road to Monument Valley, Arizona
Add these lesser-known spots to your list. | JCA Images/Shutterstock
Add these lesser-known spots to your list. | JCA Images/Shutterstock

Incredible Places in the U.S. That Aren't National Parks—But Should Be

Your move, NPS.

It took a pandemic to remind us that some of the most beautiful spots in the world are sitting right in our own backyard. National parks are, arguably, one of America's best ideas. They’re such a great idea that they've become bucket-list destinations driving masses to awe over the geological splendor of Yellowstone—the first official park—or discover the newest on the list, New River Gorge. National parks are so popular, nearly 300 million people visited last year (a mere fraction of what Walt Disney World gets). And those national monuments aren’t any less crowded.

We’re not knocking national parks (they truly are spectacular), but we wanted to show some love to contenders that haven’t made the official list—but certainly deserve a spot on it. These unexpected bayous and underexplored coasts all pack the same breathtaking punch as national parks, and who knows, perhaps one day they’ll be promoted to Yellowstone status. But we’re selfishly hoping they’ll remain something of a secret a little bit longer.

sea cave sunset on Lake Superior
You’ll find nearly 100 miles of trails skirting untouched shores. | John McCormick/Shutterstock

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Michigan’s only full-fledged national park, Isle Royale, is probably the toughest one to get to—it’s plopped smack in the middle of Lake Superior. But that same lake is home to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the most surreal, hallucinogenic stretch of Michigan's shoreline.

The area takes its name from the wall of imposing limestone cliffs that are best admired from the clear, cold waters below via kayak or boat tour. The cliffs taper off into dense forests of pine, where you’ll find miles of winding trails and secluded beaches. Photo opps include bizarre natural landmarks like Chapel Rock, a freestanding limestone column carved by Lake Nipissing nearly 3,800 years ago that’s capped by a lone pine tree (which is also a few hundred years old).

red sandstone bluffs
Monument Valley looks like a scene from Mars. | Zhukova Valentyna/Shutterstock

Monument Valley

A huge swath of Arizona seems to have been designed by cartoonists, from the trippy Dr. Seuss waves of the Vermillion Cliffs to the splaying cacti of Saguaro National Park. But Monument Valley is where nature gets serious. This is a land of monolithic red sandstone bluffs seemingly carved by the gods, where enormous spires emerge so far in the distance, they’re shrouded by haze even on a clear day. Each crevice tells a story and every ledge is its own unforgettable vista.

While Monument Valley is undoubtedly national park-worthy, this is a Navajo Tribal Park—and we hope it stays that way. It’s a place rooted in ancient Native religion and new-school Hollywood iconography that serves as an expansive gateway to the wondrous desert landscapes of both Utah and Arizona.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park
Brave the Needles Highway’s dizzying twists and turns while cruising along Sylvan Lake. | Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

Custer State Park/Black Hills National Forest

South Dakota
Great news: You can skip Mt. Rushmore. Mother Nature is plenty good at art without using explosives. Custer State Park on the west end of South Dakota is home to the Needles Highway, a twisting stretch of road that zigzags around pointed spires rising out of the ground like fossilized teeth, and along the crystalline waters of Sylvan Lake.

Once you’re done in Custer, unleash yourself in the Black Hills National Forest, a 1.2 million-acre swath of land that includes the tunnel-like Spearfish Canyon, endless mountain lakes, and plenty of caves to explore. This is a place that rewards wanderlust—it’s no wonder a million bikers descend upon the area every year to ride free. And once you’ve had your fill of the Hills, Devils Tower is a short ride west in Wyoming, while the Badlands (and America's greatest roadside attraction) await back east.

woman running down sand dunes
If you don’t mind a desert-style dune hike, you could have a stretch of the Pacific all to yourself. | PamelaJoeMcFarlane/E+/Getty Images

Oregon Dunes/The Southern Oregon Coast

The northern coast of Oregon is rife with cute fishing towns and tourist magnets, but as Highway 101 descends south, things get odder by the minute. What begins as a sea stack-laden procession of beaches takes a turn toward the Sahara at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, a nearly 32,000-acre expanse of blowing sands. Brave a rugged 3-mile hike and you’ll have the Pacific Ocean all to yourself—if you can cut it.

Proceed even further south and you’d be forgiven for thinking M.C. Escher took over landscaping duties, particularly along the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, a 12-mile winding stretch of road just north of California, where you’ll encounter a blink-and-you’ll-miss-them—or, more accurately, a blink-and-you’ll-veer-off-a-cliff—array of otherworldly sights. Look for the mythical Arch Rock and Natural Bridges, which stretch from land over the crashing sea like some ancient challenge to be overcome by Odysseus. Don't take the challenge. Just sit and stare.

river through forest
Take your pick of 46 peaks. | Johnathan A. Esper/Moment Open/Getty Images

Adirondack Park

New York
At an astonishing 6.1 million acres, Adirondack State Park is nearly three times the size of Yellowstone, and while there is absolutely a New York real estate joke to be made here, we’re too busy marveling at the 46 High Peaks, 30,000 snaking miles of river, and 3,000 lakes contained in this wilderness to think of one.

This is the crown jewel of New York’s natural attractions. Ponder your place in the world from atop panoramic Mount Marcy; in fall, do the Upstate thing and go leaf peeping; and when winter melts into spring, go careening down some of America’s most thrilling whitewater rapids. And when you’re ready to turn in for the evening, you’ve got no shortage of options. Along with thousands of campsites and dozens of cozy cabins, there are about 105 charming small towns, including hits like Lake George and Lake Placid, scattered throughout the wilderness.

Courthouse Rock of the Red River Gorge
The Red is a 13,000-acre playground for climbers. | Jessee Lynch/Shutterstock

Red River Gorge

The Red, as it’s known to the legions of climbers who come to scale its world-famous crags, has been designated a National Natural Landmark—but at this point, it’s almost shocking that it hasn’t been elevated to national park status.

In many ways, it’s a more rustic version of recently NPS-canonized New River Gorge. Here, more than 100 natural sandstone arches flit in and out of thick forests. The namesake river draws daredevils, and endless waterfalls roar throughout the silent wilderness. Taken on its own, it’s a marvel. But the Red’s also got some great neighbors, among them Natural Bridges State Resort Park, one of the most vertiginous and alien stone bridges in the world. And it’s all surrounded by the legendary Daniel Boone National Forest, which seems to stretch on beyond the horizon.

foliage in the northeast kingdom
This is where you should be leaf peeping (if that’s your thing). | Thomas H. Mitchell/500Px Plus/Getty Images

The Northeast Kingdom

Is it weird to straight-up put 20% of a state as one of America's ultimate outdoor destinations? No, because this is Vermont, not Indiana. And the Northeast Kingdom—a densely forested mass that covers the entirety of northeast Vermont—is chock-a-block with incredible sights, tastes, and experiences.

Sandwiched between the Green Mountains and the Connecticut River, here you'll find the dreamy small towns (and general stores) that serve as waypoints en route to places like the crystalline Lake Willoughby and the sentinel Mount Pisgah. Just be cool: This is the Vermont of your dreams because the locals made maintaining it their reality—and they're not afraid to go NIMBY if you roll in and mess with their spot.

cypress swamp
Not the vision of Texas you would expect. | Daniel Mullins/Shutterstock

Caddo Lake State Park

We all know that Texas is massive, but even though the Lone Star State is only slightly bigger than France, the fact remains that much of it is a homogenous sprawl of cracked deserts, 10-gallon hats, and 20-pound barbecue platters—except for when you roll into Karnack and realize that the bayous of Louisiana might have invaded a chunk of Texas.

Amid this 30,000-acre waterway, you’ll row through a maze of bayous where sunlight (and moonbeams) stream through Cyprus trees and hanging moss. It’s a spooky and wholly unexpected stretch that will have you questioning whether you really knew Texas at all—until you wander into the rowdy speakeasy known as Dick & Charlie’s Tea Room in the middle of Earth’s largest Cypress grove. That, undoubtedly, is a clue that you’re still in the right state.

forest and mountains
A pit stop en route to the Smokies. | Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Pisgah National Forest

North Carolina
For a national forest, Pisgah is pretty small at 500,000 acres, and it's downright diminutive sitting in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, whose 12.1 million visitors make it the busiest in the system by far. (That number is inflated by the fact that most people are just driving through, but still.)

Pisgah may be small, but it's got some serious Napoleon syndrome, packing in wonder atop wonder as if it's got something to prove. That includes towering waterfalls, roaring rapids, welcoming swimming holes, and every manner of vista to fully enjoy some of the most stunning fall foliage in the U.S. And once you're done camping and adventuring, you can cruise up the Blue Ridge Parkway to see what the fuss is about in the Smokies. Just expect the big park to seem a lot smaller after you see what Pisgah has to offer.

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Andy Kryza is a former Thrillist editor.