Just about everyone has heard of the major national parks in the United States – Death Valley, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, etc. – and just about every National park has something special and worth seeing. But there are some that stand out more than the others, a few of which see a surprisingly low number of visitors each year. This means not only will you have an amazing experience, but also in many cases you will be one of the few people there, and isn’t that what getting out into nature is really about?
See at live volcano at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawai’i.
Celebrating its centennial anniversary in 2016, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park has a ton to explore – caves, desert, rainforest, and the main attraction, the smoking crater. For obvious reasons, you can’t get very close, but if you go at night you can see it glowing. Head over to the Thurston Lava Tube to walk through the tube where the lava once flowed. You can also hike through the rainforest, past petroglyphs, and across the Kīlauea Iki Crater lava lake (it’s solid, but still steaming!).
Go on a true backcountry adventure at the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska.
One of the least visited national parks in the United States, the pristine wilderness and isolated location is worth the trip for those who really want to get away. There are not road or trails in the Gates of the Arctic, so you have to arrange a plane to get in and out (though there are daily flights to the gateway communities). It is pretty far north, and you are on your own to explore 8.4 million acres of protected land and rivers in Alaska’s Brooks mountain range. Native Alaskans have lived in the area for more than 13,000 years, but you won’t even be able to tell.
Find a tropical paradise at the National Park of American Samoa.
Way out in the South Pacific Ocean near(ish) Fiji and Tonga, is an American territory called American Samoa, consisting of seven islands. The National Park of American Samoa actually covers three of the islands, Tutuila, Ta’ū, and Ofu. . It’s the only mixed-species paleotropical rainforest in the United States, and 4,000 acres of the national park is underwater. Because of its remote location, it will take a bit of planning to get out there, but if tropical rainforests and coral reefs are your thing, you will want to add this park to your list.
If you love water, but don’t want to go all the way to the South Pacific, try Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida.
Dry Tortugas National Park is the lesser visited of the two, and is only accessible by boat or plane. Home to the 19th century Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the Western Hemisphere, this park is great for bird watching or exploring shipwrecks underwater at the third-largest barrier reef system in the world.
While in Florida, you should swoop on down to Biscayne National Park!
Biscayne National Park is closer to Miami and has four marine ecosystems for visitors to explore – the mangrove forest, the Bay, the Keys, and the coral reefs. You can find many threatened animals here (sea turtles, West Indian Manatee) and the only underwater archaeological trail in the National Park System, the Maritime Heritage Trail.
Love exploring caves? Check out the world’s longest known cave system at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.
Yes, the longest cave system in the world is in state of Kentucky. With more than 400 mapped miles underground and more than 70 miles above ground, you will find gigantic chambers, complex labyrinths, preserved artifacts from 2-4,000 years ago, and 300-million-year-old fossils at Mammoth Cave National Park.
Speaking of fossils, how about 225-million-year-old petrified wood at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona?
Petrified Forest National Park is well known for fossils, mostly petrified wood and fossilized plants from the Late Triassic Period, but also fossils from early dinosaurs, crocodile-like reptiles, and salamander-like amphibians. There are also more than 350 Native American sites in the area and plenty of trails to explore over 52,000 acres. There are a few backcountry destinations that you can hike to, including the Devil’s Playground with unique hoodoos (rock towers) if you can snag one of three weekly first-come first-served permits!
Go sandboarding and sand sledding at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.
Rising up to 750 feet, the tallest sand dunes in North America are found at Great Sand Dunes National Park. The spring or fall is the best time to visit this park, as the sand can get very hot or very cold during other times of year. During the summer, you can wade in Medano Creek. Besides hiking up the dunes, there are several trails nearby, or you can head up into the 13,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
Stargaze at an International Dark Sky Park at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
While Capitol Reef National Park is already popular thanks to the gorgeous red rocks and geologic wonders like the Waterpocket Fold, it is also a designated International Dark Sky Park, making it perfect for stargazing at night.
Hike among ancient forests at Olympic National Park in Washington.
Olympic National Park has almost one million acres filled with some of the largest areas of ancient forests in the United States. Not just forest, the park also has glaciers, sandy beaches, and rocky cliffs to explore.
Get up close and personal with Native American history at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.
Mesa Verde National Park is the first national park to “preserve the works of man”. Maybe you have seen pictures of the houses of the Ancestral Pueblo people that were built into the sides of cliffs? It was probably a picture of this park. The park protects nearly 5,000 archaeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings, some of which you can actually go into and explore up close. There are also hiking trails with petroglyphs.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado is the next best thing to the Grand Canyon.
The Gunnison River has been carving out the Black Canyon for nearly two million years and the result is an impressive, sheer canyon. There are several trails ranging from about a mile to seven miles, and you are free to explore the canyon, though it is only recommended for individual in excellent shape, and who are prepared to self-rescue should you get cliffed out.