Crowd-Free Alternatives to National Parks West of the Rockies

If you love the idea of exploring America’s National Parks, but worry about crowds, there are an epic amount of under the radar natural wonders west of the Rockies patiently waiting to wow and inspire you. A daytrip is all you need for some parks, while others are better suited for a longer getaway. All of our favorites will leave you craving even more time in the great outdoors, and just as important, none of them require a tent.

SKIP: Muir Woods National Monument, California

GO TO: Pomo Canyon Campground, Sonoma Coast State Park

Courtyard at The Stavrand Russian River Valley
Photo Courtesy of Emma K Morris

Don’t worry, we’re not suggesting you pitch a tent so close to home. Pomo Canyon does have a campground with nearly two-dozen walk-in campsites, but it’s the stunning grove of redwoods ringed with lush ferns makes this spot a must-see. Hop on the Pomo Canyon-Red Hill loop and along with towering trees, on clear days you’ll be rewarded with views of the Russian River and Sonoma Coast. (Foggy days can obscure the view but are still magical in their own way.) The moderately challenging five-mile-loop takes two to three hours.

Call it a night: Sleep in the shadow of redwoods at The Stavrand Russian River Valley. The six-acre property is a 15-minute walk from downtown Guerneville.

SKIP: Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California

GO TO: Hetch Hetchy Valley, Yosemite National Park

Tucked a bit out of the way in Yosemite’s northwest corner, a majority of park visitors don’t make it to Hetch Hetchy Valley. Hikers can walk across the O’Shaughnessy Dam and along the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. (The reservoir supplies water to 2.7 million folks in the San Francisco Bay Area.) With a half-dozen trails to choose from, there’s hike for every age and fitness level, and thanks to the valley’s relatively low elevation, it offers one of the longest hiking seasons in the park.

Call it a night: Less than 10 miles from Hetch Hetchy, Evergreen Lodge opened in 1921, during the construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam. Today, there are more than cozy 80 cabins scattered throughout the 20-acre historic property. For more of a resort experience, sister property Rush Creek Lodge & Spa, is just an additional 15-minute drive. 

SKIP: Arches National Park, Utah

GO TO: Longbow Arch Trailhead

This 2.2 mile out-and-back trail near Moab is a showstopper. Think pictographs, dinosaur prints, panoramic views, and a photo worthy arch. Considered moderately challenging, the trail starts steep with a ladder area, then mellows out. For a better understanding of the varying landscape, consider booking a tour with Deep Desert Expeditions.

Call it a night: Conveniently located on Main Street in downtown Moab, the Radcliffe Moab offers 38 rooms and the type of amenities outdoor enthusiasts dream about — think bike racks, gear towels, coolers, and more. Just six miles from Arches National Park, after the crowds go home for the day, you can easily cruise into the park for some stargazing.

Greater Zion Convention, National Parks
Photo Courtesy of the Greater Zion Convention Tourism Office

SKIP: Zion National Park, Utah

GO TO: Yant Flat (Candy Cliffs)

This is one of those spots that make you feel as though you’ve been transported to another planet. Commonly referred to as the Candy Cliffs, you can hike from anywhere from two to seven miles through seemingly endless stretches of swirling-colored Navajo sandstone; it simply comes down to how much time and energy you have to explore. 

Essentially petrified sand dunes, every now and then the vistas include a peek of Zion National Park in the distance. Grand Circle Tours offers guided hikes; ask owner Kyle Walker to take you to the stretch that looks eerily like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Sci-fi fans just might be speechless.

Call it a night: The first and only boutique hotel in the Greater Zion area, The Advenire in St. George, features 60 comfy and fun accommodations — staff likes to call the rooms “pioneer chic.” The hotel is also less than 10 miles from underrated Snow Canyon State Park.

SKIP: Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim, Arizona

GO TO: Grand Canyon National Park, North Rim 

The North Rim, or “other side” of Grand Canyon is only visited by 10% of all park goers. Here, the smart few can saddle up and explore with the help of a friendly mule, hop in the car and circle the North Rim on a scenic drive, or take their pick from a dozen hiking trails.

Call it a night: The Grand Canyon Lodge North Rim provides the only lodging available at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park. The Lodge offers standard motel-style rooms as well as cabins that can accommodate two to six guests.

Lodging books quickly, so make reservations as soon as possible.