As summer creeps into full swing and cities across America do the dance of easing, and then reinstating, COVID-19 restrictions, people are clamoring to be someplace — anyplace — besides their own homes. While there is no form of travel that’s perfectly safe right now, there are certainly more responsible options than others for scratching the itch.
National parks, in all their wide-open space, are more befitting a socially distant vacation than, say, resort towns or theme parks. But even vast wilderness expanses have potential for riskier areas — visitor centers, for one, and popular trailheads near main parking areas. And then there are the mosh pit-like crowds at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful or the scenic drive at Zion National Park, which has been so popular since reopening that the park had to cap access at 6:30 a.m.
Now more than ever, then, this is the time to visit some of America’s lesser-known national parks. Steering clear of the millions of tourists at Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains, exploring new territory provides a sense of discovery, with the added benefit of having the trails mostly to yourself. The adventure doesn’t stop at park boundaries, either, as these less-famous parks are often surrounded by bucolic communities and smaller cities rich with their own charms, including destination-worthy restaurants, unexpected speakeasies, and a chicken-fried Texas saloon.
As enticing as all this sounds, it’s important that travelers tread carefully in and around all national parks, since these smaller gateway communities are not equipped to handle a potential outbreak brought in from visitors. It’s a double-edged sword for small businesses that rely on tourism dollars to survive, which is why it’s important to maintain the same caution on your road trip as you’ve maintained at home; just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean you can put your face masks in storage. Wherever you are, social distancing and rigorous adherence to health mandates are of the utmost importance, in order to support these communities while keeping them safe.
So, with safety top of mind, here are some alternative parks to consider for your 2020 summer escape, and, of course, the best places to eat — to go, dine-in, or dine-out — nearby.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Judging by the fact that Congaree sees about 3 percent of the annual visitors of parks like Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain, it seems many people don’t even know this South Carolina park exists. Located in the middle of the state, the swamp-like terrain feels part Everglades and part Redwood, with the tallest trees east of the Mississippi and labyrinthine waterways ripe for paddling. The park’s most popular attractions, like the Boardwalk Trail, remain closed, but visitors are able to canoe or kayak on Cedar Creek, a narrow waterway that weaves through hardwood forest so tall and dense that it blocks out the sun, which is perhaps why hooting owls can be heard at all hours of the day. For easy hiking, out-of-the-way trails like the River Trail and Oakridge Trail are currently accessible. The park is within 20 miles of the state capital of Columbia, a small city with quality food and drink to be had.
Where to Eat: Before paddling through Congaree, it’s important to fuel up with a hearty breakfast, like tequila-spiked pancakes. Novelty breakfast is the bread and butter of the Black-owned 27 Pancakes food truck, which is operating on weekends only for the summer due to the pandemic. Chef-owner Joy Eggleston is a veritable Willy Wonka with pancake batter, offering classics (e.g., buttermilk, blueberry) alongside more whimsical and savory offerings, like a shrimp-and-grits pancake made with a grits batter, plump baby shrimp, and jalapenos, or the aforementioned tequila pancake, an almond-flour flapjack glazed with a blend of honey, maple syrup, and tequila reduction. Follow 27 Pancakes on social media to check its schedule.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
About four and a half hours southeast of the closest major airport, in El Paso, this sprawling west Texas park has plenty of room (nearly 1 million acres, in fact) to spread out and explore, from Chisos Mountains hikes and soothing hot springs to the Santa Elena Canyon, a vast chasm offering shaded respite along the meandering Rio Grande. Due to its sheer size, geographic diversity, and faraway locale, this is the perfect park to immerse yourself in for a week, with plenty of sights and activities to keep you busy and enthralled. The surrounding communities are rich with character but low on crowds, like the dusty ghost town of Terlingua, which is emerging as a tranquil artist’s enclave, and the peaceful riverside town of Lajitas, where a goat serves as mayor.
Where to Eat and Drink: The star attraction in Terlingua is the Starlight Theatre, a lively contrast to a town filled with graves and derelict homes, both belonging to miners who succumbed to mercury poisoning or mining accidents in the early 1900s. The spacious saloon, known for its thoughtful riffs on gamey West Texas flavors, like chicken-fried wild boar strips with beer gravy and tequila-marinated quail in blueberry-balsamic sauce, is operating with dine-in and bar service at 50 percent capacity, and has added takeout as well as periodic live music performances.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
In lush southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is once again beckoning visitors itching to hike, drive along the Mesa Top Loop Road, and marvel at the park’s famed cliff dwellings, elaborate structures and communities built centuries ago by Puebloan peoples. At just over 50,000 acres, the park is the perfect weekend getaway, renowned for its mesa-skimming scenic drives and hiking trails that make you feel like you’re traipsing through the clouds, surrounded by panoramic views of the Colorado valley. The arty gateway town of Mancos is small, but surprisingly abundant with galleries, cafes, and restaurants, which have navigated new methods of operation.
Where to Eat: Absolute Bakery & Cafe is a beloved community hub for locals and tourists alike, who pregame before Mesa Verde with avocado omelets, chicken Florentine, Cubano sandwiches, and house-baked pastries like cherry strudel, pumpkin brownies, and coconut-walnut blondies. Since COVID-19, the cafe has extended its service to seven days a week (up from six) in order to serve breakfast and lunch to go, along with take-and-bake meals like pot pie, quiche, and lasagna perfect for cooking up in the RV. It’s also started nightly pizza dinners for takeout, made with sourdough crusts and rotating toppings like asparagus pesto, Hawaiian, and pepperoni. The cafe strongly encourages guests to wear masks, and it’s stocked with hand sanitizer stations.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Located along U.S. Route 50, a highway so desolate that its nickname is “The Loneliest Road in America,” and next to the tiny town of Baker, Great Basin National Park is the ultimate park for social distancing. Aside from the people you travel with, it’s unlikely you’ll encounter other humans here at all. This Great Basin region of eastern Nevada, sandwiched between the Sierra Nevadas and Wasatch Mountains, is a place of extremes — from the skyscraping tip of Wheeler Peak, the highest point in the park (and second highest in Nevada) at 13,065 feet, to the craggy passageways within Lehman Caves and the gnarly looking bristlecone pines, the oldest trees on Earth, some nearing 5,000 years of age. Best of all? With under 200,000 annual visitors and 77,000 acres worth of diverse terrain, you’ll find plenty of solitude among the epic environs.
Where to Eat: An homage to the ultimate road-tripper, Kerouac’s Restaurant is a seasonal restaurant open May through October at the Stargazer Inn in Baker. Due to COVID-19, the restaurant is only offering counter service this year, with food and drink available to go or for dining on the homespun front patio. The menu reads like a hit list of American comfort classics, sure to satisfy after a long drive or a long hike. Think pesto-mushroom pizzas, spicy chicken sandwiches, veggie burgers, oatmeal cranberry cookies, and even strawberry-rhubarb Moscow mules.
Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Western South Dakota is well known for iconic parks and monuments, like Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore, but for those looking to eschew crowds, Wind Cave is a good choice for a day trip. Though the cave itself — a dense maze of jagged calcite formations, like needle-looking frostwork, and boxwork, a rare grid-shaped feature found in almost no other cave on Earth — is currently closed down, the park has many miles (and some 30,000 acres) of peaceful prairie hikes, rolling hills, and meadows strewn with wildflowers so vibrant they look like fields of confetti. Keep your eyes peeled for a chance to spot bison, prairie dogs, elk, and the rare black-footed ferret.
Where to Eat: As the urban hub of western South Dakota, Rapid City’s got an impressive food scene despite its small size and population. An hour’s drive from Wind Cave, head to the bi-level Vertex Sky Bar atop the historic Hotel Alex Johnson to drink in the Black Hills views while drinking in the rosé, or dine at Kōl, which reopened for reservations-only dine-in service with tables spread six feet apart, for wood-fired pizzas, steaks, and roast chicken. In the morning, downtown’s Harriet & Oak cafe reduced seating and limited the amount of time customers can linger to two hours, which is still enough to enjoy a trendy latte and some oh-so-Instagrammable avocado toast. Curbside pickup and online ordering is also available.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
On the northern border of Minnesota lies Voyageurs National Park, a tranquil landscape of lakes and islands, where loons replace the din of city sirens. Up here, in the heart of the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it’s easy to maintain social distance for a few days, considering a third of the 250,000-acre park is, well, water, and most activities involve kayaks, canoes, and fishing.
Where to Eat: It doesn’t get more quintessential Minnesota Northwoods than the Rocky Ledge, a cabin-like restaurant on the tree-lined shores of Kabetogama Lake, with a penchant for Minnesota specialties like wild rice casserole. And in case you weren’t able to reel in your own catch on the lake, fear not: the restaurant offers fry-bread fish tacos and breaded walleye sandwiches to make up for it.
Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
For travelers who prefer a more relaxed experience over, say, a backcountry trek, Arkansas’s historic Hot Springs is a tiny city park that’s ideal for an afternoon stopover. Anchored by ornate bathhouses utilizing the region’s famed thermal waters, the town is nicknamed “The American Spa,” and it’s been enticing visitors for more than a century. Bathhouse Row is the heart of the park, lined with steaming water fountains and palace-sized buildings with intricate Gilded Age architecture. While you may not be able to take a traditional bath quite yet, visitors can hike up the gentle slopes of Hot Springs Mountain, whose summit affords vista views of the bright-green Ouachita Mountain range, and then imbibe that spring water at the rare brewery located within a national park.
Where to Eat: Superior Bathhouse, located in one of the former bathhouses along Main Street’s Bathhouse Row, has reopened for limited counter service. Visitors are required to wear masks, unless they’re eating (beer cheese dip and sweet potato-beet sandwiches are excellent choices), or drinking one of the beers brewed on-site — e.g., hazy blood-orange I.P.A., honey-basil kolsch, oatmeal stout — made with Hot Springs’ thermal waters. To connect with the Southern soul of Hot Springs, head to Emma Lee’s, a warm and welcoming dining room wafting with aromas of buttery peach cobbler, beef roast, and fresh cornbread. The family-run restaurant is the dream of owner Courtney Sanders, who pays homage to his grandmother Emma Lee with her most beloved recipes. The restaurant is still offering curbside pickup along with limited dine-in service on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. No matter what’s on deck for the day, be it thick slabs of smoky brisket and candied yams or mac and cheese served bubbling-hot under a golden-brown crust, this is the kind of restaurant that’s sure to warm hearts during a time when it’s needed most. Masks are required for entry, but customers can remove them while seated.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Badlands, petrified wood, roving bison, and wild horses make it clear what endeared President Theodore Roosevelt to this tranquil part of the country, where you’re more likely to encounter chirping prairie dogs on your hike than people. Split into two main north and south districts, each worth visiting for a day or two, the 70,000-acre park feels like the quintessential Wild West, with the Little Missouri River zig-zagging through fields of verdant grassland and eroded sandstone formations that look like super-sized sandcastles. Medora is the tiny home of the park’s popular south unit, but nearby Dickinson is a small city with an array of independent options.
Where to Eat: There’s really no better way to kickstart your day than with a blackberry pancake latte and a sticky caramel roll, and the Brew, a former church-turned-coffee shop, delivers on both fronts. Later, unwind with a sweet and spicy jalapeno honey beer and a Badlands pizza, made with pepperoni, Italian sausage, and ricotta, at Phat Fish Brewing. The brewpub is open for dine-in seating, with spaced-out indoor tables and a sprawling patio with a grassy lawn. It’s also offering take-and-bake pizza kits and bottled beers to go.
With its blissfully warm temperatures, lush forests, and wildly diverse terrain, Colorado is popular for outdoorsy recreation, but rather than queueing up at crowded Rocky Mountain National Park, try the lesser-known Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The state’s least visited national park, Black Canyon is open for hiking along both the north and south rims, with trails that’ll get you unnervingly close to the breathtaking canyon and the raging river far below. Both sides of the canyon are worth visiting, so be sure to carve out at least two or three days to thoroughly explore. Since the only way to the north rim is driving all the way around the southern end of the canyon, it requires some added travel time. For fearless hikers, the park also has a few steep trails down to the canyon floor, which is a nice way to get out of the sun, since the canyon is so tall and narrow that it’s almost constantly shrouded in its own shadow. Nearby, the town of Montrose is the entry point to the park’s southern rim, which has the most trails and scenic viewpoints.
Where to Eat: It’s not often a speakeasy offering craft cocktails and charcuterie platters can be found on the outskirts of a national park, which is what makes Phelanies a special find. Accessed down an alley off one of Montrose’s main streets, the spacious lounge has gone alfresco for the first time, adding a patio and expanding its menus to include more food (like Korean barbecue pulled pork and duck wontons) and seasonal cocktails, like honeydew margaritas and the timely COVID Reviver No. 19, a Corpse Reviver riff with gin, orange liqueur, Lillet Blanc, lemon, and a CBD tincture. Guests are asked to wear masks any time they’re not seated, and limit movement around the bar except for necessities like bathroom runs.
Sandwiched between the nearby cities of Cleveland and Akron, hugging the crooked Cuyahoga River for some 30,000 acres, Cuyahoga Valley provides a literal breath of fresh air for Ohio city-dwellers seeking to escape the traffic for the day and replace it with dense green forests, babbling creeks, and 70-plus waterfalls. While popular sites like the Brandywine Falls boardwalk remain closed, there are still opportunities for hiking along miles of woodland trails, horseback riding, fishing, and kayaking.
Where to Eat: The park is a convenient day trip from larger cities in Ohio, making it ideal for safe travel, since visitors are able to minimize their footprint without having to stay overnight. If you’re traveling from Cleveland, start your day with a fried ring of purple-hued blueberry cake, bursting with juicy, tangy flavor, from the Vegan Doughnut Company. Located in suburban Lakewood, the Black-owned bakery from sisters Kharisma and Kyra Mayo exhibits a penchant for vibrant, whimsical pastries, like a birthday-cake doughnut strewn with multicolored sprinkles and crushed Golden Oreos, or a vanilla-glazed variety decorated with chocolate chips and dollops of cookie dough. For now, the shop is open weekends only for to-go doughnuts. Later, after you’ve chased a few waterfalls in the park, wood-fired pepperoni and banana-pepper pizza is an apt pick-me-up, and you can get your fix at Sarah’s Vineyard and Winery. Housed in a timber-clad barn that doubles as an art gallery, the lofty restaurant and tasting room has reopened for dine-in, spread out its ample patio seating, added hand sanitizer stations by the entrance, and shifted its menu to heartier crowd-pleasers like pulled pork sandwiches, nachos, and pizza. Sit outside for sweeping vineyard views and pair your spicy pie with a carafe of sweet Ohio-grown Vidal.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
The world-famous caverns — brimming with stalagmites, stalactites, and a colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats so populous that they look like clouds of swirling black smoke on their nightly flights — are still closed to visitors, but the underrated hiking trails on the surface are well worth the excursion, especially for a morning or late-afternoon hike (the sun gets pretty scorching midday). With nearly 50 miles of trails through the peaceful Chihuahuan Desert, from Rattlesnake Canyon to Guadalupe Ridge, there’s plenty to explore, and plenty of opportunity to break away from crowds and convene with cacti and roadrunners.
Where to Eat: In the nearby town of Carlsbad, Guadalupe Mountain Brewing Company reopened for dine-in service, with restricted hours and a patio. House-brewed beers run the gamut from a puckering grapefruit gose to creamy coconut porters, while the thin and crispy brick-oven pizzas are so popular they sell out regularly. They also offer gluten-free crusts, cauliflower-crust pizzas, and periodic specials like berry-studded dessert pizzas and New Mexican green chile pies.
A full-time RV traveler and freelance travel writer, Matt Kirouac is the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and forthcoming app.