The 10 Most Underrated U.S. National Parks
if you're looking to beat the crowds and explore nature, head to these stunning and often overlooked parks.
Whether you're exploring your home state solo, taking a cross-country road trip with friends, or embarking on a family vacation halfway across the country, visiting one of America's national parks is a great way to get some fresh air in the wide open while marveling at the natural beauty and wildlife all around you.
So, it makes sense that as travel picks up again this year, many Americans are itching to get out and explore more of these protected lands. According to a 2020 survey commissioned by the National Park Service, most survey respondents said the last national parks they visited were Yellowstone National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and Yosemite National Park.
But the truth is, there are so many other hidden gems across the U.S. that are ripe for adventure—and some of them you can traverse in just a day. So, if you're looking to beat the tourist crowds while exploring nature, be sure to add the following underrated U.S. national parks to your travel itinerary. And next, don't miss The 5 Best Beaches That Are U.S. National Parks.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Known for its jaw-dropping multicolored cliffs, secluded white sand beaches, and unusual sandstone formations, this Michigan national park is technically a lakeshore, which you can either explore on foot via hiking loops, boat cruise, or guided kayak tour.
"There really is something for everyone—families can enjoy the many beaches and easy walks to waterfalls, while couples and solo travelers can get lost in the beauty on a trail or in a kayak," says Rebecca Gade Sawicki, founder of the vegan travel blog Veggies Abroad. "While summer is an optimal time to visit, in the winter, some of the waterfalls turn into spectacular ice caves that visitors can safely explore."
Don't miss the Twelvemile Beach trail, which winds through a breathtaking white birch forest, and the shipwreck remnants left around the shorelines near Au Sable Point's 19th-century lighthouse.
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The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Picture an epic, 30-square-mile sandbox with massive mounds to climb… and that's pretty much this Colorado park in a nutshell.
"Flanked by rugged mountain peaks to the east, the park offers the unique experience of climbing up the massive sand dunes as well as more traditional hiking options in the surrounding mountains," says Chris Heckmann, creator of the blog Around The World With Me. "Hiking up sand dunes is incredibly hard work, but if you can make it to some of the higher dunes, you'll be rewarded with some awesome views."
If you're particularly ambitious, try hiking the tallest summit at a whopping 750 feet.
"After sandboarding and sledding down some of the tallest dunes in North America, the kids can cool off in Medrano Creek," says Elise Armitage, writer and founder behind What The Fab. "The park is a great spot for camping in the summer as the temperatures cool off at night."
Pro tip: If you can, Shaun Hammond, owner and author of The Traveling Drifter, advises sticking around for the awe-inspiring sunsets with shadowy mountain ranges in the distance.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more family-friendly park than this one, says Kristin Secor, the owner and author of World on Wheels.
"This park is often overlooked by its neighbors in South Dakota and even in Wyoming," she tells Best Life. "What's special about it is the cannonball formations found in the northern unit. These formations are made when mineral water seeps down into the buttes and deposits the minerals in gaps in the sediment. The minerals and sediments combine and form a core, which then creates a cannonball appearance. As the buttes erode, these cannonballs stay intact and become visible to visitors."
The park has two sections: the northern and southern units. According to Secor, the southern unit gets a lot more foot traffic, but each is worth a visit to view the gorgeous Badlands buttes.
"Another special thing about the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the wildlife," adds Secor. "You can find bison, wild mustangs, big horn sheep, and prairie dogs within the park. We were lucky enough to see all of these incredible animals, with the highlight being the wild horses."
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Jennie Flaming, chief adventure officer for Ordinary Adventures calls this Northern California park a "mini Yellowstone, but even cooler."
"It boasts bubbling mud pots, hot springs, and vibrant blue lakes but, unlike Yellowstone, you won't have to fight the crowds to see them in all their glory," adds Megan Jones, founder of Traveller's Elixir.
The trails are pretty manageable, no matter how much hiking experience you have, according to Flaming.
Jones notes that Lassen Volcanic Park's tallest mountain, Lassen Peak, is actually an active volcano, so, in theory, it could erupt at any moment, although the last eruption was in 1917. "You can actually hike up to the top of the peak where you'll be rewarded with some pretty impressive views of the surrounding wilderness," she adds. Her favorite spot in the park? The "Devastated Area," where you can scope out massive lava rocks that were left from the volcano's last eruption.
Anu Agarwal, owner and author of Destination Checkoff, also recommends checking out Bumpass Hell trail, which recently added a boardwalk trail to see the geothermal activity up close, and the subway lava tube at the end of the park.
FYI, according to Agarwal, you can only visit Lassen Volcanic National Park between June and October as the roads are closed due to snow for the rest of the year.
North Cascades National Park
The North Cascades National Park may be one of the least-visited national parks, but that's just part of the appeal: no long lines, and plenty of peace and quiet. It's also a super pet-friendly park, so feel free to bring along your furry companion.
According to Bryn Culbert, budget travel expert at Wanderu, a Wanderu study revealed that this park is tagged with the most Instagram posts relative to its number of visitors. And it's easy to see why it's so Instagrammable: the picturesque mountain vistas, turquoise alpine lakes, snowy mountains, and breathtaking waterfalls are just a few highlights.
"It is also quite undeveloped, so there are few roads or other structures within the park, allowing you to ditch the crowds and truly disconnect and embrace nature with your loved ones," says Luisa Favaretto, founder and editor of Strategistico.
Axel Hernborg, CEO at Tripplo, notes that there is no entry fee, either. "If you're fond of camping, you won't be disappointed," he says. "What's more, you don't have to hike too much to enjoy a serene view, you're surrounded by it. But if you do like hiking, you can even walk at night in the garden with light-up water features.
According to Favaretto, this park—which is less than a three-hour drive from Seattle—also happens to contain the largest system of glaciers in the contiguous U.S.
"You won't be able to find views with all of these natural elements anywhere else in America," she explains. "The famous Pacific Crest Trail also cuts through the park, so it is a great place for solo hikers to also connect with some like-minded folks during their journey as well."
Katmai National Park
There are no roads leading into this park—so, to get there, you'll need to fly into a nearby Alaska town, and then rent a floatplane to get there. But, according to Jenny Ly, travel blogger at Go Wanderly, it's well worth the elaborate trek.
"Don't forget your Sonik fishing gear when visiting Katmai because, in addition to viewing brown bears at Brooks Falls, which are among the biggest in the world due to the plentiful salmon, these activities include excellent kayaking, canoeing, wilderness camping, hiking, and fishing," says Ly.
Congaree National Park
"Even people who live on the East Coast often have never heard of Congaree, but this little marshy wonderland is the perfect getaway for a unique vacation," says Culbert. "The park comprises a huge old growth bottomland hardwood forest, which is like a swamp, but technically a floodplain, and it's home to one of the highest tree canopies in the world."
Families of all sizes and activity levels can enjoy a short walk on the park's accessible Boardwalk Trail and spot wildlife on the rougher Oak Ridge Trail. Culbert recommends renting a canoe to traverse the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail and try to spot deer, river otters, turtles, and even alligators.
Congaree, which is situated outside of Columbia, SC, also has no entrance fee.
"It's a great place to stretch your legs, rest, and relax on a travel day through the Southeast," says Kimberly Button, creator and author at Wanderful World of Travel. "Though it's not as big and doesn't offer as many trails, there is a unique charm to this location. The 2.4 miles main loop trail at the Visitor Center is an elevated boardwalk, making it accessible to everyone and allowing them to get out in nature.
Rest assured that Congaree is great for kids and families, too, because Button says the paved loop trail is easy for everyone to walk and run on without being too challenging.
Channel Islands National Park
Getting to this coastal California park is a little more complicated—while the mainland visitor centers are accessible by car, you'll have to take a boat to the islands. That said, Hanna Ashcraft, founder of the travel blog Moderately Adventurous, says the cruise over is all part of the fun, and if you're lucky, you'll even spot some dolphins, whales, sea lions, and sea birds galore along the journey.
Eva Keller, a co-founder of the travel blog Discovering Hidden Gems, notes that there are multiple charter boats running out to all four main islands daily from Ventura and Oxnard, depending on the season and weather. Each of the islands has its unique environment to discover. The smallest is Anacapa Island, which features a picturesque lighthouse and is a famous nesting site for the Western gull.
"Watch the silly bird antics as you hike to Inspiration Point for a breathtaking view of jagged rocks and the other islands in a row," says Ashcraft. Santa Cruz, the largest island, offers longer hikes to beautiful vistas like Potato Harbor, and kayaking tours to explore the sea caves. Santa Rosa Island, which is a little further away, is known for a grove of Torrey pine trees and long sandy beaches.
And finally, Ashcraft says San Miguel Island is best for adventurers who don't mind a long boat ride and want to see sea lions basking on the sandy beach. The best part? If you want to see it all, you can camp out overnight on any of the islands.
Petrified Forest National Park
Jessica Schmit, the founder of Uprooted Traveler, has been to 40 national parks—but this one, which is located in Arizona, stands out in her memory. And that's no surprise: true to its name, the park contains one of the world's largest and most colorful concentrations of petrified wood. These mineralized versions of trees date back hundreds of millions of years… before dinosaurs even roamed the earth.
"The park offers points of interest for all kinds of visitors, including hikes and backpacking through incredibly colorful badlands and petroglyphs from ancient Indigenous people," says Schmit. "Even better, the park has a small footprint, so it's easy to see the main highlights of the park in just a day."
While you're there, check out the Rainbow Forest Museum, which offers paleontology exhibits and many trail access points.
Hot Springs National Park
According to Favaretto, this is the second smallest national park in the U.S., but that's actually an advantage in some regards because it's possible to see all it has to offer in one afternoon.
"Hot Springs National Park offers the ideal setting for couples to relax in," says Favaretto. "It features naturally occurring thermal baths where visitors can soak and rejuvenate themselves. This bathing ritual is the perfect experience to share with your partner, where you can reconnect with nature together and enjoy the healing powers of the springs."
The park also features plenty of excellent hiking trails suitable for all levels, which provide scenic views of the vibrant seasonal foliage and downtown Hot Springs.