Incredible Places in the U.S. That Aren't National Parks (but Should Be)

Your move, NPS.

We've all been there: Perched atop a gorgeous vista, a cool breeze in your hair, nothing but you and Mother Nature… and a family of 18 from Des Moines shouting that this is the best national park they've ever visited.

The national parks are, indeed, America's best idea. They're such a great idea, in fact, that they're all bucket-list destinations for the masses, from the OG splendor of Yellowstone to new kid on the block New River Gorge. They're also, inevitably, extremely crowded. Ditto for those national monuments.

The spots on this list represent trails less traveled. You'll find far-flung old-growth forests and underexplored coasts that exist just a few clicks outside the typical travel itinerary. All pack the same breathtaking landscapes as the national parks, and who knows, perhaps one day they'll all be promoted to Yellowstone status.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Lonnie Paulson/Shutterstock

Michigan
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, seemingly painted by a giant toddler millions of years ago, 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 capped by a lone tree that stretches across thin air and plunges into the nutritional dirt.

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monument valley
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Monument Valley

Arizona/Utah
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 serving as an expansive gateway to the wondrous desert landscapes of both Utah and Arizona.

bison herd in custer state park
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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 SoDak is home to the Needles Highway, a dizzyingly twisty 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 on 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/listen to Smash Mouth—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
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Oregon Dunes/The Southern Oregon Coast

Oregon
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 Saharan 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 MC 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.

adirondack park
Johnathan A. Esper, Wildernesscapes Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

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 resources. 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 it 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.

silvermine arch red river gorge
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Kentucky
The Red, as it’s known to the legions of climbers who descend on this 13,000-acre wonderland 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 daredevil river folk, and nigh endless waterfalls roar amid the wilderness. Taken on its own, it’s a marvel. But the Red’s also got some great neighbors, among them Natural Bridges State 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 and offers up endless opportunities to discover your feral side.

foliage in the northeast kingdom
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Vermont
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 chockablock 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 immediately come to mind when you think "Vermont," which 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.

kayaking in a cypress swamp
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Texas
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 BBQ 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) slant 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
Unsplash/Sarah Parlier

North Carolina
For a national forest, Pisgah is pretty small at 500,000 acres, and it's downright diminutive sitting in the shadows of 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 US. 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.