14 Underrated National Parks You’re Missing Out On
Half the crowds, double the fun.
We love us some Yosemite and some Zion, and no matter how many times we visit, the Grand Canyon will never cease to take our collective breath away. But when the swarms of tourists around Yellowstone’s Old Faithful start to make a day at the park look more like Coachella, we know it’s time to take a break from America’s most popular parks.
When the crowds are feeling extra, it’s time to get remote in a national park where your woes have less to do with slow-moving tour buses and more to do with the possibility of dormant volcanoes becoming…not dormant. Of America’s 63 main national parks, these 14 deserve a spot at the top of your anti-social bucket list if you’re looking to emphasize the “wild” aspect on your next wilderness adventure.
California is filled with some of the most iconic—and crowded—national parks in the nation, including Yosemite, Sequoia, and Joshua Tree. One park that miraculously flies under-the-radar, though, is Lassen Volcanic National Park, the least visited in the state with around 500,000 annual visitors (for reference, Yosemite sees about nine times that amount).
Nestled in central Northern California, this sleeper hit has a lot of elements similar to Yellowstone: your bubbling mud pots, hot springs, and freezing royal-blue lakes. Another thing the two share? The potential for volcanic eruption at any moment. Lassen Peak is an active volcano, though its most recent eruptions took place back in 1917, so there’s (probably) nothing to fear as you trek up the mountain and drink in the views of the Cascade Range. If you’d rather keep things closer to sea level, try paddling on pristine and peaceful Manzanita Lake, or exploring the Bumpass Hell area, a hydrothermal hot spot filled with billowing basins and kaleidoscopic springs.
With about 4 million fewer annual visitors than Rocky Mountain National Park, Black Canyon feels downright sleepy compared to the Centennial State’s more popular parks. Located near the quaint town of Montrose in the remote western part of Colorado, the state’s least visited park gets its name from a canyon so astonishingly deep and narrow—a gash in the ground carved over the course of millions of years by the raging Gunnison River—it’s almost constantly draped in its own shadow.
Masochists who don’t fear heights or death can hike certain routes down to the canyon floor, but if that sounds like a nightmare, there are plenty of scenic trails and outlooks along the south rim, each offering unique vantage points of a chasm so jagged and slim it looks like planet Earth got a giant paper cut. The north rim is even quieter, hardly getting any visitors since it takes a few hours’ drive all the way around the canyon to access it. The solitude, though, is well worth the cost of gas.
In the national park Venn diagram between Everglades and Redwood, Congaree National Park is the overlap. This tiny 26,000-acre park smack dab in the center of South Carolina has the murky look and feel of Florida’s Everglades, complete with unnervingly dark water, along with some of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi. The result is a singularly unique park woven with meandering creeks and the namesake Congaree River, which provides a killer backdrop for paddling.
Though it may look like a big ol’ swamp, it’s actually a massive floodplain; the river routinely floods, carrying vital nutrients down into the roots of skyscraping giants like loblolly pines, laurel oaks, and swamp tupelos. This being flat-as-a-flapjack South Carolina, the trails are all easy (albeit occasionally muddy). An absolute must is the mud-free elevated Boardwalk Loop Trail, which winds through high-canopy forests so dense it gives the park an eerie, Blair Witch Project kind of vibe. But don’t worry—the only wildlife you’re likely to see are owls, armadillos, and otters.
Talk about remote. In far West Texas, Big Bend National Park hugs the Rio Grande River with Mexico just on the other bank. Despite the fact that it offers some of the most awe-inspiring backpacking in the US, fewer folks visit Big Bend each year than watch the Longhorns play in Texas Memorial Stadium over the course of two or three Saturdays. If you’re going, traverse the high country of the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range completely contained within the borders of a national park, or spend the day kayaking to your heart’s content. Once night falls, you’ll witness one of the greatest celestial panoramas you’ll likely ever see since Big Bend’s far-flung location gives it some of the darkest skies in the States.
If you thought Big Bend was underrated, try visiting Texas’ other super-remote national park, which sees about half the annual visitors. Located in the far corner of sleepy West Texas a stone’s throw from the New Mexico border, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is home to the state’s tallest peaks—plus some 80 miles worth of trails to get you up there. Guadalupe Peak, for example, is an 8.5-mile roundtrip beast with 3,000 feet of elevation gain and enough endless switchbacks to demoralize The Rock. But the sense of accomplishment—and the sweeping 360-degree desert views—you’ll find at the top of Texas’ tallest mountain are the stuff of bucket list dreams.
It isn’t all Olympic-level hiking, though. The diversity in terrain throughout Guadalupe Mountains is striking, from soaring peaks to peaceful springs, foliage-filled canyons, and sand dunes so sugary-white you’d think you were in Pensacola.
In south Florida, Everglades National Park tends to absorb all the attention. So while a million annual visitors flock to the larger park, sneak out to an adjoining park with half the traffic—one that’s so underrated and undiscovered that even people living just 45 minutes away in Miami haven’t heard of it.
Despite the proximity, Biscayne National Park is a far cry from South Beach. At 172,971 acres, 95% of which is underwater, this is a watery wonderland like nothing else in the National Park Service. It’s home to the largest coral reef on the continent and an incredible amount of biodiversity, with 600 species of native fish plus manatees, crocodiles, sea turtles, and birds aplenty. Naturally, this is a park where you need to get out on (or in) the water to truly experience it. Departing from the visitor center marina, Biscayne leads guided tours that range from paddleboarding trips through mangroves in Jones Lagoon to snorkeling at shipwrecks.
Because it’s a 45-mile long island in the middle of Lake Superior accessible only by boat and it’s closed all winter, Isle Royale tallies an ultra-low visitor count: more folks visit Yellowstone in a single day than Isle Royale might see in a year. That alone makes it awesome for some peace and quiet, but there are plenty more reasons why you should go on a backpacking trip here. There’s camping, kayaking, boat rides, scuba diving, and—uh, wolves. Over the past decade, the island’s celebrated pack dwindled to just two wolves, until 2018 when the National Park Service decided to restore the population—and as of spring 2019, the pack was up to 14. Stop in and say hello (you know... from a distance) before continuing along Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, yet another treasure trove of natural wonders most Americans have yet to catch wind of.
There’s nothing petrifying about Petrified Forest National Park, nor is there really anything forested about it. Hidden away in northeastern Arizona along a dusty stretch of Route 66 that looks like something from Cars, this mysterious 221,390-acre park has a lot more to it than meets the eye—except people, apparently, since the park gets less than one fifth the visitors the Grand Canyon sees each year.
Unlike any forest you’ve been to, Petrified Forest gets its name from the copious boulder-sized petrified logs strewn across the arid desert landscape. Some 200 million years ago, mighty trees stood here in what was once a tropical forest before being washed away by ancient rivers, buried under sediment, and slowly crystallized by volcanic ash and silica. Today, long gone are the rivers and leaves, replaced by petrified wood composed almost entirely of solid quartz and bedazzled by minerals like iron, carbon, and manganese, which give the logs shimmering tints of purple and green. Hiking trails here are short, but they pack a wallop of wow as you get up close and personal with these prehistoric gems.
Yeah, Canyonlands is the park where Aron Ralston amputated his own arm while trapped under a fall, immortalized in the James Franco film 127 Hours. But don’t let that scare you away from the least-visited of Utah’s Big Five—there are plenty of epic scenes you can take in without having to go solo or remove appendages. We suggest recruiting a buddy or two, hopping in your 4x4 (or renting one in Moab), and driving down White Rim Road, a 100-mile trip around and below the mesa top. You’ll spend hours taking in tremendous Mars-like desert panoramas while the crowds over at nearby Arches National Park are stuck in traffic.
There’s big, and then there’s Wrangell. This colossal park, the nation’s largest, is six times the size of Yellowstone and boasts not one but four major mountain ranges, including nine of the 16 tallest peaks in the US. You can trek on horseback through the wilds to glacial river sources, raft down through glacial-melted whitewater, or trek to a visit to the massive glaciers of Bagley Icefield, the largest such field in North America. During your trip, you’ll see more caribou, moose, grizzlies, and wolves than you will people. And unlike many national parks across the country, this is one you’ll definitely want to hit in winter.
North Dakota, in many respects, is a vastly misunderstood state, especially when it comes to its geography. Vast, sprawling Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the antithesis of the flat, rolling grasslands you expect when you think of the state. This is where the Badlands start cutting into the landscape, carving sharp rock faces and hypnotic hoodoos into the countryside, where the night sky alternates between panoramic star show and explosive thunderstorms, and where packs of buffalo and wild horses roam with abandon among its river valleys and painted hills. The rangers still say “you betcha,” though. Some things about North Dakota are correctly understood.
Next time you’re in Vegas, pack a tent, add a few days to your trip, and head four hours up US-93 to Great Basin, where you can trade the neon lights of Sin City for the hyper-real glow of the Milky Way. To see the stars, stay at the Wheeler Peak campground (at nearly 10,000 feet, you’ll feel the elevation), and in the morning, hike up to the summit at 13,065 feet—a completely doable trek, even if you partied hard back in LV. Take things underground with a ranger-guided tour of the Lehman Caves(the only way you’re allowed inside). After dark, take advantage of those light pollution-free skies with one of the ranger-led astronomy programs.
Situated in the deep-emerald forests near the Canadian border, North Cascades is frequently overlooked in favor of towering Rainier and the rainforests of Olympic in the pantheon of Washington’s national parks. But those in the know hold North Cascades among the country’s greatest natural treasures: It’s a dense, nigh mystical forest landscape full of surprises, from ice caves carved into glaciers to opal waterways hidden in the valleys, hugged by ancient pines or flanked by towering cliff faces. Within its boundaries, you’ll experience everything that makes the Pacific Northwest so enchanting.
Located deep in the northern part of Minnesota, Voyageurs is so underrated it seldom even makes underrated lists. What those out of the loop are missing is an absolute paradise for lake-lovers, canoeists
and kayakers, and stargazers. That lofty promise of 10,000 lakes in Minnesota? Voyageurs is basically designed to push it over the threshold. It’s broken up and divided by a series of interconnected waterways that the early voyagers used as a means of transportation, with a massive chain of islands dotting the interconnected waterways decorated by giant cliffs, gushing waterfalls, and a massive rock garden ripe for exploration.