Nearly everyone’s heard of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains, but many other national parks aren’t as famous. There are lots of rewards for heading off the beaten path. It’ll be easier to find a place to park or camp, and you won’t bump elbows with as many other people. Let’s shine a spotlight on some lesser-known national parks that you may not even be aware of but may decide to visit.
About the U.S. National Park System
Yellowstone was the first national park, and there are 62 others in 30 states and two U.S. territories. The National Park Service, established in 1916, oversees these parks.
The park service maintains a total of 423 different sites. With so many protected sites, it’s no wonder we see so many of those brown and white signs with the NPS’ arrowhead logo. It’s also no surprise that you may not have heard of some of these parks!
But just because you haven’t heard of them, doesn’t mean they aren’t just as beautiful and worthwhile as some of the better-known parks.
Why Some Parks are More Popular Than Others
You may think that just because a park isn’t as popular that it isn’t worth going to. After visiting many of the parks we are about to share, we can tell you firsthand that this simply is not the case.
The biggest reason that some national parks are visited more than others is because of their location. Some of the most popular parks are located near higher-population areas. For example, Joshua Tree National Park is relatively near Los Angeles. They are also easy to get to, with nice easy highways and roads leading into their entryways. Some of the parks we’re going to talk about today require a little more effort to get to, like taking a boat or plane or even just driving some backroads far away from metropolitan areas.
But in terms of natural beauty or significance, these parks still have rich, inspiring scenery and unique ecosystems worthy of protection. You will find they are well worth the extra effort!
11 National Parks That Fall Under the Radar
The most celebrated parks draw millions of visitors every year. But we’d be quite surprised if all of these next 10 lesser-known national parks ring a bell with you.
1. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
About the Park: The waters of Lake Superior surround this Michigan national park, which sits in the northwestern part of the state’s Upper Peninsula. Isle Royale includes just over 206 square miles of wilderness on the main island, plus more than 400 smaller islands.
How to Get There: You’ll need a boat or a seaplane to get to Isle Royale. Ferries run regularly during the summer months from Grand Portage in Minnesota or from Houghton and Copper Harbor in Michigan. These ferries are foot ferries – you will not be bringing your vehicle!
From lower Michigan, take Interstate 75 up to Exit 344B toward US-2 West, then to State Route 28 West up to U.S. 41 North. This will take you through the town of Houghton, MI where the Isle Royale Park Headquarters is located. If you continue north up the Keweenaw Peninsula you will reach Copper Harbor. This extra drive shaves a few hours off your ferry ride. Ferries from Houghton take about 6 hours one-way and from Copper Harbor, it’ll be about 3 hours.
What People Know It For: Backpackers love the 165 miles of trails, including the route around the entire island that takes two weeks to complete.
Parts of Isle Royale are so pristine and unspoiled that they’re a United States Biosphere Reserve. The abundant and diverse wildlife includes moose, coyotes, and gray wolves.
→ Did You Know? Isle Royale is one of the most out-of-the-way national parks, but it’s worth the effort!
2. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
About the Park: South Carolina’s national park protects the nation’s largest remaining stand of bottomland hardwood trees. It’s in the central part of the state, just outside the capital, Columbia.
This lesser-known park is 26,276 acres and protects the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the United States.
How to Get There: From Interstate 77, take Exit 5 and turn onto State Highway 48 East/Bluff Road. Go approximately eight miles and take a slight right onto Old Bluff Road. Follow Old Bluff Road for 4.5 miles to the park entrance sign (on the right). The visitor center is a mile ahead.
What People Know It For: The old-growth trees include giant bald cypresses and longleaf pines. They’re rare in the region because most were logged.
The miles of trails are incredibly scenic and mostly flat. The main trail is an easy, well-maintained boardwalk to keep you elevated and able to view some of the biggest cypress trees in the park. For canoeists and kayakers, the Blue Trail starts in Columbia and follows the Congaree River to its confluence with the Wateree River.
3. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
About the Park: Overshadowed by four other national parks in Utah, Capitol Reef is the lesser-known. It’s also the most out of the way, conquering much of central Utah away from the major interstates that crisscross the state. It has stunning sandstone canyons and cliffs. It became a national park in 1971 after almost 30 years as a national monument.
How to Get There: From Interstate 70, take Exit 149, then State Route 24 west for 43.8 miles. Turn right (continuing on UT-24) for another 37.3 miles.
From Interstate 15, take Exit 188, then US-50 east toward Scipio. Take a left on UT-50 for 0.7 miles, then turn right onto US-50 East for 24.4 miles. Turn right onto UT-260 South and continue 4.2 miles, then right on UT-24 for 71.3 miles.
What People Know It For: Geologists call the unusual Waterpocket Fold a wrinkle on the Earth’s crust. The 60-mile “reef” of Navajo sandstone was once part of a tourist attraction called Wayne’s Wonderland.
Hiking, backpacking, climbing, and canyoneering are the main recreational pursuits. It’s also certified as an International Dark Sky Park.
4. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
About the Park: The park has rock formations carved by ancient glaciers. It has a gorgeous combination of desert and mountain landscapes.
Tucked away on the eastern side of Nevada near its border with Utah, few major roads or destinations draw tourists to the area. That’s why this park is one of the lesser-known national parks of the west.
How to Get There: From either U.S. Highway 6 or U.S. Highway 50, turn south on State Highway 487 and travel five miles to Baker, Nev. In Baker, turn west on Highway 488 and travel five miles to the park.
What People Know It For: The 12-mile scenic drive to Wheeler Peak has a dramatic elevation gain of 6,235 ft and amazing ecological diversity.
Elsewhere in the park, you can see remnants of some of the glaciers that formed the Great Basin. The subterranean Lehman Caves are home to 10 kinds of bats, and the ancient bristlecone pine trees are up to 4,000 years old.
5. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
About the Park: This incredibly deep river gorge covers 48 miles in west-central Colorado. The 47-square-mile park, near the city of Montrose, includes the ravine’s most scenic section.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is nestled in the heart of mountain country in Colorado, away from most of the easy-to-get-to tourist destinations and population centers.
How to Get There: The park has two entrances, one on the South Rim and the other on the North Rim. The South Rim is seven miles north on State Highway 347 from the intersection with U.S. Highway 50 east of Montrose.
To reach the North Rim, take State Highway 92 from Crawford for 11 miles and turn west on Black Canyon Road for three miles.
What People Know It For: Gazing down at the Gunnison River, it’s hard to fathom how long it would take such a stream to carve a 2,000-ft canyon. The educated guess is two million years.
It’s even more incredible to see the river at its own level and look up the towering cliffs.
6. Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska
About the Park: This vast and remote wilderness park has no roads, trails, or established campsites. It’s the U.S.’s northernmost national park and the second biggest, encompassing thousands of square miles of rugged arctic mountains and tundra.
How to Get There: You’ll need to fly or hike into Gates of the Arctic. Several small airlines have daily flights from Fairbanks into Bettles, Anaktuvuk Pass, and Coldfoot. Most people arrive by air taxi or hike Anaktuvuk Pass or the Dalton Highway. Either way, they have to cross a river.
What People Know It For: Covering 8.4 million acres, it’s second only to Denali National Park and Preserve, also in Alaska, in terms of size. One reason it’s the least-visited national park is it’s by no means for amateurs.
Even the NPS recommends that all visitors be proficient in outdoor survival skills. If you’re up for it, it’s an unforgettable adventure in one of the last truly wild places in the world.
→ Want to learn more? Here are 10 Incredible Things You Didn’t Know About Gates of the Arctic National Park.
7. Biscayne National Park, Florida
About the Park: One of Florida’s eleven national park units, Biscayne preserves the coral reefs and mangrove forests of the northern Florida Keys. It’s just 20 miles south of Miami and is the park service’s largest marine sanctuary.
How to Get There: From the Florida Turnpike, take Exit 6 (Speedway Boulevard) and turn left and continue south to SW 328th Street (North Canal Drive). Turn left on 328th Street and continue for four miles to the park visitor center, which is on the left.
From U.S. Highway 1, drive south to Homestead. Turn left onto SW 137th Avenue (Speedway Boulevard) and continue south for five miles to SW 328th Street. Turn left and continue for four miles to the park’s visitor center.
To actually get to the park, you will have to board a boat, as most of this park is underwater and islands.
What People Know It For: It’s a top destination for scuba diving and practically all kinds of boating. You can also do some fishing, of course, and even some lobstering.
To learn more about this amazing park that’s 95% water, take a guided eco-tour that leaves from the visitor center.
8. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
About the Park: You’ll find the largest concentration of petrified wood in the world at this park east of Winslow. Besides the scenic wonder, including parts of the Painted Desert, you can see fossils that are 225 million years old.
How to Get There: Westbound travelers on Interstate 40 should take Exit 311, drive the 28 miles through the park, and connect with Highway 180 at the south end. Then travel 19 miles on Highway 180 North to return to Interstate 40 via Holbrook.
Those traveling east on I-40 should take Exit 285 into Holbrook, then travel 19 miles on Highway 180 South to the park’s south entrance.
What People Know It For: Petrified wood is basically a fossil that forms when sediment covers the original tree or plant. So it’s like a 3D impression made from minerals. These impressions are stunningly beautiful, with vibrant colors. It’s amazing to see these toppled ancient trees lying around, like a window into the past.
It takes about an hour to drive through the park and stop at some overlooks. Make a little more time to walk the pet-friendly trails. You’ll get to see the ruins of an ancient village and petroglyphs, plus the famed Painted Desert and Crystal Forest.
9. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
About the Park: President Theodore Roosevelt, for whom the park is named, was a leader in conservation. The park covers 70,400 acres and is a haven for bison, elk, and wild horses. The Little Missouri River runs through all of the 3 park units, creating a vibrant ecosystem amongst the rolling North Dakota badlands.
How to Get There: This national park’s location is a major reason that it is relatively unknown. The South Unit entrance is in Medora, North Dakota off of Interstate 94, exits 24 and 27.
The North Unit entrance is on Highway 85, about 14 miles south of Watford City. This is about an hour and a half drive north from the south entrance. The remote Elkhorn Ranch Unit is between the north and south units. You can access it via gravel roads.
What People Know It For: This area was President Roosevelt’s escape from the politics of Washington, D.C. even long before he was president. He is known to have credited this land and the experiences he had ranching and hunting here for shaping him into the man he was.
The park has three units, and the one to the north is the most rugged. All of the areas have scenic drives and hiking trails.
This is one of our favorite national parks, and its lesser-known status means it is often very quiet and peaceful. While many people visit it as one of their last national park stops, we visited it early in our travels and fell in love with it. Here’s Why You Should Visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
10. North Cascades National Park, Washington
About the Park: Just south of British Columbia, these rugged evergreen slopes are sometimes called “the American Alps.” The park covers more than half a million acres and gets its name from the numerous cascading waterfalls.
If you love mountains, forests, and lakes, you will love getting to know this lesser-known national park.
How to Get There: From the west, take Interstate 5 to Exit 30 at Burlington, where it intersects with State Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway).
From the east, the highway intersects with U.S. Route 97 at Okanogan and with State Route 153 at Twisp.
What People Know It For: The park has more than 300 glaciers and 300 lakes. A lengthy boardwalk offers a great view of the jagged peaks that reach heights of around 8,000 ft.
The only paved road in the park, State Highway 20, serves as a 30-mile scenic route. Diablo Lake has a surreal milky blue-green color because of silt from the glaciers.
11. Pinnacles National Park
About the Park: One of the reasons Pinnacles National Park is lesser-known than some of the other national parks in California is that it is fairly new. First established as a part of the Pinnacles Forest Preserve, then a National Monument in 1908, it was officially designated as a National Park in 2013.
The unique geological features of the park are the remains of the extinct Neenach volcano that eroded away. The spires, pinnacles, caves, gorges, and rock fractures left from this fault-line activity create visually stimulating hikes and exploration opportunities for visitors.
How To Get There: Pinnacles National Park is located in south-central California, about 80 miles southeast of San Jose. The park is divided into two halves with no road connecting the two sides, although you can hike from one side to the other over the separating ridgeline.
To get to the west entrance, go 10 miles east on Highway 146 from Soledad, a town located 85 miles south on Highway 101 from San Jose, California. To get to the east entrance, drive 30 miles south of Hollister, CA on Highway 25 and turn right onto the park entrance road.
What People Know It For: The pinnacles for which the park is named is known for attracting rock climbers to scale the peaks and steep walls.
Caves formed by fractures and erosion are home to at least 13 species of bats. A number of these caves have trails that wind through them, like Bear Gulch Caves. Other notable wildlife that calls the park home are prairie falcons and the California condors released after being hatched in captivity.
Read about our visit to Pinnacles National Park here.
Get Off the Beaten Path With These Lesser-Known National Parks
One of the biggest knocks against national parks is that they’re too crowded. That’s less of a problem at these under-the-radar treasures. They aren’t as famous as some of the other 53 national parks, but maybe they should be.
Which national parks do you think are the best-kept secrets and why?
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