After years of travel restrictions, people are embracing urban escapes and savoring national park scenery again. Until, that is, you find yourself stuck in a line behind a hundred of them, or jostling noisy hordes of selfie-stick holders just to get a momentary glimpse of a “tranquil” view. Thankfully, many wildly popular destinations have less-visited doppelgangers that serve up similarly amazing adventures. The getaways below offer dazzling desert vistas, tropical beaches, alpine beauty, and European style—with a little more serenity.
Instead of Yosemite National Park: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks or the John Muir Wilderness
Yosemite may be Northeastern California’s marquee destination, but colossal trees, glacial blue lakes, and mountain ranges worthy of an Ansel Adams coffee table book stretch far beyond the busy park’s borders.
South of Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks receive about 1.8 million fewer visitors annually than Yosemite. You’re less likely to encounter gridlock as you cruise the 50-mile Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, which weaves through the parks past a river, waterfalls, and forests laced with trails. Take a humbling hike among humongous sequoias, including the 275-foot-tall General Sherman tree. Climb 350 steps to the top of Moro Rock for (literally) breathtaking vistas of forested mountains. Then ease your muscles on breezy rambles to Roaring River Falls and Zumwalt Meadow, framed by soaring cliffs reminiscent of Yosemite. (Editor’s Note: The Roaring River Falls and Zumwalt Meadows area was damaged by a storm in March 2023 and is expected to reopen later in 2024.)
On the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, the John Muir Wilderness, bordered by the Inyo and Sierra National Forests features a symphony of glacier-carved lakes and crystal clear rivers amidst snow capped mountains. Tourists tend to gravitate to Mammoth Lakes, so consider basing yourself in laid-back Bishop, a convenient jumping-off point for day hikes. On the easy Little Lakes Valley Trail, a riverside ramble opens up to spectacular alpine panoramas and shimmering streams. Turn around at one of the many lakes along the way, or take it all the way to Mono Pass for an 8-mile out and back adventure. And the 5.5-mile trek from South Lake to Treasure Lakes takes in teal waters, conifer forests, and rugged granite peaks.
Instead of Utah’s “Mighty Five” National Parks: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion National Parks—collectively called the Mighty Five—throng with a total of around 10.5 million visitors in 2022. And many of them zip past Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which stretches across more of Southern Utah than all the Mighty Five combined. It also checks many of the same boxes: jaw-dropping vermilion cliffs, mushroom-shaped rock towers, picturesque sandstone arches, and intimate slot canyons.
To get there, you’ll drive one of the country’s most beloved ribbons of road: Scenic Byway 12, which squiggles through a geologic wonderland painted in shades of ochre and Martian orange. For easy access to the monument, you can base yourself in a vintage airstream, a cabin, or your own RV or tent at Ofland Escalante. The glamping resort comes complete with a food truck and a drive-in theater where you can watch an old movie from the comfort of a classic car.
Start your day in the monument with the nearly 6-mile round trip hike past ancient pictographs to Lower Calf Creek Falls, capped off with a shower in the cascade. If there’s zero chance of rain and you’re undaunted by some clambering and tight squeezes, explore the corkscrewing, multi-arched Spooky and Peek-a-Boo slot canyons.
Instead of Hawaii: Costa Rica
In the wake of pandemic travel restrictions, Hawaii was inundated with tourists, and the islands have struggled to accommodate the influx. Where else can travelers find Hawaii’s blend of soft beaches, dramatic volcanoes, tropical flora, and outdoor adventures? Costa Rica.
Depending on which areas you’d like to visit, you can fly into either the San Jose or Liberia airport. From Liberia, beach lovers can beeline to Playa Conchal—a sparkling, golden shore where you can snorkel with rays and kaleidoscopic fish. If surfing and yoga is your scene, head to bohemian, off-the-beaten-track Santa Teresa. Newbies can learn to ride the warm swells with Del Sol Surf School, while yogis do tree pose overlooking the coconut palm-fringed beach at Horizon Hotel.
In the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, ramble walkways perched high in a tree canopy swinging with sloths and howler monkeys. Led by a naturalist guide, you can learn about the forest’s biodiversity, spy emerald- and ruby-colored quetzal birds, and even encounter nocturnal creatures on a night walk. At Arenal Volcano National Park, you can hike across lava fields or zipline over a rainforest commanding high-speed views of a lake and the cloud-topped stratovolcano.
Instead of Venice and Italian Wine Country: Slovenia
With an estimated 30 million visitors flooding Venice every year, Italians joke that strolling through the city is like taking “un bagno di folla”—a bath in the crowd. Meanwhile, Italian wine regions have become so touristy and overpriced, even Italians are seeking refuge in neighboring Slovenia.
In Ljubljana’s Old Town, you can sip coffee in riverside cafes, stroll cobblestoned streets between pastel art nouveau and art deco buildings, and take a “time machine” tour through the castle atop the city. On a food walk with LjubljanaYUM, visit mom-and-pop food stalls and markets, dip peasant bread into bottle green pumpkin seed oil, and get acquainted with a cuisine that combines elements of Italy and Austria.
With Bananaway, you can stand-up paddleboard the river that flows through Ljubljana, passing under the Dragon Bridge and its four winged statues. The company also leads SUP excursions to nearby Lake Bled, where you can tour a gothic church in the middle of the lake and take a dip in balmy cerulean water. For vino lovers, Winestronaut guides tasting tours to the Vipava Valley, where winemaking dates back to Celtic and Roman times. In this relatively undiscovered region, you’ll feel like you’ve been welcomed into locals’ homes as you chat with winemakers, nosh on traditional fare, and sip aromatic whites and velvety reds.