With regional travel expected to be the reentry point for most North Americans as travel gets going again, the wide-open spaces at national parks will offer great options. However, even before the pandemic, some of the major parks in the U.S. and Canada—or specific sites within them—were experiencing issues with overcrowding.
With that in mind, here are some compelling sites to consider that receive fewer visitors than major neighboring parks. These six gems, managed by the U.S. National Park Service or Parks Canada, deliver unique experiences and plenty of natural beauty, just without the crowds.
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Aztec, New Mexico
Located 65 miles southeast of Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park
The monument has a number of intact structures that were built by the ancestral Pueblo people in the 12th and 13th centuries. A half-mile trail goes to a site that includes a series of buildings that served as the center of life for the tribe. The main feature is the West Ruin site, which has more than 400 rooms and features the reconstructed Great Kiva.
The visitor center, which was originally the home of local archeologist Earl Morris, includes a museum where travelers can see 900-year-old artifacts. “Aztec Ruins: Footprints of the Past” is a 15-minute orientation film that offers perspectives from native people and researchers on the importance of the historical site.
Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve
Cave Junction, Oregon
Located 140 miles southwest of Crater Lake National Park
Miles of magical passageways wind through the Marble Halls of Oregon, which lie in the recesses of the Siskiyou Mountains in the southern part of the state. The varying rock formations and the history of the vast caverns are the focus of three ranger-led excursions into this fascinating underground world.
The main offering is the Discovery Cave Tour, which is a 90-minute option that hits the attraction’s highlights. True to its name, the Candlelight Cave Tour, available to no more than a dozen people, finds participants carrying flickering lanterns. The Off-Trail Caving Tour is the most strenuous option, as it requires participants to squeeze through tight spaces.
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Brian Head, Utah
Located 55 miles west of Bryce National Park and 90 miles northwest of Zion National Park
While Bryce and Zion are mainstays of typical itineraries in southwestern Utah, Cedar Breaks offers similar red-rock scenery—along with abundant wildlife—with a fraction of the visitors. (In 2019 it welcomed just over 575,000 people while the big two drew 7 million.)
Hiking is a popular activity at Cedar Breaks, with the easiest option being a 2-mile walk on the paved Sunset Trail. The moderate Alpine Pond Nature Trail is a 2-mile double-loop through forested meadows with some altitude gain, and the Spectra Point & Ramparts Overlook Trail, which at 10,500 feet can be a puffer, offers sweeping views.
Special events, such as star parties and the annual Wildflower Festival in July, highlight the summer schedule.
Yoho National Park
Field, British Columbia
Located 50 miles northwest of Banff National Park
This park in the Canadian Rockies is found in British Columbia, just across the Alberta border and a short drive from Banff and Lake Louise. Visitors are drawn to its soaring mountains—more than 25 peaks rise above 9,700 feet—steep rock walls, abundant pine forests, and scenic waterfalls.
Yoho’s water-based attractions offer postcard-worthy views and plenty of photo ops. The accurately named Emerald Lake is a blue-green wonder that can be explored on foot via a 3.4-mile loop trail or by renting a canoe from the activity center. Another popular spot in this hiker's park is Natural Bridge, where travelers can check out the Kicking Horse River as it cascades under this naturally formed stone bridge.
Wupatki National Monument
Coconino County, Arizona
Located 40 miles south of the Desert View area (east edge) of Grand Canyon National Park
Nestled between the Painted Desert and ponderosa highlands of northern Arizona, Wupatki has six orange-hued pueblos that are open to the public. Each represents early dwellings of the native Sinaqua Tribe, who settled the land from roughly 1100 to 1250. Two of the most famous sites are the four-story Wupatki Pueblo, which includes more than 100 rooms, and the Wukoki Pueblo, which has well-preserved spaces and narrow interior passageways.
Those ruins sites are easily reachable via a short trail that leads from the visitor center out into the sprawling prairie. Travelers also can check out the Wupatki Interpretive Garden, hike to a volcanic cinder cone, and take part in ranger-led programs that vary by season.
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
The area’s South District in Lovell is 65 miles from Yellowstone National Park
This large recreational area is split into two sections: a South District in Wyoming and a North District in Montana. The Wyoming part includes the deep gorges of Bighorn Canyon and Devil’s Canyon, and has multiple hiking trails. There are four historical ranches in the area, with both self-guided and ranger-led tour options. Boat rides on Bighorn Lake and seasonal horseback tours also are available.
At the park’s North District in Fort Smith, Montana, guests can enjoy a number of water sports. The Yellowtail Dam Visitor Center and Ok-A-Beh Marina are open from late May to early September. The North District is located 95 miles southeast of Billings, and it isn’t directly connected to the South District.
Top photo: Trail leading to main ruins sites at Arizona's Wupatki National Monument
Photo by CC Flickr/familyfriends754: bit.ly/2zE30NS