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If you want to hit up some of the best West Coast National Parks this summer but are nervous about how crowded they are going to be, then check out my list of some of the least visited West Coast National Parks that are just as beautiful but without a ton of people…
The National Parks System is one of the very best things about the U.S. and every year I try to visit at least a few. I’m hoping to visit all 63 (I’m at 39 so far), along with as many of the 400+ National Monuments, Seashores, Lakeshores, Preserves, and Historic Sites as I can.
But, a lot of other people love the National Parks too and since the pandemic grounded a lot of Americans for the last couple of years, the parks have become more popular than ever with long lines to get in, campgrounds sold out months in advance, crowded hiking trails, and many parks reverting to reservation-only systems.
Overcrowding can definitely take away from the natural beauty of the parks and can add a lot of stress if you are planning to visit any National Parks this summer.
Luckily, there are actually a number of National Parks that don’t attract crowds of visitors, and some of them are largely unknown to a lot of Americans so these are the National Parks you should visit in the peak summer season when the big hitters like Rocky Mountain National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Glacier National Park are crawling with people.
I tend to prefer the national parks on the West Coast over the East Coast Parks for their spectacular natural beauty and diverse landscapes, and there are actually a lot of parks out west that are more offbeat but just as beautiful as some of the more well-known parks.
I put together a list of my favorite offbeat National Parks on the West Coast and a few more that I am planning to visit very soon.
All of these West Coast National Parks receive less than 600,000 visitors per year (in comparison, Rocky Mountain National Park gets over 4.5 million!) so you can visit knowing that it is possible to enjoy the solitude and beauty of these parks without having to share them with thousands of others.
So here are the best offbeat West Coast National Parks!
8 Offbeat National Parks on the West Coast
Check out my interactive map to the best West Coast National Parks to escape the crowds.
1) Channel Islands National Park, California
Average Visitor Numbers Per Year: 319,252 visitors in 2021
Channel Islands National Park encompasses five islands in the Channel Islands archipelago off the coast of Ventura in Southern California. The islands can only be visited by boat, and this is why it is one of the least visited West Coast National Parks – it isn’t cheap or easy to get to.
There are also very few amenities on the islands, if any, so you must be well-prepared if you are planning to visit. But let me tell you, it is so worth it. This is one of my favorite National Parks for the solitude, wildlife, and natural beauty. I can’t wait to go back and explore more of the islands because I loved my first visit so much.
You should definitely camp if you have the time rather than doing a day trip. This special place demands more than just one day to explore.
You can visit any of the five islands but the largest island, Santa Cruz, is a great choice for a first visit and has two campgrounds, multiple hikes, kayaking adventures, a small museum, and, best of all, tiny cat-size foxes!
Santa Cruz is also one of the closest islands to the mainland and it takes one hour to get there by boat with Island Packers. If you are lucky you will see seals and dolphins on the way to the island – we saw a megapod of over 10,000 on the way over and hundreds on the way back!
Best Things To Do in Channel Islands National Park:
- Go hiking! There are tons of day hikes and you can hike on each island
- Backpack between Prisoners Harbor and Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island
- Snorkel in a kelp forest on Santa Cruz Island
- See sea lions and seals
- Kayak on Santa Cruz Island
- See dolphins on the boat trip over and back
- Camp – you can camp on all five islands
- See the small subspecies of island foxes on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel
- Go birdwatching
2) Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Average Visitor Numbers Per Year: 548,477 visitors in 2021
Another one of my favorite National Parks on the West Coast, and home to the most impressive pre-Puebloan cliff dwellings I have seen, Mesa Verde National Park and World Heritage Site is a must-visit if you want to learn more about Southwest American history.
There are multiple hikes you can do within the park but the best thing to do there is to see the cliff dwellings. It is an incredible experience to be in these unique dwellings where hundreds of people lived over 1400 years ago!
These cliff dwellings and surface sites are scattered all over the southwest and were the home of the Ancestral Pueblo people, the ancestors of many of the southwest Native American tribes of today like the Hopi and Pueblo. Mesa Verde is one of the best places to learn about the Ancestral Pueblo and their unique settlements.
There are several cliff dwellings you can visit on very affordable tours and I highly recommend doing this because it will be the highlight of your time in the park. You can also visit Step House independently and can see a number of surface sites and other cliff dwellings from overlooks in the park.
Best Things To Do in Mesa Verde National Park:
- Do a Ranger-assisted tour of Cliff Palace, Long House, and Balcony House
- Hit the hiking trails – Spruce Canyon trail and Point Lookout trail are great choices
- Drive the Mesa Top Loop Road, stopping at archeological sites and cliff dwelling overlooks
- See Petroglyphs on the Petroglyph Point Trail
- Visit the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum
- Visit surface archeological sites at the Far View Site
- Camp at Morefield Campground
3) Pinnacles National Park, California
Average Visitor Numbers Per Year: 348,857 visitors in 2021
Pinnacles National Park is one of California’s least visited National Parks and a fantastic place to hike through caves and around unique rock spires formed by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.
This is also one of the best places to see the endangered California Condor, the largest bird in North America. There is a condor recovery program in Pinnacles National Park and condors can often be seen high above in the early morning.
There are also many other animals you can see while exploring the park including ground squirrels, bats, mountain lions, bobcats, skunks, and mule deer.
Best Things To Do in Pinnacles National Park:
- Look for California condors
- Explore the rare talus caves
- Do some hiking – the High Peaks and Bear Gulch loop is excellent
- Go rock climbing
- See the wildflower bloom in spring
4) Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Average Visitor Numbers Per Year: 308,910 visitors in 2021
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is similar to the Grand Canyon but much more narrow and steep, and it is massively underrated for how striking it is.
This dramatic canyon in Colorado was carved over two million years by the Gunnison River and is called Black Canyon because it is very narrow and often in shadow, making the rock look black.
To explore inside the canyon you need a wilderness permit and lots of preparation, but it’s easy to enjoy shorter rim hikes and scenic drives with viewpoints into the canyon.
Best Things To Do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park:
- Do some hikes along the rim
- Drive the scenic South Rim Drive, stopping at overlooks
- Reach the river by driving East Portal Road
- Camp out and enjoy starry skies free of light pollution
- Do a rafting trip in the canyon – only for the truly adventurous
5) Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
Average Visitor Numbers Per Year: 602,613 visitors in 2021
Great Sand Dunes National Park is the most visited of the West Coast National Parks on this list with just over 600,000 annual visitors last year, but it is still a relatively under-visited National Park where you can escape the crowds, especially if you avoid weekends in high summer.
These remarkable inland sand dunes are the highest sand dunes in North America and were formed by river sediment being blown towards a bend in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where opposing storm winds created the dunes.
The park is in a remote part of Southern Colorado and the stark landscape of miles of sand dunes backed by towering mountains is an incredible sight to see.
Best Things To Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park:
- Camp overnight in or near the park to stargaze – it is an International Dark Sky Preserve
- If you are visiting in spring or early summer, cool off in Medano Creek by paddling or tubing
- Hike up the sand dunes
- Go sand boarding
- Do a forested hike
- Drive the Medano Pass 4WD road
6) North Cascades National Park, Washington
Average Visitor Numbers Per Year: 17,855 visitors in 2021
This 500,000-acre park is an alpine wilderness with jagged peaks, beautiful mountain lakes, thickly forested valleys, and more than 300 glaciers – a lot more than Glacier National Park.
North Cascades was at the top of my list of National Parks on the West Coast to visit and I finally visited in September.
From the rugged beauty I have seen and for how close it is to Seattle, I can’t believe that less than 20,000 people visit rugged and beautiful North Cascades National Park every year – even more so because entry is free!
The only reason I can think why this is the case is that the most beautiful places in the park require a hike to get to so it isn’t as accessible as many other National Parks where you can just drive to see incredible natural wonders.
Best Things To Do in North Cascades National Park:
- Drive State Route 20 through the park, stopping at viewpoints and hiking along the way
- Hit up some of the hiking trails in the park
- Visit in fall to see vibrant fall colors
- Take the ferry to Stehekin and stay a few days to access a remote part of the park
- Admire Diablo Lake from the overlook
- Go backpacking to truly experience the wilderness of the park
- Paddle on a kayak or canoe on Ross Lake
- Visit the cute Wild West-themed town of Winthrop, the gateway to the park
7) Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Average Visitor Numbers Per Year: 144,875 visitors in 2021
Great Basin National Park is like a green mirage surrounded by the vast desert that makes up most of Nevada. You can find ancient pine trees, alpine wilderness, rugged mountain peaks, limestone caves, and incredible night skies in this diverse and remote National Park.
Great Basin really is out in the middle of nowhere – the closest major city is Salt Lake City which is a four-hour drive away. This makes the park the perfect place to get away from the stress of everyday life.
Explore the caves, hike to mountain peaks, see some of the world’s oldest living trees, and camp in the park to see some of the best stargazing in the country.
Best Things To Do in Great Basin National Park:
- Hit the hiking trails – there are lots to choose from
- Enjoy the pristine night skies – there is very little light pollution in and around the park
- Hike the highest peak in the park – 13,167ft Wheeler Peak
- Take a ranger-led tour of Lehman Caves
- See ancient Bristlecone Pines – the world’s oldest known living trees
- Drive the scenic 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive for mountain and valley views
- Backpack the Baker/Johnson Lake Loop over two days
8) Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Average Visitor Numbers Per Year: 359,635 visitors in 2021
If you love volcanoes then you should definitely visit Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California, one of the best West Coast National Parks to see volcanic activity. This offbeat National Park is home to numerous volcanoes and steaming vents, as well as meadows filled with wildflowers, and beautiful mountain lakes.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is an all-season park – you can go hiking and see fields of wildflowers in summer, and in winter you can backcountry ski, snowshoe, and sled.
Whatever season you decide to visit, you will have a great time away from the crowds at Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Best Things To Do in Lassen Volcanic National Park:
- Drive 30-mile Lassen Volcanic Scenic Byway
- Look for wildflowers in the summer months
- Visit the park’s hydrothermal areas to see volcanic activity
- Go hiking on the mountain trails to lakes and viewpoints
- Visit in winter to snowshoe, ski, and sled
What To Pack For Your Best West Coast National Parks Trip
Pack an Everfun backpack cooler to keep your snacks and drinks cold the whole day while you are on the road. They don’t take up much room like a regular cooler, they’re waterproof, and are perfect for picnics – I used my cooler backpack a lot on my recent National Park road trip.
For longer day hikes and backpacking trips, you should take a water filter – I love my GRAYL Geopress Water Purifier.
Take some trekking poles to help with downhill and river crossings when hiking – your knees will thank you! And make sure to wear hiking boots rather than regular trainers for hiking in these rugged West Coast National Parks.
Pack a raincoat in case it rains, a down jacket if you are traveling to these parks in spring or fall when the weather is colder, and a thermal underlayer top for layering.
If you liked this post, check out more of my Western U.S. content:
- The Best Natural Hot Springs in Idaho For a Relaxing Soak
- Hike From Aspen to Crested Butte: The Best Hike in Colorado
- Top Things To Do in the South Bay of Los Angeles
- Ultimate Colorado Itinerary for an Epic Road Trip
- 15 Best Colorado Mountain Towns To Visit Anytime
- 15 Best Colorado Hot Springs For True Hot Springs Enthusiasts
- 10 Best Hidden Gems in Colorado
- Ultimate Travel Guide to Big Bear Lake in Summer
- 25 Best Things About the United States of America
- The Best Things To Do in Telluride in Summer and Fall