When people think of America’s National Parks, they usually picture the towering granite walls of Yosemite, or the erupting geysers of Yellowstone. All of the National Parks are incredible, but sometimes the most famous ones are also the most crowded. If you’re planning a road trip, consider adding these underrated National Parks to your itinerary, and enjoy America’s best preserved natural areas without the crowds.
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Often overshadowed by Utah’s more popular National Parks like Zion and Arches, Capitol Reef National Park has absolutely stunning desert landscapes and a never-ending network of trails begging to be hiked. Enjoy gigantic arches and incredible sandstone structures, with unique geological layering that results in multi-colored hills and cliff sides.
If you’re lucky, you’ll also see some mule deer jumping around as you drive down the park roads!
Park Highlight: Hike to Cassidy Arch
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Most known for its high concentration of fossils, Badlands National Park generally flies under the radar as people drive through South Dakota. This park isn’t to be missed, though, as you’ll be blown away by the unique and alien landscape of the park. The best part about Badlands is that since it’s so underrated, there aren’t as many fences, paved trails, or crowded shuttles like you’ll find at the larger parks. At Badlands, it’s easy to explore to your hearts content among the playground like environment.
Park Highlight: Hike the Notch Trail
Great Sand Dunes, Colorado
Sand dunes, in Colorado? Yup, this National Park catches everyone by surprise. Visit this absolutely mesmerizing location and walk in awe among the tallest sand dunes in North America. Up to 700 feet tall, these sand dunes will remain in your memories forever. People love the fact that they can explore however they choose among the sand. Leisurely lay in the sun as if you were at the beach, or venture to the top of a massive dune, leaving footprints in the sand as you climb. The most adventurous visitors bring sleds, and attempt to slide down the steep sandy slopes.
Park Highlight: Hike the High Dune Trail
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Everyone goes to the Grand Canyon and assumes that’s the only canyon worth seeing. Wrong! Canyonlands is an absolutely massive and incredible national park consisting of a mazelike network of canyons. It’s so big, the park is split up into four unique districts: The Island in the Sky, The Maze, The Needles, and The Rivers. Each district, in my opinion, is worthy of being a National Park all by itself. There’s so much to see and do at Canyonlands between hiking, mountain biking, rafting, and four wheeling, I think you could spend months here and never do the same thing twice.
The Island in the Sky district is the closest access point to Canyonlands to Moab, and is well known for having incredibly viewpoints over the canyons below. This district has hikes to arches and domes, and the famous “White Rim Road” is popular with mountain bikers and ATV enthusiasts.
The Maze District is extremely remote, and a paradise for experienced hikers who wish to test their backcountry skills and see few other visitors. Trips into this zone generally require a few days hike, and the trails are notoriously hard to follow, thus giving this district it’s “Maze” connotation.
The Needles District holds unique rock spires and narrow slot canyons to explore on a vast network of hiking trails. It’s a popular location for both day hikes and multi-day backpacking trips.
The Rivers District refers to the Colorado and Green rivers themselves, which wind through Canyonlands and continue to slowly sculpt the canyon landscape. Rafters, kayakers, and canoers travel from around the world to paddle among towering sandstone walls and amazing geologic creations.
Park Highlight: Hike to Mesa Arch (Island in the Sky District)
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Big Bend National Park, Texas
Everything is bigger in Texas, and Big Bend National Park is no exception. Enjoy an expansive collection of canyon hikes and scenic dirt roads, and look across the Rio Grande River to the Mexican border. Big Bend is also the perfect place for star-gazers, as it’s known to have the “darkest skies” in all of the continental US. A summer night spent camping in Big Bend will never be forgotten, as you look up above you and see the Milky Way glowing more brilliantly than you could ever imagine.
Park Highlight: See the stars like never before
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
When people hear “Nevada”, they think of arid deserts, not snowcapped mountains and lush alpine lakes. But that’s just what Great Basin National Park has to offer. Bristlecone pine trees adorn the mountain slopes, and some of them are up to 3,000 years old! The most unique part of Great Basin National Park? Some of it is underground. Visitors have the opportunity to explore the Lehman Cave system and take a trip into the world that exists beneath our feet.
Park Highlight: Explore the Lehman Cave system
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Stand in awe of the 2,500 foot tall canyon walls that hold within them the raging Gunnison River. This 14 mile long gorge is famous for being so straight and narrow that it’s as if someone cut a slit in the Earth with a giant knife. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is captivating in scale, yet perfectly sized such that you can visit the rim and the bottom of the canyon in a day if you so desire. There are three different established campsites you can stay at, and fishermen enjoy hiking to the river to hook some wild trout for dinner.
Park Highlight: Hike to Exclamation Point
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
You might not have ever heard of Congaree National Park in South Carolina, but this protected floodplain forest is home to diverse wildlife including river otters and bobcats. The park is famous for its Cypress trees decorated with hanging Spanish moss, and you can take a walk along the 2.4 mile long boardwalk to be completely immersed in this lush paradise. The best way to see the park, though, is by boat, and many visitors take a canoe or kayak tour along the Congaree River, floating among wildlife and unusual plants.
Park Highlight: Hike the High and Low Boardwalk Trails
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