For every well-known national park there are numerous lesser known national parks that are just as breath-taking and beautiful. Check out some of our favorites from the National Park Foundation’s list of parks you must visit on your next adventure!
Top Lesser known national parks:
Dry Tortugas National Park
For many Americans, Haleakala National Park on the Hawaiian island of Maui feels like a paradise destination, ocean crossing required. Indeed, the Hawaiian Islands have served as the nation’s westernmost outpost since the late 1800s and Haleakala their natural treasure. But there is at least one island park perhaps even more remote—Dry Tortugas National Park at the country’s southern-most tip.
Made of the seven farthest-flung of the Florida Keys (70 miles west of Key West), Dry Tortugas is managed alongside its mainland sister park, Everglades. Dry Tortugas plays an important role in American history, protecting the valuable shipping channel at the confluence of the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea and securing the coastline for the U.S. Today, visitors value these clear azure waters more for swimming, sailing, snorkeling, and site seeing.
Unless you’re accustomed to sailing a private boat in the Caribbean, this isn’t a drop-in spot. Visitors can’t drive or fly here commercially, but instead must travel via ferry, chartered seaplane, or private boat. Yankee Freedom ferry, the most economical option, departs Lands End Marina at Key West.
However you get to Dry Tortugas, come prepared with water (it’s called dry for a reason: there is no fresh water), food, sunscreen, and gear for activities such as snorkeling, swimming, camping, and bird watching; the park offers none of these amenities. Your first stop must be a tour of Fort Jefferson, the park’s biggest cultural attraction. Then embark on the adventure of your choice.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Death Valley National Park boasts superlatives that seem a bit uninviting—hottest, driest, lowest—but these extremes are indeed the lure of this desert environment characterized by sand dunes and salt flats. In spring, when wildflowers dot the landscape, visitation soars in Death Valley by those looking for signs of life.
While dunes are a part of Death Valley’s harsh environment, their low relative percentage may disappoint many travelers imagining rippling sand to the horizon. Another park delivers the dunes of our imagination (both in name and in physical features) as well as much more. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve highlights the tallest dunes in North America.
Lest you think sand dunes mean a place devoid of life, Great Sand Dunes is one of the most biologically and geologically diverse places in the U.S. The extreme temperatures on the dunes—150º F on a summer afternoon to minus 20º F on a winter night—have led to evolutionary adaptations and at least seven endemic species, such as the Great Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle, known only to these dunes.
In addition to the dunes, this 150,000-acre park and preserve also includes rugged 13,000-foot peaks, alpine lakes and tundra, forests, creeks, grassland, and wetlands, all waiting to be explored. If planning a hiking or backpacking trip here, be sure your route includes a sampling of these environments. The park allows hiking on the dunes year-round. A free permit is required to camp on the dunes overnight, and dunes-accessible wheelchairs are also loaned for free. Check the visitor center for both.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The Grand Canyon represents one of America’s most iconic landscapes.Its vast layers depict a depth of American history—geologic history—that’s nearly incomprehensible to most. Which is fine. After all, who needs to fully understand the Grand Canyon to appreciate it? The Grand Canyon is irreplaceable, but some places do inspire nearly equal levels of awe. Take Black Canyon of the Gunnison, for example.
What it lacks in width, the Black Canyon makes up for in depth. Great cliffs plunge to the Gunnison River, at points more than 2,700 feet down, creating some of the best and most advanced rock climbing opportunities in the national park system. In spots at the canyon bottom, the river has only 40 feet width to get through. This tight squeeze makes for radical Class V rapids suitable only for the most technically skilled paddlers.
Likewise, hikes into the canyon are reserved for well prepared hikers who can manage orienting along unmaintained rock routes rather than established trails.Not all features of Black Canyon of the Gunnison are limited to experts only, though. Ample scenic drives and short hikes along the South and North rims provide stunning views of this geologic time capsule. And for those who come to Colorado with big fish on the mind, look no further. The Gunnison River is designated a Gold Medal Water & Wild Trout River by the state. Come prepared for hiking among wildlife, including possible bears, and legendary poison ivy. Most of all, come prepared to be overwhelmed by the awesome views.
Isle Royale National Park
Lakes offer an opportunity to slow down and relax, and one of the best-known lakes in the national park system is Crater Lake in southern Oregon. Formed by violent volcanic activity more than 7,700 years ago, Crater Lake’s deep, pure, blue water today creates an unparalleled opportunity for solitude, peace, and both literal and figurative reflection.
Though Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world, is itself not a national park, an island in its midst offers a unique outlet for experiencing the lake and its surrounding landscape. Isle Royale National Park protects more than 132,000 acres of wilderness land in the northwest portion of the lake. The park is actually a series of islands—one large and more than 450 small—making it an archipelago. Within the large island reside many inland lakes, adding to the tremendous biodiversity of this ecologically rich park.
This is place to get away from it all. Vehicles aren’t allowed on Isle Royale, so leave yours at one of three departure points (two in Michigan and one in Minnesota) and arrive on the island either by boat or seaplane. When you get there, explore the island’s boreal forests on foot or paddle along the island’s rocky shore. You can carry your canoe or kayak with you on the boat to the island, or save yourself the trouble and rent one when you get there. Scuba diving is also popular, with natural and cultural treasures waiting to be discovered again and again. Find a full list of travel options and fees on the park website.
Muir Woods National Monument
Everyone knows redwoods. You’ve seen the photos of grown men trying to wrap their arms around one of these tallest trees on earth, or perhaps tried yourself. Redwood National Park in the far northern tip of California is known worldwide for the gargantuan trees it protects. It also boasts pristine coastline and incredible biodiversity. If you’re looking for a big-time redwood experience a little closer to civilization, though, try Muir Woods National Monument just a few miles outside of San Francisco.
While the old-growth redwoods at Muir Woods deserve exclamation, the stories about this property warrant attention as well. Start your journey at the visitor center, where you’ll learn some of the stories that led to the protection of Muir Woods, including how Congressman William Kent and his wife donated 295 acres in honor of philosopher and early environmentalist John Muir. President Theodore Roosevelt declared these acres a national monument in 1908, preserving a prime example of the redwood forest that once covered the coasts of California and Oregon.
This park, though small, offers accessibility and connections to a wide array of coastal California experiences. A newly constructed boardwalk leads into the redwood forest where views of the tallest living things in the world are accessible to everyone. As part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), the opportunities to create a larger itinerary are virtually endless—for as little as a day or as much as a week. Sites in the GGNRA include Alcatraz Island, Presidio, Cliff House, and other don’t-miss icons of the San Francisco area.
Devils Tower National Monument
Mount Rainier towers over the Washington landscape, beckoning hikers and mountain climbers to ascend. One of the most iconic mountains in America, Rainier is a can’t-miss park. If you’re enamored with natural icons, though, make sure Devils Tower National Monument also makes it on your list.
The sheer vertical walls of Devils Tower are open to experienced technical climbers. For those looking for an easier way to see the natural monument up close, walk the 1.3-mile paved Tower Trail that circumvents the tower. In winter, snow lovers can experience the park via cross-country skis or snowshoes.
How did Devils Tower form? This question has led to many stories, legends, and hypotheses, from ancient times to today. The American Indian tribes who view the tower as sacred have passed down stories about its inception for generations. These stories are as varied as the people who created them. Geologists pass on their own ideas about the tower’s origins. All agree that the tower is an igneous intrusion, formed by magma, though they have not yet found consensus on how the igneous rock became exposed to its current majesty.
Whatever the answer, Devils Tower stands as an iconic representation of the land and its people. Learn more about the cultural history and significance of Devils Tower and the surrounding Black Hills at the park visitor center. And don’t leave the park without seeing the Circle of Sacred Smoke Sculpture, which illustrates how more than 20 American Indian tribes revered the tower long before the U.S. recognized its importance and named it the first national monument in 1906.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Nearly everyone can picture steam spewing from Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone, and with good reason—Yellowstone was America’s first national park and Old Faithful one of the iconic pictures that helped sell the country on the idea. Old Faithful, more than 300 additional geysers, and thousands more thermal features that lie beneath Yellowstone’s majestic landscape represent a marvelous story of geologic history.
At Lassen Volcanic National Park, that story continues. It’s one of the most undiscovered parks, nestled in the southern tip of the Cascade Mountains, but its anonymity belies its wonder. Known for volcanic geology, Lassen includes examples of all four types of volcanoes (shield, plug dome, cinder cone, and composite) within its boundaries. This rich diversity of landscapes plays host to an equally rich diversity of plant and animal life. Though no true geysers exist in Lassen, as in Yellowstone, hot springs abound.
What you do in Lassen depends largely on the season. Though the park is open year-round, many areas are inaccessible in winter (here considered October through June) unless you’re willing to strap on cross-country skis or snowshoes. When accessible, mountain roads lead to several lakes and trails.
Exploring the hydrothermal areas in Lassen can be tricky, and park advisories warn to stay on established trails and boardwalks. Take the three-mile round-trip hike around Bumpass Hell, the largest hydrothermal area in the park, to safely see 16 acres worth of plopping mud pots, bubbling pools, and roaring steam vents that will satisfy even the most discerning geology buff.
North Cascades National Park
For anyone looking to see or traverse real-life glaciers, Glacier National Park is a natural and deserving choice. In fact, see this park’s glaciers as soon as you can, as some scientists predict that the 25 or so remaining large glaciers in the park will be gone by 2030, due to climate change.
But other parks offer glacial adventure, too, including North Cascades National Park, with more than 300 glaciers. Just three hours north of Seattle on the British Columbia border, North Cascades presents a wonderland of glacier-capped mountain peaks, alpine wilderness, and cascading waterfalls to rival Yosemite.
Climbers, backpackers, and hikers find plentiful opportunities to stretch their skills here. Check for information on climbing and backcountry permits. Those visitors interested in more relaxed glacial views will find plenty, from guided tours to scenic drives. You can also experience the park by boat on its many lakes and rivers. Looking for a more cultural experience? Check out Stehekin, a remote historic community accessible only by foot, boat, or plane.
If you’re truly enthralled with glaciers or other natural features of this area, consider a class at the new North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, on Diablo Lake in the park. Here, you can enroll in weekend classes or longer courses on topics ranging from climate change to plein air painting to mushroom foraging. No worries about school being boring or stressful—here, there are no grades and class meets outside.
Petrified Forest National Park
Preserved in the rugged landscape of Badlands National Park are fossils from many ages past. From camels to saber-toothed cats, these remains tell the story of a changing South Dakota landscape and its inhabitants. You’ll find a similar story in Petrified Forest National Park, though this one’s told on wooden scrolls, the fossilized remains of an ancient forest from 200 million years ago.
Petrified Forest is a badland, too. The term “badlands” isn’t reserved just for the park that carries the name; badland refers to a type of terrain characterized by sedimentary rock that’s heavily eroded by wind and water and doesn’t support much vegetation—two conditions that make these areas perfect for hunting fossils.
Start at the Painted Desert visitor center, and then drive through the park, stopping at Kachina Point and other overlooks along the way. For a closer look, walk one of the park’s few established trails. Long Logs Trail takes you on a short 0.6-mile loop that showcases some of the best examples of petrified logs, all that remains of now-extinct conifers. If the walk revives your inner archeologist, don’t miss the exhibits—including more petrified wood, fossils, and prehistoric animal displays—at Rainbow Forest Museum.
Exploring Petrified Forest, you’ll be reminded of the park’s popular neighbors along the Colorado Plateau, including Grand Canyon, Zion, and Arches national parks. In fact, it’s a great side trip if you’re visiting Grand Canyon and have a little extra time.
Wind Cave National Park
Of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave—the world’s longest known cave and, since 1816, one of its most toured—the great American naturalist John Burroughs (a contemporary of Whitman and Thoreau) wrote: “The great cave is not merely a spectacle to the eye; it is a wonder to the ear, a strangeness to the smell and to the touch. The body feels the presence of unusual conditions through every pore.”
Any cave will challenge our senses, our imaginations, and our levels of comfort. Wind Cave in South Dakota is another national park preserved for generations of explorers. A visit to the Black Hills region of South Dakota, which also includes Mount Rushmore National Monument and Badlands National Park, isn’t complete until you’ve been to Wind Cave.
The eighth park in the system and the first cave to be named a national park, Wind Cave holds within its depths a history as diverse as the people who’ve been there. Among them are the Lakota and Cheyenne Indians, who view the cave as a sacred site; early white settlers to the region, including one female geologist and guide, a rarity for the time; and men of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who lived and worked at Wind Cave Camp during the Great Depression.
As in Mammoth Cave, exploration of Wind Cave, the fifth longest in the world, is limited to guided tours only. Above ground, visitors can hike any of the 30 miles of trails that traverse the park’s Black Hills prairie landscape. Don’t be surprised to see native wildlife: elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, or bison, which roam free here.
Shenandoah National Park
Colorado’s Rocky Mountains beckon world travelers with high mountain peaks, hundreds of miles of hiking trails, and vast wildflower-covered expanses. For easterners looking for a similar experience closer to home, come to Shenandoah National Park, a stone’s throw (well, just 75 miles) from Washington, D.C. The park encompasses 300 square miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the southern Appalachians, one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.
More than 500 total miles of hiking trails wind through the park, and in spring, you’d be hard-pressed to find a hike that doesn’t pass by one of Shenandoah’s signature cascading waterfalls. Among the 500 are more than 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Shenandoah protects a large expanse of previous hardwood forest, and nearly 40 percent of the park is protected as wilderness under the Wilderness Act.
Though wilderness escape lures many visitors, Shenandoah welcomes everyone, whether you’re looking for backcountry trails and camping or just a cozy, casual weekend getaway. Several lodges and cabins offer comfortable options for staying the night, minus the tent. Adventures of the culinary kind can even be found here, with fine dining available at both Skyline Lodge and Big Meadows Lodge. Need a cool beverage after a day of hiking or scenic driving? You’re in luck. Each lodge also features a signature taproom.
Every season has something to offer in Shenandoah. Come for snow in the winter, wildflowers in the spring, lush green views in summer, or, like many travelers, visit for vibrant color in the fall.