I am a big fan of America's National Parks and each one I visit becomes a new favorite.This summer is shaping up to be one of the busiest travel times ever due to the pent up desire for travel caused by the pandemic. With this in mind, if you're thinking of visiting one of our great national parks, it may be time to leave the crowds behind and visit some of our lesser known parks. These 10 should move to the top of your list if you're looking to maximize your next wilderness experience.
Big Bend, Texas
In far West Texas, Big Bend National Park hugs the Rio Grande River, and Mexico is just on the other bank. Despite the fact that it offers some of the most awe-inspiring scenery in the US, few people come to Big Bend every year. If you’re going, backpack in the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range that’s completely contained within the borders of a National Park. Once night falls, you’ll witness some of the best stargazing you’ll likely ever see. Big Bend’s remote location gives it some of the darkest skies in the States.
Great Sand Dunes, Colorado
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is in southern Colorado. It’s known for huge dunes that peak at around 700 feet. The backcountry Medano Pass Primitive Road winds through a canyon toward the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Trails lead to forests, wetlands, and alpine lakes like Medano Lake, which is home to trout and tundra wildlife.
Wrangell St. Elias, Alaska
There’s big, and then there’s Wrangell. This mammoth park is the nation's largest. It is six times the size of Yellowstone and contains four major mountain ranges, including nine of the 16 tallest peaks in the U.S. You can ride on horseback through the wilds to glacial river sources, or raft down through glacial-melted whitewater. You’ll see more caribou, moose, grizzlies, and wolves than you will people. And don’t leave without a visit to the massive glaciers of Bagley Icefield, the largest such field in North America.
Virgin Islands National Park
Does the name of this park make you think of cruise ships and resorts? It's neither of those- 60% of St. Johns is a protected national park, covered with trails that wind through lush forests and abandoned sugarcane plantations. There is also crystal clear blue water that's great for snorkeling. You'll love the views, but watch out for feral donkeys!
Great Basin, Nevada
Next time you’re in Las Vegas, add a few days to your trip and head four hours up the highway to Great Basin. Great Basin National Park is in eastern Nevada near the Utah border. It's in the Great Basin Desert and contains most of the South Snake mountains. In the north, the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive leads to Wheeler Peak and nearby ancient bristlecone pine groves. Lehman Caves have stalactites and other formations and park wildlife includes bighorn sheep. After dark, take advantage of the light pollution-free skies with one of the ranger-led astronomy programs.
Isle Royale, Michigan
Because Isle Royale is accessible only by boat, and is closed all winter, it has a very low visitor count. More people visit Yellowstone in a single day than Isle Royale might see in a year. That alone makes it awesome, but there are many more reasons why you should visit: camping, kayaking, boat rides, scuba diving, and wolves. Over the past decade, the island’s celebrated pack of wild wolves had dwindled to just two, but in 2018 the National Park Service decided to restore the population, and as of spring 2019, the pack was up to 15.
Crater Lake, Oregon
Crater Lake is picturesque and stunning, and it was one of the earliest National Parks, established in 1902. You'll see dark blue, clear water surrounded by towering cliffs. Due to its remote location, Crater Lake has historically never had too many visitors, but lately word seems to be spreading and visitor numbers have risen nearly 25% in the past five years. So you might want to visit before it becomes too popular. You can explore the Wizard Island cinder cone in the middle of the lake or snowshoe the perimeter of the stunning body of water.
Channel Islands, California
Despite the fact that you can see them from mainland California just north of LA, the Channel Islands seem a world away. There are no phone lines or cars, and the variety of wildlife is incredible. Almost 150 species of plants and animals are found here, and nowhere else on earth. After a one-hour ferry ride to get there, take in the beauty by paddling the coastline. You could see some of the many sea lions who live here or some of the world's largest sea caves.
Grand Teton, Wyoming
Yellowstone’s just down the road, and gets thousands more tourists every year. But trekking the dramatic peaks of the Tetons,which tower 7,000 feet above the valley floor, is just as dramatic. Climb Static Peak or one of America’s most iconic summits, the Grand Teton , a tough and unforgettable two-day hike.
Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah is known for its dramatic desert landscape carved by the Colorado River. Island in the Sky is a huge, flat-topped mesa with panoramic overlooks. Other interesting areas include the rock pinnacles known as the Needles, the remote canyons of the Maze, and the Native American rock paintings in Horseshoe Canyon. Whitewater rapids flow through Cataract Canyon. There are many epic views without the crowds you would encounter at nearby Arches National Park.