(CNN) — “National parks are the best idea we ever had,” declared American writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner. And like many great inventions, the park system became wildly popular.
More than 300 million people are expected to visit US national parks in 2022, a 75% increase since the 1970s. And while introducing so many to the wonders of nature is one of the primary reasons why the National Park Service was founded in 1916, it also comes with a downside.
Popular parks such as Yosemite and Zion had to impose reservation systems for just entering during the busy summer months. Yellowstone’s highways have been plagued by traffic jams as motorists slow down to view bison and other wildlife. Snagging a high season campsite at many parks is harder than winning a jackpot in Las Vegas.
But there are options for those who want to explore America’s great outdoors without the crowds. The country boasts four alternative park systems that reach across the nation and in many cases are vastly underutilized:
Bureau of Land Management National Monuments & National Conservation Areas: The BLM oversees 51 desert, prairie, forest and coastal parks in 12 states.
National Wildlife Refuges: The US Fish & Wildlife Service manages more than 560 land and water parcels that protect many iconic American species and provide incredible wildlife viewing.
State Parks: More than 10,000 state parks protect and preserve a wide variety of American marvels from redwood trees and wild ponies to the Big Sur coast, Lake Tahoe and Niagara Falls.
While some alternative parks are beset by the same overcrowding and resource strains that plague the more popular national parks, many others offer a chance to get away from it all on your own rather than elbow-to-elbow with other nature seekers.
Here are some of the best:
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (Utah)
Fewer than a million people a year visit Utah’s big BLM park, and most of those don’t stray far from State Highway 12 along the monument’s northern edge or US Highway 89 in the south.
The park takes its name from the Grand Staircase plateaus that descend like giant stone steps across southern Utah and the sinuous Escalante Canyons carved by streams flowing into the Colorado River watershed.
Best known for hiking, mountain biking and canyoneering, the park also boasts hundreds of Native American archaeological sites, copious dinosaur digs and an astounding 660 species of wild bee.
Best time: Autumn, when the weather is cooler and the canyon trees are flashing their fall colors.
California’s Lost Coast
Northern California’s Lost Coast boasts miles of rugged, undeveloped coastline.
One of the nation’s longest underdeveloped shorelines, the Lost Coast stretches 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Mattole Beach to Shelter Cove (230 miles or 370 kilometers north of San Francisco).
From elephant seals and other marine mammals to bald eagles, black bears and some of California’s last wild salmon streams, the area is home to a wide range of wildlife as well as coastal redwoods and immense Douglas firs.
Best time: Summer brings the best temperatures and least rain.
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (Florida)
Spanning 43 miles (70 kilometers) of Florida’s Gulf Coast, the park revolves around bays and bayous flanked by coastal grasslands and forest.
Established in 1931 and one of the nation’s oldest federal wildlife refuges, St. Marks harbors a range of wild things from alligators, manatees and dolphins to bobcats, black bears, white-tailed deer and hundreds of bird species including the bald eagle and whooping crane.
The reserve is renowned for its colorful monarch butterfly migration and historic St. Marks Lighthouse, built in 1831.
Best time: During the Monarch Butterfly Festival at the refuge in October.
Baxter State Park & Allagash Wilderness Waterway (Maine)
Baxter State Park in Maine is home to imposing Mount Katahdin.
Jerry Monkman/Aurora Photos/Cavan Images/Getty Images
Maine’s sparsely inhabited North Woods offers a wild and rugged escape for more than 25 million people living in New England and eastern Canada. The region covers roughly 3.5 million acres — more water and woods than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined.
Baxter State Park and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway are the region’s premier parks. With only about 65,000 visitors each year — mostly in the summer months — the two state reserves deliver on getting away from it all.
Baxter boasts Maine’s highest peak, 5,269-foot (1,606 meters) Mount Katahdin, and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, while Allagash provides a 92-mile (148-kilometer) corridor of wild rivers and lakes that Henry David Thoreau extolled in an 1864 travel story about his own paddle through the North Woods.
Best time: June to early October
Wood-Tikchik State Park (Alaska)
With towering snowcapped peaks and a dozen large glacial lakes, pristine forest and tundra, plus grizzly bears, moose, caribou and other iconic Alaskan wildlife, Wood-Tikchik would probably be a national park if it was in any other state.
Covering 1.6 million acres, this western Alaska reserve is the nation’s largest and most remote state park. With extremely limited road access, the only ways to explore this larger-than-life landscape are via water, air or a very long overland hike.
With only two ranger stations and five remote fishing lodges scattered across the park, anyone who ventures on their own into Wood-Tikchik should be self-sufficient and experienced at wilderness survival.
Deep dive: Paddling or motorboating the Wood River Lakes Water Trail through five-interconnected lakes on the park’s south side.
Best time: Summer and early fall.
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument (Arizona)
The Wave is one of the most visited spots in an area that has plenty of crowd-free terrain to expore.
Elena Suvorova/Adobe Stock
Named for their purplish hue — caused by iron oxide and magnesium in the red sandstone — these chromatic cliffs are the focus of a large BLM park in northern Arizona.
The swirling “Wave” rock formation is so popular that visitation is limited, and there’s a lottery system for access. But the rest of the national monument is largely devoid of online influencers and selfie snappers.
Tucked amongst the cliffs are dramatic gorges such as Paria Canyon as well as other fantastic rock formations including Toadstool Hoodoos, White Pocket and the Alcove.
Deep dive: A three- to five-day backpack trek down the entire length of Paria Canyon from trailheads in southern Utah.
Best time: Anytime but summer, when daytime highs often reach triple digits.
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument (Washington)
Just passing through: Drive Highway 504 to the Johnston Ridge Observatory and a short Eruption Trail through the lava landscape or Highway 99 to Windy Ridge with its views of the crater and Spirit Lake.
Best time: Summer and early fall.
Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument (Colorado)
The nation’s newest national monument — created by presidential decree on October 12, 2022 — features an awesome expanse of Colorado’s high country that combines outdoor recreation, military history and magnificent Rocky Mountain scenery.
The new park provides plenty of scope for backcountry skiing and snowmobiling in winter, as well as backpacking, climbing and fishing during summer.
Just passing through: The town of Leadville provides a perfect base for exploring the park’s military history and shorter hiking trails.
Best time: Year-round.
Nā Pali Coast (Hawaii)
There’s a reason why the opening scene of the original “Jurassic Park” was filmed on the Nā Pali Coast — the north shore of Kauai Island really does look (and feel) primeval.
Sheltered by 10 contiguous state parks, natural areas and forest reserves, Nā Pali and Waimea Canyon are a haven for many rare plants and birds — but unfortunately no dinosaurs.
Best time: Summer, when there’s less rain and calmer seas.
Salmon-Challis National Forest (Idaho)
Another area that surely deserves national park status, Idaho’s Salmon River and Sawtooth Mountains are among the most spectacular ranges of the Rocky Mountains. Until that happens, the remote region and its epic wild rivers are sheltered by several national forests including Salmon-Challis.
Best time: Summer.