Lesser-Known National Parks, Forests, and Wilderness Areas: No Crowds

Instead of Badlands National Park (South Dakota)

Try: Buffalo Gap National Grassland (SD and NE)

The otherworldly badlands of the Midwest aren’t confined solely to Badlands National Park. There are plenty of sedimentary rock formations—and 85 percent less foot traffic—next door in Buffalo Gap National Grassland. Part of Nebraska National Forest, Buffalo Gap is one of 20 National Grasslands. Hike it, bike it, bring your horse and ride it. You don’t need a permit and it’s all free. Rock hunters should check out the Fairburn area near the French Creek Campground—the only developed campground in Buffalo Gap—or any eroded space in the 600,000 acres of impossibly open prairie. Create your own camp in places like Badlands Overlook (not to be confused with Big Badlands Overlook), about a mile north of Badlands and just south of Wall, SD. Wall is home to the Buffalo Gap National Grassland Visitor Center and the historic Wall Drug Store, a sprawling roadside attraction where you can stock up on souvenir shot glasses and “Where the Heck Is Wall Drug” bumper stickers. Tired of trail mix? Sample the South Dakota– specific chislic (marinated and fried cubes of sirloin) at Badlands Saloon & Grille.

Lush forested area with river

Buckhorn shares the same lush, rugged setting as Olympic National Park without all the foot traffic. The must-do trek here is a 12-miler with 4,000 feet of elevation gain.
Don Geyer/Alamy

Instead of Olympic National Park (Washington)

Buckhorn Wilderness (Washington)

The largest of five wilderness areas in Olympic National Forest, Buckhorn runs along the eastern boundary of Olympic National Park. Same majestic mountain range, fewer people, no permit necessary and you can bring your dog. Besides 216 private acres that are part of a patented mining claim, Buckhorn is 44,000 acres of streams, fir, pine and seriously steep terrain, topping out at the summit of 7,135-foot Mount Fricaba. The Upper Big Quilcene Trail (UBQ) is where you’ll be taking The Hike—a challenging 12-mile out-and-back trek with 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Take your time and plan to camp at Marmot Pass, Boulder Camp or Camp Mystery along the way. Buckhorn is warmest and driest in August, but this is Washington state, people: Marmot Pass and Camp Mystery may have snow on the ground until mid-July. Don’t stop exploring once you get back to your car. Lean into the Nordic roots of Kitsap Peninsula, about an hour’s drive from the UBQ trailhead, during a waterfront stroll along the shops and galleries of Poulsbo’s Little Norway. Carb back up with a crisp Kölsch in the recently opened tap room at Echoes Brewing.

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