A national park should be a place to revel in the glory of nature, not wait in line for a brief glimpse of it. And while the busiest national parks welcome upwards of 9 million people per year, there are dozens of parks that see only a fraction as many. Best of all, these unsung heroes of the national park system offer just as much beauty and splendor as the big names. Head to any one of them and you are sure to see something spectacular. Just remember to bring a camera, because you may be the only one for miles when you see it.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
If Canyonlands National Park has a unifying theme, it’s rocks doing crazy things. If you think that sounds boring, you’re seriously underestimating the creativity of Mother Nature. Think vivid red mesas stretching serpent-like across the land, buttes that rise up like cities, and winding rivers carving canyons deeper and wilder every year. Visit one of the park’s districts—which have whimsical names like Island in the Sky and the Maze—and you’ll have far less competition for the scenery than you would at a neighboring national park such as Arches or Glen Canyon.
North Cascades National Park, Washington
Less than three hours from Seattle lies an alpine wonderland of glacier-capped mountain peaks, lush virgin forests, pristine snow-fed lakes, nearly 400 miles of hiking trails, and only about 22,000 yearly visitors. Sometimes known as the “American Alps,’’ North Cascades National Park remains relatively under the radar for most visitors—a real surprise, given the Northwestern predilection for determined outdoorsiness
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Florida’s odd and intriguing Dry Tortugas National Park isn’t for the casual visitor. These seven islands sit in the Gulf of Mexico, about 70 nautical miles west of Key West. But for about 58,000 tenacious national park goers each year, it’s worth the trip. Home to some of the healthiest coral reefs off North America, the park is first and foremost a marine and bird sanctuary, with thriving reef fish, nesting turtles, and nearly 300 species of birds. And smack-dab in the middle of all this nature stands a giant brick testament to human endeavor: Ft. Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the U.S., built in the mid-19th century to protect a lucrative shipping channel.
Kings Canyon National Park, California
Sometimes a spectacular park gets overshadowed by its neighbors. Vying for outdoors-bound visitors with nearby Yosemite National Park and its neighbor Sequoia National Park to the south, Kings Canyon National Park just doesn’t pack the crowds like its siblings. But savvy visitors can reap the crowd-free benefits of this Southern Sierra hidden gem surrounded by national forest. The park that John Muir once said was a “rival to Yosemite’’ is bursting with wonders such as the largest remaining grove of sequoia trees in the world and a canyon that is, by some measures, the deepest in the country.
Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, Alaska
Some of Alaska’s nearly two dozen national parks are a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle, offering both a true taste of isolation and a long, long slog to get there. However, located just 100 miles (about a one-hour flight on a small plane) from Anchorage, Lake Clark National Park & Preserve is an excellent option for travelers looking for vast expanses of wild Alaska within shouting distance of a major city. And with only about 13,000 fellow visitors per year, you can still pretend you’re alone at the top of the world.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
At first glance, it may look a lot like your average swamp. But visit Congaree National Park in South Carolina and you’ll quickly come to appreciate the regularly refreshing waters, gently draping Spanish moss, and impressive expanse of old-growth trees that populate this undisturbed floodplain forest. Only about 120,000 visit the park each year, mostly to hike the forest paths or kayak and canoe their way through the eerie and beautiful waterways.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Since West Texas isn’t a must-see destination on most people’s radars, Guadalupe Mountains National Park remains firmly off the beaten path in spite of its commanding beauty. Fewer than 150,000 visitors each year discover its peaks, canyons, and all of the secrets its rocks hold. It’s hard to imagine that this rugged, arid land was once a great reef of an inland sea, but you can see the fossilized marine life for yourself, along with more recent history like ancient pottery and baskets.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and you’ll be among only about 175,000 people each year who take the opportunity to peer into the very foundation of North America. The deep, narrow canyon—which the National Park Service poetically deems a “vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky’’—is the never-finished product of 2 million years of work by the determined Gunnison River and the constant forces of weathering. But 2 million years is a drop in the bucket around here; hike to the canyon floor and you can see exposed rock that’s nearly 2 billion years old.
Pinnacles National Park, California
The beauty of Pinnacles may be eons-old, but its national park designation is something quite new. Having just earned the status last year, Pinnacles National Park has just arrived onto the scene, though it became a national monument back in 1908. And while visitor numbers are expected to increase along with its new higher profile, for now, most park visitors can still scan the horizon and see more craggy spires and other dramatic rock formations than people.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Great Basin National Park in Nevada is all about superlatives: Visit this vast desert basin and mountain range to discover the soaring 13,000-foot Wheeler Peak, the deep and beautiful Lehman Caves, and bristlecone pines, some of which are thought to be 5,000 years old. Its relatively remote location, about 230 miles from Salt Lake City or 290 miles from Las Vegas, shelters it from crowds—fewer than 100,000 people visit the park each year—which is just fine for visitors looking to enjoy the park’s unique blend of solitude and arid beauty.
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