From Acadia to Zion, national parks have a reputation for adventure — and crowds.
Sometimes the size and popularity of marquee national parks can make them difficult for groups to visit. But that doesn’t mean that group travelers must miss out on the scenery and geological features that make them famous.
Around the country, a number of state parks have the same stunning landscapes that make their national park cousins famous. This sampler of underrated alternatives let groups skip the lines and see sites as stupendous as those at the national parks near them.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Don’t let the crowds at Joshua Tree National Park poke holes in your desert landscape plans.
Instead, head nearby to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Its rugged vistas, colorful desert plant life and miles of trails are an attractive alternative for groups seeking an environment that is both desolate and mysterious.
“Anza-Borrego Desert State Park provides the solitude people crave,” ranger Joshua Ertl said. “Our vast desert wild spaces make the entire park feel a little off-the-beaten path.”
From February to April, wildflowers and cactuses bloom. “The hardier cactus blooms are equally beautiful,” Ertl said. “They are a beauty that was a hard time coming.”
California’s largest state park has many points of interest, including Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail, Fonts Point and The Slot. “The Nature Trail is a must-do,” Ertl said. It is a palm tree oasis. From there, Fonts Point can be reached by four-wheel drive vehicle. Miles of start stone ridges called the Borrego Badlands stretch in front of this part of the park. Sunrise and sunsets are particularly picturesque.
Finally, hikers can lace up for The Slot.
“The trail traverses through a really narrow sandstone canyon,” Ertl said. “You have to turn sideways and use creativity to move through it.”
Roque Bluffs and Camden Hills State Parks
America’s easternmost national park may call itself the crown jewel of the North Atlantic Coast, but Acadia National Park doesn’t corner ocean views and idyllic coastlines. Two fabulous alternatives, Maine’s Roque Bluffs and Camden Hills state parks, have access to water, fishing, (bracing) swimming, sea kayaking, hiking and lots of wildlife.
“Roque Bluffs is a good option because of the geology,” Andy Cutko, director of Maine’s Parks and Lands, said of the Downeast park, just south of Machias. Roque Bluffs’ 300 acres border the coast of Englishman Bay. “It has a lovely beach with a combination of sand and cobble,” said Cutko. “It’s a great place to stretch out. You’ll never find crowds there like you do in others in Maine.”
An hour west of Acadia, energizing mountaintop hiking and sailing experiences are possibilities at Camden Hills State Park.
“It has a mountain you can drive to the top of and get a panoramic view of Penobscot Bay,” Cutko said. “It offers miles of trails and campsites. And Camden is a charming town with lots of shops, restaurants and very charming, quaint things.”
Mount San Jacinto State Park
There’s no argument: Yosemite National Park is breathtaking. But for different visual stunner, try California’s Mount San Jacinto State Park.
“This park is for the adventurer, the extremely experienced hiker and the nature lover,” interpreter Nick Garduno said.
Mount San Jacinto was California’s first state park. It forms the western border of Palm Springs and is known for its granite and alpine peaks. Hiking, guided tours and vistas are accessible to everyone from die-hard outdoors adventurers to those with mobility restrictions.
“The wilderness is very rustic and wild,” Garduno said. “For people looking for extreme adventuring, we have 55 miles of trails and five peaks over 10,000 feet. The north face of our mountain is one of the steepest escarpments in North America. It’s a sheer wall of granite.”
Birding, bouldering and wintertime snowshoeing are just a few other draws. And there is an option that requires no gear. Group tours can park in Palm Springs and snag tickets for the Palm Springs Aerial Tram, the world’s largest rotating tram car. In minutes, they will be ascending 8,500 feet to the park’s Long Valley entrance, taking in peaks and valleys along the way.
“The tram will bring you up to amazing vistas,” Garduno said. “To be able to see panoramic views and stand atop the tallest state park in California, that’s the way to get in.”
At the summit, there’s plenty to do, taking in the sights from observation decks, dining in the cafeteria, drinks in the bar and hiking nature trails.
Land of the Yankee Fork State Park
Planners can strike it rich in Idaho’s Land of the Yankee Fork State Park. The park in the Sawtooth Mountains — about four hours southeast of Boise — ticks the boxes for a Rocky Mountain National Park experience. Groups can be immersed in history, vast expanses and wildlife.
“We’re an undiscovered treasure,” said Idaho State Parks and Recreation’s Chelsea Chambers. Three ghost towns from the Idaho gold mine boom sit within the park, which makes it part outdoor mecca, part historic site.
A visit to the long-abandoned town of Bayhorse, about a half hour’s drive from the visitor center, is a must, says Chambers. “I’m a history dork so I definitely recommend stopping by Bayhorse.”
The other two settlements, Custer and Bonanza, are also maintained by the park.
“These sites tell the story of Idaho’s early days,” Chambers said. “You could spend days here and not see everything.”
The park, surrounded by national forest, is also a starting point for hundreds of miles of hiking and motorsport trails. “A lot of people bring their UTVs and ATVs and drop off from there,” Chambers said. Recently annexed to the park is the Challis Hot Springs, a historic thermal bathing destination.
Travelers visiting the park often see bighorn sheep, eagles and other mountain wildlife.
Goblin Valley State Park
Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park is a treat for groups looking for alternatives to Zion National Park. It is named for the hoodoos (sometimes alien-like, sometimes mushroom-shaped, always interesting) sandstone formations that locals call “goblins.” Like Zion, erosion played a big role in making Goblin Valley an outdoor playground begging to be explored.
“One of the best things to do in the park is hike in the valley,” assistant manager Brooke Wetherell said. “It’s three square miles of free roam hiking, so you can get away from others if you want, and every visit is a unique experience.”
There’s a cave to explore, disc golf to play and sights to see in different areas of the park.
The goblins and geologic formations can make for exciting rappelling, canyoneering, climbing and exploring. And, Goblin Valley, like Zion National Park, is known for its night sky. Goblin Valley’s claim to fame is literally stellar—it has earned the gold-tier International Dark Sky Park designation.
“We allow people to come at night to view the stars and occasionally hold interpretive events regarding the night sky, including full moon hikes,” Wetherell said.
To learn about group programs at the park, it’s best to call in advance.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
A lot of people love geology. Not so sure? Just ask the 4.7 million people who visited Grand Canyon National Park last year. To get away from those crowds and see a different kind of geologic marvel, head north of Phoenix to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.
The natural bridge at the park’s center is 400 feet long and 183 feet high, the world’s largest of its kind.
“We have the world’s largest, naturally formed travertine bridge, so we draw a diverse group of people coming into the park,” park manager Katie Ferguson said. “There’s a lot of different options. We have a paved park that will take you to four different points that are ADA accessible and good for people who don’t necessarily want to hike.”
Gowan Trail is another popular option.
“Gowan Trail will hike you down a quarter mile to an observation deck where you can view the bridge and waterfall,” Ferguson said. “That’s the experience most people want.”
Other park trails can round out the trip. Waterfall Trail is a short hike, only 105 steps.
“It’s my favorite trail and a must-see,” said Ferguson. “It gives you an understanding of how the travertine is formed. The water has dissolved limestone in it and as it runs over things, it grows about an inch every year.”