Off the Beaten Path: 7 Underrated U.S. National Parks
The U.S. National Park System contains some of the country’s most beautiful, pristine wilderness. Sprinkled throughout the country, including non-state territories, these parks provide a double service of environmental protection and a darn good place to take an affordable vacation.
Everyone knows about the awe-inspiring beauty of Yosemite. We’ve all heard about the majestic chasm of the Grand Canyon, and who doesn’t know about the otherworldly geysers, roaming bison, and fierce grizzly bears of Yellowstone? And as the nation’s most-visited park, millions of us have experienced first-hand the serene quiet of a foggy Appalachian morning in the Great Smoky Mountains. From wall calendars to nature documentaries, virtually everyone has seen the incredible beauty and richness of our nation’s most popular parks.
But that’s the problem: everyone knows about them. These crowning jewels of the National Park System receive millions of visitors per year. So if you want to enjoy Yosemite during the peak summer season, you’ll be sharing your epic vistas with more than ten thousand of your closest friends every day. In recent years, some major parks have become so crowded that sometimes visitors arrive to find that they can’t even get out of their cars (http://www.mercedsunstar.com/article160640879.html). When it’s that busy, there’s nowhere to park and the road systems are gridlocked. You can avoid some of this by traveling during off-peak seasons, but that won’t help you much if you’re looking to participate in an activity that requires a particular time of year.
To get back to nature without getting the claustrophobia, check out some of the nation’s most underrated National Parks. These parks are often just as epic, but without the hordes of fanny-pack-bearing tourists.
Despite both being only a couple hours by car from Seattle, North Cascades National Park receives only a fraction of the traffic that passes through Olympic National Park. Olympic clocks in at a cool 3.2 million visitors a year, while North Cascades barely manages around 24,000. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a trip.
The epic beauty of North Cascades’ landscapes can’t be overstated. A massive area filled with a mountain range called the ‘American Alps’ by some, the park is home to over 300 glaciers – half of all the glaciers in the continental U.S. Sweeping snow-capped peaks, thick pine forests and pristine lakes abound. Summer visitors can hike through verdant forests and alpine meadows of blooming wildflowers while you take in the views, and winter visitors can check out the fabulous ski areas. If lakes are more your thing, there’s plenty of kayaking and canoeing to be had. With appropriate permits, you can also fish in the pristine waters. North Cascades is also home to the famous Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan, which draw alpine mountaineers from across the world. Beginner mountaineers can also find a variety of companies offering lessons and guided activities.
At just over 100,000 visitors annually, Great Basin is Nevada’s hidden gem. Stunning variety is the name of the game at Great Basin, with stunning offerings both above and below ground. Located in eastern Nevada, the nearest major city is Salt Lake City, UT, and then you’re in for a 3 ½ hour trip by car to the park. But the effort to travel there is more than worth taking.
Containing a stunning variety of environments, Great Basin offers incredible scenery. This incredible park is home to ancient bristlecone pine groves that house the oldest living organisms in the world, soaring granite mountains peaking at over 13,000ft in elevation, otherworldly caves, and some of the best stargazing available in the country.
Hiking, camping, fishing and scenic drives are all part of the package, but where the park really shines is in its more unique offerings. The park offers ranger-led astronomy programs, and guided tours of Lehmann Caves. For a cultural experience, you can also check out Pictograph Cave, which contains ancient cave paintings dated at around 3,000 years old. For those interested, the park even allows gathering pine nuts (pinyons) during the fall for personal use! Visitors throughout the warmer months will be able to view spectacular wildflowers, while winter visitors can participate in skiing and snowshoeing the trails.
Okay, so American Samoa might not be the easiest place to get to, but the travel is more than worth the effort. This Pacific island paradise has a unique, vibrant culture, gorgeous tropical beaches and fascinating museums. Samoans are estimated to have the most ancient culture among Pacific Islanders at more than 3,000 years old! Best of all, at less than 14,000 visitors a year, the National Park of American Samoa has a fraction of the overcrowding that plagues Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which has over 1.7 million visitors a year.
Hiking, beach walking, snorkeling and diving are major attractions to this park, as well as cultural events. This incredible park even has a homestay program, which allows you to stay with a generous local family instead of a typical hotel!
Great Sand Dunes National Park is nestled in south-central Colorado. Home to the largest sand dunes in North America, this beautiful park is often overlooked in favor of Colorado’s other spectacular offerings. As great as the ultra-popular Rocky Mountain National Park is (complete with its nearly 3.5 million tourists a year), Great Sand Dunes has plenty to offer despite receiving less than 275,000 people a year.
This park has more than just sand, too. There are also alpine trails, soaring mountains, beautiful private lakes, and even sweeping grasslands. The ecological diversity is an incredible backdrop for camping, hiking, backpacking, hunting and fishing. But the really unique offerings include sand boarding and sledding. The park is also incredible at night, with gorgeous stargazing opportunities making it popular among astrophotography enthusiasts.
This northern California park has so much to offer. With year-round natural attractions, you can find everything from meadows filled with spring wildflowers to snowshoeing trails in the deepest weeks of winter. Steaming fumaroles – openings in the earth near active volcanoes – dot the land, along with clear mountain lakes and jagged volcanic peaks.
Along with boating, hiking and camping, one popular activity is geocaching within the park.
This small but unique national park is only accessible by boat or seaplane. But never fear: ferries run daily from Key West. It’s one of the smallest national parks by land area, but these incredible islands are a great launching point for ocean boating, fishing, snorkeling and diving activities. You can camp on the white sand beaches and visit Fort Jefferson, the incredible 19th century military fort on Garden Key. A trip to this beautiful park is the perfect extension to a Key West vacation!
Just outside Anchorage, Alaska, this park is one of the nation’s finest, yet it receives less than a quarter-million visitors per year. Beautiful blue glaciers meet frigid waters, setting the perfect stage for boat tours that often catch glimpses of whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals like sea otters and Steller sea lions. You can also hike the Harding Icefield Trail, rising from the valley floor through dense vegetation until finally opening up to a spectacular view of the ice fields.
The park also offers opportunities for kayaking, camping, mountaineering and winter activities. You can even catch a dog sledding tour!