Nothing against Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, but some national parks can get crowded, especially during the summer. Instead of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other tourists at scenic vistas this summer, head over to these often overlooked national parks.
Channel Islands National Park, California
There’s a reason few people visit California’s equivalent to the Galapagos Islands of South America: It’s only accessible by boat or a short flight. But once you step foot on one of the five islands that make up this park, you’ll discover 145 plant and animal species that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Spend your time hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, or bird watching. Overnight camping is also available.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Most people think of Redwood National and State Parks when they hear “big trees,” but Congaree National Park is impressive in its own right. It’s nicknamed the “Home of Champions,” and it’s not as congested with tourists as its Californian counterpart. Congaree gets only 120,000 visitors annually versus Redwood’s nearly 400,000. Here, you can hike more than 25 miles of forested trails, fish the waterways, or explore the marked canoe trail on Cedar Creek. A boardwalk provides access to scenic Weston Lake.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
While it’s not the Grand Canyon, the Black Canyon is definitely breathtaking. Its 2,000-foot walls drop almost vertically to the Gunnison River and, at their narrowest point, span only 40 feet across. You can hike, fish, kayak, raft, or rock climb here. River alternative: For an even more secluded whitewater rafting experience, try the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River. In recent years, its annual number of visitors has been under 1,000.
Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
The cave itself isn’t necessarily overlooked, but the above-ground park, a sea of prairie grass dotted with up to 450 bison, is. One of the nation’s few remaining intact prairies, it offers 30 miles of hiking trails as well as horseback riding and camping. As they do at Carlsbad Caverns National Park or Mammoth Cave National Park, tickets for the cave tour sell out, so book early. But even if you can’t take the tour, you still have 30,000 acres of prairie to explore.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Its remote location along the Canadian border ensures that Voyageurs National Park doesn’t get too crowded. During summer months, enjoy fishing, boating, and other water-based activities. Or, on land, watch for moose, gray wolves, black bear, beavers, bald eagles, and wolves. You might even see the Aurora Borealis at night if you’re lucky. The park remains open during the winter months for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
Co-managed by the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly is often bypassed in favor of the Grand Canyon, 250 miles to the west, and nearby Monument Valley. It’s too bad. Vantage points from the rim overlook Navajo farms, Ancestral Pueblo ruins, and sacred rock formations. Hire a Navajo guide to see petroglyphs and more ruins from the canyon’s interior.
National Park of American Samoa, Pago Pago, American Samoa
Just short of 18,000 people visited this national park in 2013, probably because it requires a five-hour flight from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Tutuila Island, part of the United States territory of American Samoa. It’s a national park like no other. Visitors can hike through tropical rainforests, snorkel over coral reefs, or just relax on the beach. A special experience: The park has a home stay program that places you with a Samoan family to learn their customs and culture during your visit.
Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico
Located 150 miles south of Mesa Verde National Park, this once great Ancestral Puebloan community is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and receives just 30,000 visitors annually (compared to Mesa Verde’s 460,000). A nine-mile paved loop accesses five major Chacoan sites, including Pueblo Bonito, a great house that once stood four stories high and included more than 600 rooms. The drawback to a visit here is that the park is very remote and offers minimal services.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
You don’t have to worry about jam-packed parking lots at Isle Royale, since the rugged island is surrounded by Lake Superior and can only be accessed by boat or seaplane. You can hike, canoe, or scuba dive to well-preserved shipwrecks here. A word of warning: Although the park receives fewer visitors annually than Yellowstone does in a day, the park’s per-acre use is the highest in the national park system.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Named for two mountain ranges that form its backbone, this park is America’s largest – you could fit Vermont and New Hampshire combined or the country of Switzerland within its borders. But it’s also one of the least visited, bypassed in favor of Denali National Park and Preserve. You can do many of the same activities at this overlooked park – hike, mountain bike, fish and other outdoor activities – just with fewer people around. Take a flightseeing tour to appreciate the park’s immense size and incredible wonders.