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Swap This National Park for This National Forest

Double your nature, double your fun–with half the crowds.

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Hi, I'm Jacqueline!

Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer with work seen in National Geographic, Thrillist, Travel + Leisure, and more. Find her out on the trails or at jacquelinekehoe.com.

It’s an understatement to say America’s favorite national parks are extremely popular. Great Smoky Mountains? Nearly 13 million annual visitors. Grand Canyon? Nearly 5 million. Zion? 4.6 million. Rocky? 4.3 million. If you want one-on-one time with Mother Nature, national parks are probably not the way to do it.

Instead, consider swapping your park trip for a forest trip—often it’s the same land, just across an imaginary border. Though the United States has 154 national forests to choose from, here are some top-tier favorites.

1. San Juan National Forest, Colorado

Red rocks and trees with the river below in San Juan National Forest in Colorado.
A river runs through it.Foto: Leslie Rogers Ross / Shutterstock

Instead of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Want to explore Colorado’s famed Fourteeners without the crowds? Head to the San Juan National Forest—specifically the Weminuche and Lizard Head wilderness areas. Protecting the headwaters of the Rio Grande and San Juan Rivers, Weminuche alone is three-quarters the size of Rhode Island. You’ll find lakes and hiking trails galore up here, plus those 14,000-foot (4,300-meter) peaks, like Mount Eolus.

For something a little less adrenaline-producing, ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad through some of the country’s most gorgeous canyon scenery, or take a drive down the San Juan Skyway, aka the “Million Dollar Highway.”

2. Ozark-St. Francis National Forest, Arkansas

Rock formations above a huge swath of green woods in St. Francis National Forest, Arkansas.
You'll find lots of waterfalls in St. Francis National Forest.Foto: Chip W / Tripadvisor

Instead of Swap Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas.

At 5,550 acres (2,200 hectares), Arkansas’ Hot Springs National Park is the second-smallest national park in the country. If you’re looking to do some real wandering, try the nearby 1.2-million-acre (500,000-hectare) Ozark-St. Francis National Forest instead. There you’ll find waterfalls, high bluffs, gentle mountains, spring-filled caverns, dense hardwood forests, and swirling lakes and rivers.

Popular activities include hiking Pam’s Grotto, climbing Sam’s Throne, or kayaking the Buffalo National River, one of the longest undammed rivers in the Lower 48. It offers both gentle floats and rapids, and when night falls, it doubles as a designated International Dark Sky Park.

Related: The Best National Parks in the US for Stargazing

3. Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming

An alpine lake surrounded by snowy rocks in Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming.
Bridger-Teton National Forest has lots of hiking and biking trails to explore.Foto: Shoshana Weissmann / Shutterstock

Instead of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Yellowstone regularly sees 1 million visitors a month come summer—and the best way to avoid them is to adventure through Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest, one of the Lower 48’s largest at 3.4 million acres (1.4 million hectares). You'll find hundreds and hundreds of hiking and biking trails, lakes and rivers for fishing and picnicking, countless camping sites, and even glaciers.

If you’re looking for some serious—and seriously beautiful—hiking, check out the Wind River Range in the Pinedale Ranger District. It’s loaded with glistening lakes and glaciers and more than 40 peaks that tower above 13,000 feet (4,000 meters).

4. Sierra National Forest, California

Sierra National Forest, California with its coniferous trees on a blue-sky day.
Jon Muir and Ansel Adams were both fans of Sierra National Forest.Foto: PingPong916 / Shutterstock

Instead of Yosemite National Park, California.

Sitting between Yosemite National Park and Kings Canyon National Park, Sierra National Forest often gets overlooked, but it shouldn’t. Famed photographer Ansel Adams and naturalist John Muir both loved this area so much, wilderness areas within the forest are named after them.

Here, you’ll get a little bit of Yellowstone, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon all rolled into one. Scope out giant redwoods in McKinley and Nelder groves, hot springs at the Mono Hot Springs campground, granite masses at Fresno Dome, and Sierra Nevada views at White Bark Vista.

5. Olympic National Forest, Washington

Lichen-draped trees by the river in Olympic National Forest, Washington.
Walk among the ferns along rain forest trails in Olympic National Forest.Foto: Kara Jade Quan-Montgomery / Shutterstock

Instead of Olympic National Park, Washington.

Though Olympic National Park isn’t the most crowded park on this list, it has a few spots that get Yellowstone levels of foot traffic. For an alternative, try the Olympic National Forest, which almost completely surrounds the national park.

For rainforest vibes, check out the 4-mile (6-kilometer) Quinault Rain Forest Loop Trail; for a wildflower-filled mountain trek, hike one of the 6,000-foot (1,800-meter) peaks of the Mt. Skokomish Wilderness. With mostly lower elevations, many spots here can be hiked year-round. Of course, you’ll also find plenty of campgrounds, lakes for relaxing, old-growth Douglas firs for forest bathing, and more.

6. Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee

A large lake on a summer's day in Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee.
Cherokee National Forest has its own white-water rafting opportunities.Foto: Jon Bilous / Shutterstock

Instead of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be a hassle to navigate—the 11-mile (18-kilometer) Cades Cove Loop can take hours to wind through in traffic. Considering the national park’s appeal is largely, well, trees, the surrounding Cherokee National Forest offers plenty of those, plus ample other opportunities for adventure.

Here’s a short list of things you can do in the Cherokee National Forest: hike the Appalachian Trail; white-water raft the Ocoee River; hike the Iron Mountains; kayak Watauga Lake; bike the 30-mile (48-kilometer) Tanasi Trail; and count waterfalls in the Rock Creek Gorge Scenic Area. (Hint: There are 16.)

7. Dixie National Forest, Utah

Snow-clad trees and red rocks in Dixie National Forest, Utah.
Dixie National Forest in Utah covers 2 million acres.Foto: Focused Adventures / Shutterstock

Instead of Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Covering 2 million acres (800,000 hectares), Utah’s Dixie National Forest offers plenty to do and tons of room to spread out. And while nearby Bryce Canyon is supernaturally fantastic for red rocks, so too is Dixie—Red Canyon, which lies en route to Bryce, might as well be the national park’s little brother.

And then there are spots such as Yant Flat and the Candy Cliffs, which are reminiscent of Arizona’s The Wave—without the required lottery access. For a family-friendly adventure, hit Hell’s Backbone Road, a scenic “backroad,” on a dry day for a high-elevation, panoramic adventure.

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