addition to all that, there are millions of acres of National Forest Service land adjacent to the Park. This enables you to do some dispersed camping and get away from the crowds without being too far from the Park’s many recreational opportunities. The Shadow Mountain Area is busy, but the views of the Tetons are absolutely breathtaking.
Less-Traveled National Parks: Congaree National Park, South Carolina
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If the lakes, deserts, and mountains of the first three options aren’t your thing, give South Carolina’s Congaree National Park a Try…
This park is all about trees – lots of them, and big ones. In fact, Congaree has some of the tallest trees on the east coast and has one of the largest old-growth forests in the country as well.
You can explore these massive trees – some of which are well over 150 feet tall – via hiking trails or by kayaking or canoeing, particularly in the wet season when nearly the entire park is submerged underwater. Don’t worry though. The park has an extensive network of elevated pathways if you aren’t much of a canoeing or kayaking enthusiast.
Another claim to fame for Congaree is the springtime display of synchronous fireflies. Come in the middle of May to the middle of June to get the best show.
Of course, there other national parks in addition to these less-traveled national parks that you can explore and have a great time while doing it. But these are some of the tops in my book – and their diversity in terms of location and the activities you can pursue – make them a great combination to explore in 2021.
Wherever you go overlanding, take the time to “stop and smell the roses.” Focus less on when you think you should be somewhere and more on relaxing and enjoying the stunning beauty these parks have to offer.