Instead of: Yellowstone National Park
Go to: Bridger-Teton National Forest
The benefit: The forest shares a border with Yellowstone but attracts half the number of visitors. You can go canoeing or mountain biking, hike 2,200 miles of hiking trails, or climb to Gannett Peak, where the 13,809-foot summit marks the highest point in the state. Your only companions will be the elk and bighorn sheep that call the forest home.
Instead of: Zion National Park
Go to: Capitol Reef National Park
The benefit: The 241,000-acre park is one of Utah’s best-kept secrets. Capitol Reef has towering hoodoos, colorful monoliths and rugged ridges that rival those in Zion. Despite its grandeur, only 617,000 visitors entered the park in 2009, compared with 2.7 million at Zion. The National Park Service voted it the best place for stargazing.
Instead of: Grand Canyon
Go to: Canyon de Chelly National Monument
The benefit: Compared withto the Grand Canyon, where tour buses abound, Canyon de Chelly feels deserted. The park was once home to indigenous tribes and is still considered sacred land; a number of the ancient ruins have been preserved. Spider Rock, a sandstone spire that rises 800 feet from the canyon floor, is one of several rock formations in the park.
Instead of: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Go to: Nantahala National Forest
The benefit: The Nantahala National Forest is the largest national forest in North Carolina but welcomes fewer than 3 million visitors per year (compared with more than 9 million at Great Smoky Mountains National Park). The forest is known for its hiking trails, which include segments of the Appalachian Trail. The Nantahala River, with its Class II and III rapids, is a popular spot for white-water rafting.
Instead of: Yosemite National Park
Go to: Yosemite National Park
The benefit: You don’t have to leave Yosemite to escape the crowds. Almost 90 percent of the park’s 3 million-plus visitors head to Yosemite Valley, in the western end of the park. On the eastern edge of the park, however, Tuolumne Meadows has similar granite formations but no crowds. Tioga Pass, the highest passing in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, is located 9,943 feet above Tuolumne Meadows and offers the best views of the park.