5 National Parks Perfect for Social Distancing
Experience nature’s scenic beauty without the crowds. These least-visited national parks are still under the radar of most tourists.
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1. North Cascades National Park, Washington
Crystal clear glacial lakes, rugged mountains and alpine landscapes await you just three hours north of Seattle along North Cascades Highway (state Route 20). The road cuts across 684,237 acres of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex. This area stretches from the Canadian border through the Ross Lake National Recreation Area to Lake Chelan.
Start at North Cascades Visitor Center near Newhalem. Drive east past captivating scenic overlooks, hiking trails of varying levels, campgrounds, climbing areas and riding trails. Take an easy hike to Ladder Creek Falls or a short walk on the fully accessible Sterling Munro Viewpoint trail to see dramatic views of the remote Picket Range. And don’t miss Diablo Lake.
The park’s diverse ecosystem is home to elusive mammals such as the gray wolf, at least 28 species of fish and more than 200 bird species. In addition, 260 archaeological sites have been identified —some older than 8,500 years—including mining camps, fire lookouts and sheep herder camps. Scenery, wildlife, history and recreation—North Cascades National Park has it all. Before you plan a trip, check out these national parks you can tour online right now.
When to go: Mid-June to October
2019 visitors: 38,208
Must see spot: Ladder Creek Falls
Best views: Diablo Lake Overlook, Washington Pass Overlook
Plan your trip: nps.gov/noca
2. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Gaze skyward through towering bald cypress, loblolly pines and tupelo trees in the middle of the largest and tallest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest east of the Mississippi. The cacophony of buzzing insects, croaking frogs and hooting owls is joined by the rustling of turkeys, deer and wild boar in the brush. The amazing biodiversity of Congaree National Park reveals itself in nearly 27,000 acres of flood plain 20 minutes east of Columbia.
This free park is not a swamp, but the nearby Congaree and Wateree rivers flood around 10 times annually, leaving behind nutrients that rejuvenate this eerie ecosystem. Check the Harry Hampton Visitor Center for trail maps and current conditions. Hike the easy 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail through the forest. Then take the Weston Lake Loop Trail around the lake. Explore the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail in your canoe, or paddle the 50-mile Congaree River Blue Trail from Columbia to the park.
From mid-May to mid-June, Congaree hosts one of only three species of synchronous flashing fireflies in North America. Check with the park for dates and times of the annual Fireflies Festival. And before you go, make sure you don’t do these things in reopened national parks
When to go: Spring or fall
2019 visitors: 159,445
Must see: Fireflies Festival, mid-May to
Best views: Boardwalk Loop Trail, Weston Lake Loop Trail
Plan your trip: nps.gov/cong
3. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
From bubbling hydrothermal mud pots to one of the largest plug-dome volcanoes in the world, these 106,452 acres may look like the setting for a sci-fi movie. But they make up Northern California’s least-visited national park. The steep and winding 30-mile Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway transports you through dense forest from one amazing scenic overlook to the next. Many have picnic areas and lakes. You’ll see unbeatable views throughout the park from the comfort of your car. Check out the best national park road trips to take all year long.
But hop out and see geology in action on Bumpass Hell Trail, a moderate 3-mile hike—one option of 150 miles of trails that wind through forests and past lakes—to the largest hydrothermal area of the park. Rise at dawn from one of the park’s campgrounds or the rustic Drakesbad Guest Ranch. And hike the easy 1.5-mile Manzanita Lake Trail to catch sublime morning views of Lassen Peak.
There is no motorized boating on the park’s 20 beautiful lakes, but you can rent a canoe or a kayak for exploring. If you’re adventurous, hike up to the summit of Lassen Peak. Stops at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and the Loomis Museum showcase the park’s history and highlight the area’s eruptions.
When to go: July to October (Check for road conditions.)
2019 visitors: 517,039
Must see: Lassen Dark-Sky Festival, Aug. 14-15
Best views: Bumpass Hell, Manzanita Lake
Plan Your Trip: nps.gov/lavo
4. Big Bend National Park, Texas
With arid desert, alpine landscape, rugged mountains and massive canyons, Big Bend National Park is breathtaking. Rising from an elevation of 1,800 feet along the legendary Rio Grande to nearly 8,000 feet in the Chisos Mountains, the park’s more than 800,000 acres of diverse habitats support 1,200 types of plants, around 450 bird species and varied wildlife including mountain lions and javelinas. Check out the birds to look for in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
You can’t see everything in one day, but take the paved Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive for a sampling of what the park has to offer. Improved and primitive dirt roads crisscross the park. Gravel roads are open to horse riders.
Admire the rocky Chisos Mountains on your way to the Sam Nail Ranch, a historic homestead area known for excellent bird-watching. Take in the panoramic view of the desert floor atop the Sotol Vista Overlook, spy the two mountain peaks at Mule Ears Viewpoint, or stretch your legs with a hike into the deep and narrow Tuff Canyon.
End your drive at magnificent Santa Elena Canyon. Take the easy 1.7-mile round-trip hike to see one of Big Bend’s most scenic spots on the banks of the Rio Grande.
When to go: November to April
2019 visitors: 463,832
Must see: Hiking Lost Mine Trail
Best views: Santa Elena Canyon, Chisos Mountains
Plan your trip: nps.gov/bibe
5. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
The gnarled branches of bristlecone pines, thought to be among the oldest living organisms on Earth, are only one of the natural wonders you’ll find in Great Basin National Park. Sweeping across 77,000 acres, the park’s drastic elevation changes—from desert valley floor to 13,000-foot Wheeler Peak—encompass springs, fossils, subterranean caves, a glacier and dizzying arrays of plant, animal and bird species. Discover more awesome facts about America’s national parks.
Explore the fantastic formations within Lehman Caves (reservations required). Then drive the 12-mile paved Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. Rising 4,000 feet, you’ll travel through five eco-regions, with plenty of scenic pullouts for photo-ops. The drive connects with popular hiking trails that lead to alpine lakes, the Bristlecone Pine Interpretive Trail, Wheeler Peak Summit Trail and more.
Spend a day fishing in Lehman Creek, and visit Upper Pictograph Cave to see ancient Fremont Indian rock art. Or stargaze in this designated dark-sky park where you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye on a summer night. The park may be remote, but you’ll find so much waiting for you to discover when you arrive.
When to go: Summer to early fall
2019 visitors: 131,802
Must see: Astronomy Festival, Sept. 17-19, 2020
Best views: Lehman Caves, Wheeler Peak
Plan your trip: nps.gov/grba