National Parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon are rightfully some of the most famous destinations in the U.S. They're iconic and beautiful, and deserving of their formidable reputations. But there are more than 400 parks, preserves, reserves, seashores and other units under the protection of the National Park System. Iconic park sights such as Old Faithful are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the natural beauty of the United States. Here are eight other National Parks you don’t want to miss. (Including, North Cascades National Park, which is where the cover image of Diablo Lake is located.)
Congaree National Park is actually a floodplain, which means it floods about 10 times a year. The waters that sweep in from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers carry with them the nutrients and sediments necessary to maintain one of the most beautiful and diverse ecosystems in the country. Go on a guided “Owl Prowl” at night to hear the haunting calls of barred owls and see the glowing fungi that makes its home there. Tour the lush backcountry to see bobcats, deer, otters, and all kinds of birds. Follow the trails from the visitor center or bring your own boat for some paddling. Don’t forget your camera, because the Spanish moss and cypress trees provide tons of gorgeous photo ops.
One of the best features of Cuyahoga National Park is that it's not a vast wilderness. It’s a wonderful blend of natural wonder and man-made attractions. You can hike through the magnificent gorges and believe yourself to be far removed from civilization, or you can explore the charming towns and roads that are crisscrossed throughout the park. Take a scenic railway trip, see a performance of Shakespeare, or just plan a picnic. It’s a great family destination because there’s something for everyone, and is super bike-friendly!
The ironically-named, open-water Dry Tortugas National Park is about 70 miles west off Key West in Florida. It’s accessible only by boat or seaplane, and is 99% water with seven small islands to visit. The reefs are the least disturbed in Florida and the real draw is the abundance of sea life. It’s also home to a historical site on the Garden Key, the unfinished Fort Jefferson. Construction began in 1846 and continued through the Civil War, when it was used as a prison. It had outlived its usefulness by the 1880s, and the structure was never even fully completed. Now it’s open to tourists while the National Park Service attempts to halt its decay. There's loads of RV parks at Key West to serve as a great home base while you explore beyond the shore.
Big Bend National Park runs for 118 miles along the border of Mexico. Miles and miles of paved roads mean scenic drives abound, and even more miles of dirt roads make it the perfect place to go four-wheeling. You can even float down the Rio Grande to view the park’s amazing canyons from the river. Definitely plan to spend the night, because the star gazing in Big Bend is legendary. The park has the least amount of light pollution you’ll find anywhere in the lower forty-eight. Seeing the Milky Way as big and bright as it appears from Big Bend is definitely a rare sight indeed!
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the biggest national park in the country, equal to about six Yellowstones. It's also the most wild; there are almost no roads in and out of the park and amenities are few and far between. The mountain ranges account for 60% of the glaciers in Alaska. And even though the brain-bendingly vast expanses of wilderness mean that this park might not be a great idea for your next family camping trip, if you know what you’re doing in the backcountry, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more isolated piece of untouched beauty anywhere else in the country.
North Cascades National Park is an alpine paradise that's only three hours north of Seattle! It’s a temperate rain forest, and is home to 300 glaciers, more glaciers than any other park outside Alaska. Enjoy the views from the North Cascades Highway, which snakes its way through the entire park. Keep an eye out for bald eagles that come to feed on the spawning salmon. Hiking, boating, camping, and backpacking are all popular activities for outdoor enthusiasts. Diablo Lake is also one of the major features of the North Cascades, where the water is so turquoise it doesn't seem real. There are plenty of riding trails for horse lovers as well. Visit the tiny community of Stehekin (meaning “the way through”), home to only 75 permanent residents. Accessible only by boat, plane, or on foot, the community is happy to finally be connected with telephone lines. It's a must-see stop on your way to the Cascade Mountains!
It’s hard to say why the beautiful Mojave National Preserve isn’t more crowded, but If you’re looking for solitude in California, this park is the place to go. Here, you can visit the ghost town of Kelso (once known as “the town without television”), wander through the world’s largest forest of Joshua trees, or take a 4-wheeler down historic Mojave Trail, which began as a thoroughfare for desert-dwelling Native Americans and eventually became part of the route for Spanish missionaries. Visitors can also hike through the Kelso Dunes and check out the Cima Volcanic Field with its 40 volcanic cones, including the Cima Dome, a natural landmark.
Best known as home to the stunning Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park is a glacier-carved natural wonder. Take the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive 10,000 feet up, then hike to the summit to see the only glacier in Nevada, the Wheeler Peak Glacier. While you’re there, be sure to examine the bristlecone pines, some of the world’s oldest trees, the last remnants of a Pleistocene forest, some of the trees are 3,000 years old. Once you’ve admired the views, head underground to see Lehman Caves, a marble cavern ornately decorated with cave formations and 1.5 miles of underground passages. The park averages about 80,000 visitors a year and is a must-visit on a southwest road trip.
Lesser-known doesn't mean less beautiful when it comes to parks: even a quick visit to these underrated natural landscapes can show you why they're all worthy of their status as National Parks!