Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park/Laura Motta
Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park/Laura Motta

This year, the 100th anniversary of America’s national parks inspired millions to get outside and explore some of the country’s most astonishing beauty. But the centennial programming was almost too successful: National parks across the country saw a surge of visitors, leading to long wait times and large crowds.

The good news is that most of America’s state parks still fly under the radar, and many of them offer similarly jaw-dropping landscapes as big-name parks. Below, we’ve put together a list of state parks with comparable sights and terrain to major national parks — all without the crowds.

Instead of the Badlands or Yellowstone, Go to Custer State Park, South Dakota

Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup/Laura Motta
Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup/Laura Motta

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The sharp spires and grooved ridges that makes Badlands National Park so special can also be found just 85 miles due west in Custer State Park. But its best-kept secret — one that puts it on par with Yellowstone — is the bison. Comprising more than 73,000 acres, Custer is home to an abundance of wildlife, including about 1,300 bison as well as bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and antelope.

Instead of Yosemite, Visit Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

Silver Falls State Park/iStock
Silver Falls State Park/iStock

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One of the main reasons visitors flock to Yosemite in huge numbers is its waterfalls. But in the summer, Yosemite Valley might as well be a parking lot. If it’s waterfalls you crave, head up north to Silver Falls State Park in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Here, you can see 10 waterfalls on a single day hike (appropriately named the Trail of Ten Falls), headlined by the 177-foot South Falls, which you can walk behind. The best part: Even though it’s located just about an hour south of Portland, this park is still mostly a local secret.

Instead of Canyonlands, Go to Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada

Cathedral Gorge State Park/Sydney Martinez/TravelNevada
Cathedral Gorge State Park/Sydney Martinez/TravelNevada

Canyonlands — and Southern Utah in general — is regarded for its slot canyons. Most people aren’t aware that this type of terrain can also be found in Nevada, where it’s actually a bit more accessible at just a 2.5-hour drive from the Las Vegas airport. The park’s terrain is highlighted by carved cliffs and slot canyons that are fit for day hiking and camping. Many of the formations and shapes are created because the canyon walls are made of Bentonite clay. It can become be so soft at times that it will show footprints.

Instead of Zion, Go to Snow Canyon State Park, Utah

Snow Canyon State Park/iStock
Snow Canyon State Park/iStock

Zion owes its nickname of “canyon country” to its steep red cliffs. The 15-mile-long Zion Canyon is the main attraction for visitors driving through, hoping to steal a look at its striking red-and-tan Navajo sandstone. Fifty miles farther west, and somewhat isolated, Snow Canyon State Park is about 1/20th the size of Zion but offers similar terrain. Its best feature is its hiking, namely the Cinder Cone Trail that takes you across wind-carved sandstone hills and old lava flows. Fun fact: The movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed in Snow Canyon. While you’re there, look for Gila monsters and desert tortoises — both are protected species in Snow Canyon.

Instead of Petrified Forest National Park, Visit Valley of Fire State Park, Las Vegas

Valley of Fire State Park/Travel Nevada
Valley of Fire State Park/Travel Nevada

Although it’s a lesser-known national park overall, Arizona’s Petrified Forest is internationally recognized for its abundance of fossils and petrified wood, and it draws almost a million visitors a year. Another option is to check out the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, six miles from Lake Mead and 55 miles from Las Vegas. It is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park and has expansive areas of petrified wood and 3,000 year-old Indian petroglyphs.

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