Explore America / Explore The Parks

5 Lesser Known National Park Gems and Tips to Avoiding Crowds

If you’re already planning for spring, summer and fall travel, getting in the outdoors might be high on your list.  Popular national parks like Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon can be packed in summer, especially in July and August.  There are 423 national park sites, including the 63 national parks.  Here are some tips to explore national park sites while social distancing along with five gems to put on your road trip radar.

I shared 5 lesser known national park sites that are good for social distancing on Good Morning Texas on WFAA in Dallas on January 29, 2021.

*National monuments are usually less crowded than national parks

Waco Mammoth National Monument is an easy day trip from Dallas since it’s only an hour and a half drive.  It’s the site of the nation’s first and only recorded evidence of a nursery herd of Ice Age Columbian mammoths.  Between 1978 and 1990 fossil remains of 16 Columbian mammoths were discovered.  Columbian mammoths were as tall as 14 feet and weighed up to 20,000 pounds.  They were much bigger than wooly mammoths and not as hairy.  They look like over-sized elephants with some hair on head and back.  Fossilized footprints from Columbian mammoths have been found at White Sands National Park.  The fossils at Waco Mammoth National Monument are from about 67,000 years ago.  It was named a national monument in 2015.  You can see fossils of 6 Columbian mammoths and other Ice Age animals in the Dig Shelter.  There are several trails to hike.  They’re doing 30-minute distance learning programs on Tuesdays at 9 am and Thursdays at 1 pm and they have a Junior Virtual Paleontologist Certificate.  Information is available on their website.

Go birding or fishing at Lake Waco Wetlands and of course if you’re a Chip and Joanna Gaines fan, a stop at Magnolia Market at the Silos is a must.

There are 85 national monuments.  Fort Pulaski National Monument (GA) are Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (CO) are two more I recommend to visit without crowds.

*Visit national historical parks

There are 60 national historical parks ranging from ancient sites like Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico to ones on moments and people important to American history like Boston National Historic Park and Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia.

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park has the largest concentration of Spanish colonial missions in North America.  It is also one of 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in United States and the only one in Texas.  World Heritage Office San Antonio has audio tours for each mission.  In the 18th century (1700s) Spanish priests established Catholic missions along the San Antonio River.  Alamo is most well-known because of the battle of the Alamo in 1836.  It’s in the heart of downtown.  You need at least several hours to explore the other four missions because you have to drive to each site.  Each one is different and the grounds are worth exploring too.  I highly recommend going early morning to beat the heat and to avoid crowds.  Except for the Alamo, the missions are still active parishes.  Start at Mission San Jose.  Known as the “Queen of the Missions” it turned 300 years old last year.  The architecture from church to arches is stunning.  Mission Concepcion has twin bell towers.  Dedicated in 1755, it is one of the oldest unrestored stone churches in America.  There are original frescos still visible in several of the rooms.  Mission San Juan looks different from the others.  There were at least 3 different church buildings between 1750s-1786.   It’s long, white adobe rectangle building with 3 bells.  Mission Espada is the smallest of the five missions.  Its irregularly arched doorway is unique.

Exploring the River Walk is a must.  You can hike or bike the Mission Reach section of it.  On Fridays and weekends through February 2021 you can kayak the River Walk.  It’s a unique way to experience the heart of downtown San Antonio.  Take a walk along the Museum Reach section.  You’ll likely have long stretches to yourself.  Eat, drink or stay at The Pearl, a revitalized historic brewery.  Hotel Emma is not only one of my favorite hotels in San Antonio, it’s one of the best in the country.  Catch The Saga video art installation projected on the facade of San Fernando Cathedral several times four nights a week.  It’s free and fabulous.  The first time I saw it, I watched it twice.  I lived in San Antonio for ten years and still hold it near and dear to my heart, returning often.  Eat your way through San Antonio.  It is an UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy and home to a Culinary Institute of America campus at The Pearl.  Have a breakfast taco and margarita for me during your visit!

*Soak Up Some Wellness

Hot Springs National Park is home to ancient thermal springs.  In the 1800s, it became known as the “American Spa.”  This national park is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and on my short list of parks to visit this year.  You hike and bike in the park, but can’t soak in the outdoor thermal pools.  You can soak in two of the historic bathhouses on Bathhouse Row.  The eight bathhouses were built between 1892 and 1923.  Getting out in nature is a wonderful healer and beneficial to your mind, body and soul.  Other national parks like Big Bend in Texas have hot springs you can soak in, but Hot Springs National Park takes soaking up the benefits of therapeutic waters to a whole new level.

After some time in the national park, I’m planning to hike in Quachita National Forest and see the flowers and treehouse at Garvan Woodland Gardens.

*Explore Ancient History

Mesa Verde National Park is near Durango and Cortez in Southwest, Colorado.  It’s on top of a mesa.  Part of the adventure is getting there on the 21-mile drive (45-minutes).  Mesa Verde was the first national park dedicated to the works of man.  It is home to Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America.  The view from the overlook is wonderful.  Ranger led tours of Cliff Palace and other dwellings required reservations (currently no tours because of COVID).  After you see the Cliff Palace, drive Mesa Top Loop Road.  Download an audio tour off Mesa Verde National Park website.  It’s a 6-mile loop where you can stop to view 12 archeological sites from pit houses to cliff dwellings.  If the trading post is open, stop to get some frybread.  My favorite hike is petroglyph trail.  It started near Spruce Tree House dwelling.  Get there when trail opens at 8:30am to have it to yourself.  Pick up a trail guide (about a $1 so have some cash to leave in box).  On the trail make sure to look up and behind you.  There are unmarked petroglyphs and dwellings along the trail.

Stay in Durango to experience a Wild West Town.  Check out my 4-day itinerary for ideas of what to do.  Do some spring skiing at Purgatory Ski Resort, ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (book an open car on D&SNGR and have something to cover your face from soot), and soak in Durango Hot Springs.  Stay at Strater Hotel, Rochester Hotel or a private rental like Corrie’s Condo.

Stay in Cortez to be closer to other ancient sites like Canyons of the Ancient and Hovenweep. Stay at Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch for a ranch experience.  It’s close to Sand Canyon which is excellent for hiking to see see ancient dwellings and near Sutcliffe Vineyards, one of my favorite wineries in Colorado.  Cortez is becoming very popular for mountain biking.  Phi’s World is great for beginner and intermediate riders.

*Go on a Geological Adventure

Capitol Reef National Park is one of Utah’s Big 5 national parks (Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches).  It’s the least visited of the five.  To me it’s a blend of Zion and Arches with colorful rocks, bridges, domes and cliffs.  The drive on Utah State Highway 24 through the length of the park, gives you amazing views of the Waterpocket Fold, which is a geologic monocline or a wrinkle on earth.  Hickman Arch is an easy family friendly hike.  Cassidy Arch, Navajo Knobs and Cohab Canyon are more difficult options.  The Grand Wash has some interesting pioneer artifacts.  The 7.9-mile out and back scenic drive is a must.  In the Fruita Historic District near the Visitor Center, get pie or cinnamon rolls at Gifford Homestead, open March 14th-October 31st.

Stay in Torrey, which is settled by Mormon pioneers in the 1880s.  It’s an international dark sky community so great stargazing too. Stay at Capitol Reef Resort or The Lodge, Red River Ranch or one of the unique lodgings from a historic schoolhouse to cabins in town.  Grab breakfast at The Wild Rabbit then lunch or dinner at Capitol Reef Inn and Cafe.

Dinosaur National Monument is another place to go on a geological adventure without crowds.  My favorite trail there is Sound of Silence.  Stay at the Jensen Inn if you visit Dinosaur.

5 Tips for Visiting National Park Site

*Know before you go.  Research on the national park site’s website before your trip.  It’s a wealth of information including closures, things to do, trails, maps and tour information.  Some ranger led tours require reservations.  There are audio tours available at some nature park sites.  You can find that information on a national park site’s website.  They are a wonderful way to learn more during your visit.  I also like to get trail booklets, when they’re available.  They usually cost $0.50-2.00.  They’re available at visitor centers, at start of auto tours and at some trailheads.  Take some small bills so you can pay cash for those – another tip!

*Gas up before heading into a national park.  There are very limited, if any, fuel options in and in some cases near national parks.  Have a full tank of gas.  You don’t want the stress of a near empty tank to dampen your national park experience.  Some national monuments are in remote spots too.

*Go early to beat crowds. National park sites are typically busiest 10a-2p.  Especially for smaller sites, it’s worth trying to be the first one there early in the morning.  If hiking, it’s best to hit the trail early too so you can beat the heat and afternoon sun.

*Have water, snacks, sun protection (including sunglasses and hat).  Wear and/or pack layers including rain jacket.  I usually have a thin wind resistant jacket, rain jacket, lightweight gloves and a slightly heavier jacket.  Weather changes fast.  You don’t want to be caught unprepared.

*Visit with respect and leave no trace.  Don’t write your name on a rock, disturb ancient sites, pick up artifacts or touch ancient rock art.  Leave it as you found it so others can enjoy too.  Whatever you take with you needs to leave with you.  Leave only footprints, not trash.

Author Jennifer Broome has visited all 50 states.  She is on a quest to visit all 423 national park sites.  So far she’s been to over 100 sites, including 30 national parks.  Check out the Explore the Parks section for more ideas to visit the national park sites.