50 Most Underrated Parks in the U.S. from 50 Most Underrated Parks in America
50 Most Underrated Parks in America
50 Most Underrated Parks in the U.S.
Sure, our national parks and monuments have been in the news as of late. But if anything, those headlines mean that our homeland-based bounty of natural treasures should be top of mind when planning your next away-from-home jaunt.
A U.S. park visit doesn’t have to mean braving the tourist-laden crowds of often-visited Yosemite, Yellowstone or our glorious Grand Canyon. Have you ever wanted to visit a national park, a state park, or one in a city, that’s underground or go sand sledding among the tallest dunes in the country? Well, you’re in luck.
Our expert editors voraciously scavenged through hundreds of travel sites and meticulously read through thousands of user reviews to spotlight a sleuth of undiscovered destinations. Below, we’ve rounded up 50 lesser-known parks of different sizes and classifications that are a bit less bold-face than their more popular counterparts, but not an ounce less epic.
Lace up your hiking boots and grab your GoPros — it’s time to go make your own personal park headlines, stat.
Alaska: Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
The second-largest national park in the world (8,472,506 acres!), around the old Gold Rush town of Bettles (population: 12), Gates of the Arctic is entirely located north of the Arctic Circle. It contains no roads, trails, or established campsites. Those exploring the vast and essentially untouched landscape on foot must have expert survival skills and crave complete solitude (no cellphone service or emergency services are available). All others can take flight-seeing trips via local air taxis.
Alaska: Katmai National Park
Come here for the brown bears, and stay for incredible views of the park’s active volcanic landscape. Covering over four million acres, Katmai was named a national monument in 1918 to protect and preserve the area following a devastating 1912 volcanic eruption (which later formed the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes). The park’s most popular destination is Brooks Camp, where visitors can encounter Alaskan brown bears in their natural habitat and enjoy fishing (be careful though: bears may come after your salmon).
Alaska: Kenai Fjords National Park
This park covers nearly 670,000 acres, with stunning views of glaciers, icefields, and snow-capped mountains. The icy landmark, located near Seward, can be explored via boat tours, hiking trails, kayaking, and dog sled tours. With adequate snow cover, visitors can also venture to designated areas of the Exit Glacier on snowmobiles.
Alaska: Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve
There’s a lot to explore at Wrangell-St. Elias, which holds the title of America’s largest national park. At over 13 million acres, it's the size of six Yellowstones combined! The rugged terrain contains some of North America’s largest volcanoes and a wide range of wildlife. Backpacking, hiking, and mountaineering are popular activities for adventurous visitors.
Alaska: Yukon–Charley Rivers National Preserve
This national preserve covers 115 miles of the Yukon River and the entirety of the Charley River Basin. The largely untouched landscape offers visitors vivid scenery and plenty of ways to experience the white water of the Charley and Yukon rivers.
American Samoa: National Park of American Samoa
This 13,500-acre park spreads across three islands located south of the equator — Tutuila, Ofu, and Ta‘ū. Hike through tropical rainforests filled with endemic animals and plants, snorkel on remote beaches amidst coral reefs, and learn about the culture of the Samoans who preserve and protect the park.
California: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
A two-hour northeast drive from San Diego will take you to California’s largest state park: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Borrego Springs, encompassing more than 600,000 acres of land. The dreamy desert is a sight to see with its badlands, slot canyons, and cactus hills. Feel free to explore the park by hiking, biking, or going on a scenic drive.
California: Channel Islands National Park
Those who need a break from the bustle of urban life in California can travel just off the state's coast to the Channel Islands National Park, where visitors can enjoy peaceful activities including camping, picnicking, snorkeling, birdwatching, and wildflower viewing. Encompassing five islands (the largest of which is Santa Cruz Island) the park stretches across roughly 250,000 acres and has plenty of scenic offerings in each area.
California: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Talk about being one of the most picturesque parks in California: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur is home to McWay Falls, a 80-foot-tall waterfall that flows to the Pacific Ocean. The park is named after a pioneering Big Sur rancher. While taking in the panoramic view of the ocean at the end of the Overlook Trail, you might just spot gray whales off the coast.
California: Lassen Volcanic National Park
Situated in northeastern California, Lassen Volcanic National Park features the largest plug dome volcano in the world. Hydrothermal areas at the park are still active with fumaroles, boiling mud pots, and steaming ground. While you’re here, catch views of the striking volcanic landscape or explore the park by camping, fishing, and auto-touring. Winter activities also include snowshoeing and skiing.
California: Mojave National Preserve
Find peace from the city at Mojave National Preserve, a 1.6-million-acre desert region situated in Kelso, between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Home to sand dunes, canyons, and mesas, the preserve offers plenty of attractions, among them routes for four-wheel drives, trails for horseback riding, and campgrounds for staying overnight. If you plan to visit between March and May, you might just catch a bed of Instagram-worthy wildflowers in bloom.
Colorado: Eldorado Canyon State Park
In Boulder County, just 45 minutes from Denver, “Eldo” is an adventure junkie’s dream, as the park offers over five hundred technical rock climbing routes that attract climbers from around the world. The park is also perfect for mountain biking and fishing, as well as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. Families with younger explorers can enjoy light streamside hiking and picnicking by South Boulder Creek.
Colorado: Great Sand Dunes National Park
Hike to the tallest dune in North America (but be sure to spare at least five hours for the trek), take a splash at Medano Creek, or go sand-sledding. The park is always open, so visitors can experience nocturnal wildlife and catch gorgeous night sky views when the sun goes down.
Florida: Dry Tortugas National Park
Far from what its name might suggest, the 100-square-mile Dry Tortugas National Park is home to seven small islands. Roughly 70 miles west of Key West, the park is accessible by boat, concession ferry, or seaplane. Upon arrival, you can go camping, swimming, or snorkeling and diving. It's an ideal weekend getaway for water adventure seekers.
Florida: Egmont Key State Park
On an island near St. Petersburg, at the mouth of Tampa Bay, this wildlife refuge and historical site is filled with secluded beaches and places perfect for swimming and fishing. The island is so remote that it is accessible only by private boat and has no drinking water source, so be sure to bring your own!
Florida: Oleta River State Park
Florida’s largest urban park, Oleta River State Park, is located on Biscayne Bay in metropolitan Miami. A haven for bicyclists, the park is best-known for its cycling trails (with options for both beginners and more experienced cyclists) and also features areas for canoeing, kayaking, and wildlife viewing.
Hawaii: Ahupua'a O Kahana State Park
Situated on the island of O’ahu, Ahupua’a O Kahana’s primary purpose is to teach about Hawaiian culture. The park is home to roughly 31 native families who seek to educate visitors through programs and activities, some of which include hunting, hiking, fishing, and enjoying the island’s beaches.
Hawaii: Pua'a Ka'a State Wayside Park
While driving along the Hana highway in Maui, take a relaxing break at this five-acre rainforest expanse. Take a short hike streamside to see the best waterfall of the area (there are a few), and be sure to bring your GoPro camera for photos if you take a dip in the pools!
Hawaii: Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park
Located southeast of the Waimea region on the island of Kauai, this park is home to the last remaining Russian fort on the Hawaiian islands, built in 1817. Take in the scenic views (including a picturesque perspective of the Hanalie Pier) while exploring the historical landmark.
Louisiana: Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
Located just south of New Orleans, this national park encompasses the rich cultural traditions of Louisiana and protects the natural resources of the Mississippi River Delta. Explore the area’s wild wetlands on the Barataria Preserve and catch glimpses of the alligators and 200-plus species of birds that inhabit the region.
Maine: Baxter State Park
Most Maine travel guides gloss over this multifaceted campsite in Millinocket, which offers gorgeous hikes of every length and difficulty level as well as canoeing on the park's flatwater lakes and ponds. Visitors can rent canoes and kayaks for $1 per hour, or $8 for the entire day. Then, take a break with a dip by any of the small waterfalls (but watch out for leeches!).
Massachusetts: Halibut Point State Park
This destination in Rockport, on Cape Ann, consists of parallel areas of conserved oceanside land, complete with trails, tide pools, and rocky ledges. Learn about the history of the region’s granite industry with a live demonstration of granite splitting, and on a clear day, climb the 60-foot renovated World War II fire tower for a panoramic view of Maine’s Mount Agamenticus and the Isles of Shoals, just off the coast of New Hampshire.
Michigan: Isle Royale National Park
Surrounded by Lake Superior, Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park is a prime location for those who want to disconnect from the world. The isolated island offers peaceful solitude among wilderness and activities for scuba-diving, kayaking, fishing, and boating enthusiasts.
Michigan: Porcupine Mountains State Park
At nearly 60,000 acres, Michigan’s largest state park is a wilderness wonder with scenic views, mesmerizing waterfalls, and enchanting forests. Campsites are located on the shore of Lake Superior, so make sure to catch a sunrise — or a sunset, if you’re not an early bird. The park is also home to Porcupine Mountains Ski Area, where you can go skiing, snowshoeing, or snowmobiling in season.
Minnesota: Tettegouche State Park
Minnesota’s state park, Tettegouche is located in Lake County, on the north shore of Lake Superior. At about 9,300 acres, the park includes a hardwood forest, four inland lakes, and three waterfalls (the 70-foot High Falls of the Baptism River is the highest waterfall located entirely within the state).
Minnesota: Voyageurs National Park
Voyageurs National Park is a popular destination for fishing, canoeing, and kayaking enthusiasts given the park’s numerous waterways. Guided boat tours are available for visitors who want to travel to areas only accessible by water, and scenic hiking trails are ready for those who want to venture by foot.
Montana: Glacier National Park
Known as the centerpiece of the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, Glacier National Park sits on the border of Montana and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. The popular summer destination is home to grizzly bears, mountain goats, wolverines, Canadian lynxes, and hundreds of species of birds. There are also historic wooden tour boats that have been operating since the 1920s.
Nevada: Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park is home to the Lehman Caves, where you can take a daily guided tour of a unique cavern discovered in the late 1880s. After exploring the caves, check out the 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak or the thousands-of-years-old bristlecone pines around the park grounds. Don’t forget to end your trip with a full moon hike or solar telescope viewing — you might just see the Milky Way.
New Mexico: Carlsbad Caverns
Who says national parks can’t thrive underground? This New Mexico treasure, located on the state's southern border with Texas, Carlsbad Caverns is made up of 119 caves (mapped and well lit!) and thousands of unique cave formations. Be sure to see the largest cave, called the Big Room, and go for a ranger-led tour if you’re not claustrophobic! In the summer months, look up — you’ll see a slew of Brazilian free-tailed bats hanging upside down.
New Mexico: Chaco Culture National Historical Park
As its name suggests, New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historic Park is home to the cultural landmarks of the Chaco, an ancestral Pueblo people, and preserves a large collection of ancient historical ruins. Visitors are free to experience Chaco via guided tours, hiking trails, and evening campfire talks.
New York: Letchworth State Park
New York’s Letchworth State Park has earned the nickname “Grand Canyon of the East” for the magnitude of its visual landscape. The 14,427-acre park follows the course of the Genesee River for roughly 17 miles and features views, waterfalls, and lush forests. Popular recreational activities include horseback riding, biking, whitewater rafting, and hot air ballooning.
North Dakota: Fort Ransom State Park
Nestled in the picturesque and heavily-wooded Sheyenne River Valley in the Roughrider State's Ransom County, this scenic spot is a popular place for canoeing and kayaking (rentals are available in the park), as well as horseback riding, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing. Warning: road signs to the park are more accurate than GPS, which will get you lost en route!
North Dakota: International Peace Garden
Located in Rolette County, on the border of North Dakota and Canada’s Manitoba province, the park was established in 1932 as a symbol of the peaceful relationship between the two North American nations. (One of North Dakota's nicknames is the Peace Garden State.) Be sure to see the 18-foot floral clock, as well as the water fountains and flowers, of which the park plants 150,000 each year. Main features of the garden include fountains.
North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Named after the 26th U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt National Park covers more than 70,000 acres of land in western North Dakota. Divided into three separate areas, the North and South units of the park offer scenic drives that lead you to breathtaking views of the Badlands — be sure to make a pit stop at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center for a nice photo op of the canyon — while the Elkhorn Ranch Unit includes a walking path from the entrance of the park to Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin.
Ohio: Cuyahoga Valley National Park
The Cuyahoga Valley National Park abounds with activities, making it a family-friendly destination. Visitors are encouraged to hike more than 125 miles of trails, paddle along the Cuyahoga River, bike around the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, and tee up at one of the four golf courses located in the park. Given that there’s so much to do, you may want to consider staying the night — reserving a campsite at the park or booking a room at the historic Stanford House or The Inn at Brandywine Falls nearby.
Oklahoma: Osage Hills State Park
Oregon: Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake National Park, known among locals as one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon, houses the caldera of Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States. The picturesque sight of the lake’s deep, blue water and its surrounding area (cliffs nearly 2,000 feet high!) is a marvel for travelers and sightseers.
Oregon: Ecola State Park
This nine-mile stretch of Oregonian coastline southwest of Astoria offers more than just the usual scenic hike (though the views of the Pacific Ocean really are breathtaking). Explore the diverse ecosystems of the park, with secluded coves, thriving tidepools, and forrest areas with deer and elk. Keep an eye out of migrating gray whales in winter and spring.
South Carolina: Congaree National Park
This 26,000-acre must-see in Hopkins, just southeast of Columbia, protects the largest intact tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the U.S., as well as some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. Visitors can hike, camp, canoe, kayak, and fish amidst one of the highest canopies in the world. Rangers and volunteers also conduct walks and give talks throughout the year.
South Dakota: Badlands National Park
Camping and hiking alongside bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets? It’s a good time in the Badlands, which spans 244,000 acres — a picturesque expanse of mixed-grass prairie and one of the world’s richest fossil beds. That’s probably why scenes of the films Dances with Wolves and Thunderheart were shot here.
South Dakota: Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park houses the first cave to be named a national park in the world. Known for its boxwork formations and its complex mazes (which extend over 140 miles), the cave can be toured with a park ranger. Above ground, visitors can catch glimpses of the wildlife, ranging from bison to prairie dogs. that consider Wind Cave and its surrounding prairie home.
Texas: Big Bend National Park
Located in southwestern Texas, Big Bend is named for a, uh, big bend in the Rio Grande, which wraps the park’s southern edge for 118 miles. The park also encompasses the Chisos Mountains and Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America, at 200,000 square miles. With its vast landscape, the Big Bend offers the perfect long weekend getaway with scenic drives, river trips, horseback riding, and stargazing.
Texas: Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway
Bison can be found roaming the rugged terrain of Briscoe County's Caprock Canyons State Park. At just over 15,000 acres, Caprock Canyons is the third-largest state park Texas, and it offers 90 miles of trails for horseback riding, hiking, bike riding, and scenic drives.
Utah: Capitol Reef National Park
Bryce Canyon and Zion may be Utah’s national park all-stars, but don’t dismiss Capitol Reef. The park transports you to what feels like another planet with its scenic rock formations, natural arches, and slot canyons. Capitol Reef is best defined by the Waterpocket Fold, though, a buckle in the earth’s surface that runs about 100 miles from Thousand Lake Mountain in south-central Utah to the man-made reservoir Lake Powell.
Utah: Dead Horse Point State Park
Utah’s Dead Horse Point State Park in Moab features a stunning overlook of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. Deep canyons carved over the years by ice, wind, and seas offer scenic landscape views for visitors, who are also welcome to hike the pet-friendly trails within the park. Fun fact: Shots of the park were used in the Grand Canyon scene at the end of 1991’s Thelma & Louise.
Virginia: Douthat State Park
Located in Millboro, in the Allegheny Mountains, Douthat State Park encompasses about 4,500-acres of land with a 50-acre lake. Visitors are welcome to explore the park by mountain biking (the park’s trails are considered some of the best for the sport), fishing, boating, swimming, or hiking.
Washington: North Cascades National Park
Covering more than 500,000 acres, North Cascades National Park offers visitors a variety of activities — including camping, kayaking, hiking, and skiing. The park, which is less than three hours from Seattle by car, will commemorate its fiftieth anniversary in October of this year — a great time to celebrate the park by exploring its vast landscape.
West Virginia: Harpers Ferry National Park
The picturesque Harpers Ferry National Historic Park sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers around Harpers Ferry, West Virginia — the site of abolitionist John Brown's historic raid on a federal armory in 1859 — but spills over into Virginia and Maryland. Given its significance, the park now offers living history events on the weekends throughout the year, including a visit to a circa-1812 military recruitment station and a demonstration of field artillery. Workshops on cooking, blacksmithing, and gardening are also offered.
Wisconsin: Amnicon Falls State Park
Wisconsin's 825-acre Amnicon Falls State Park may be small in size, but it has a lot to offer. Explore hiking trails, seek out the park’s scenic viewing points, or swim beneath waterfalls on the Amnicon River for sheer relaxation.