15 seriously underrated U.S. national parks you should visit this summer
When you think of U.S. national parks, chances are good that the most popular destinations come to mind first. Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and the Great Smokey Mountains each get thousands of visitors every single year. Because of their popularity, these parks are typically overcrowded and full of tourists, which tends to get in the way of the “being out in nature” feeling you want. That’s not to say they aren’t worth visiting — they definitely are — but there are so many underrated U.S. national parks that you should visit, and you probably don’t even know about them.
There are actually 417 natural park sites throughout the United States and every year, during National Parks Week (which began on Saturday, April 21st), the National Parks Service tries to raise awareness for their parks and trails. Supporting our nation’s parks is essential in the current political climate, and seeing the parks in-person is one way to do that. Alanna Sobel, senior manager of communications at the National Park Foundation (the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service), says, “If you only visit national parks that everyone has heard of, you’re missing out on hundreds of other incredible places. Exploring lesser-known parks expands your mind, ups your Instagram game, and can also mean less crowds. Get out and discover a park that’s new to you and make some unforgettable memories with your girlfriends or family!”
There are few better ways to spend a beautiful day than roaming through nature, spotting some majestic wild animals, and checking out views that will take your breath away. It’s an opportunity to disconnect and to learn more about our country, because many parks are also rich in history. So get out there and make it a point to check out at least a few of these 15 underrated national parks:
1Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico
If you want to take in some breathtaking scenery, as well as a lot of history, you should absolutely check out Bandelier National Monument (it’s not technically a park, but it’s basically the same thing). Located close to both Santa Fe and Albuquerque in New Mexico, this park sets the scene for a great hike, and some adventure as well, if you don’t mind climbing steep ladders. There are petroglyphs, cliff dwellings, and standing masonry walls that are full of history about the ancestral Pueblo people who once lived there. Plus, the drive to and from Bandelier is really gorgeous and full of scenic stops.
2Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland and Virginia
If you’re more into beaches than hiking through mountains or desert land, you should visit Assateague Island. It’s full of beaches, maritime forests, and salt marshes, and makes for a lovely summer day in the sun. The coolest thing about Assateague, besides its natural beauty, is that it’s home to wild horses who roam the land.
3Channel Islands National Park, California
There are five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park, just off the coast of Southern California, and they’re all worth exploring. The islands are only accessible by park boats and planes, or a private boat, making them more remote and isolated. There is a lot of diverse wildlife, like blue whales and sea lions, as well as over 100 species of wildlife that aren’t found anywhere else on the planet.
4Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico
Another park located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Petroglyph National Monument is full of history. This is the largest petroglyph site in North America, which features designs and symbols that were carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. You can walk around, hike, check out the petroglyphs and scenery, and even see some wildlife. (When I was there, I spotted a jackrabbit, which was kind of awesome for an east coaster like myself.)
5Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
There is so much nature to see in Colorado that it can be overwhelming. But if you’re going, Great Sand Dunes National Park is definitely worth a visit. Right near the Great Smokey Mountains, this park offers a long hike up to the top of the dunes, which delivers a truly amazing view. One of the cool things about this park is that it’s always open, so you can go there at night to get a spectacular dark skies experience. This park doesn’t seem like it belongs in the United States, to be honest, which is what sets it apart.
6Valley Forge National Historical Park, King of Prussia, Pennsylvania
Valley Forge in Pennsylvania is another park full of history: according to National Parks Services, it was the site of the 1777-78 winter encampment of the Continental Army. The park gives visitors a good look at the Revolutionary War generation. There are woods and rivers to hike along, lots of wildlife to check out, and plenty of history to take in. It’s also not too far from Philadelphia, which could make for a great day trip.
7Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Yellowstone National Park gets more visitors each day than Isle Royale Park gets in a whole year, which seems crazy when you see how beautiful Isle Royale is. This Michigan park is usually chilly and foggy, but it also gives you great views of Lake Superior. There is even scuba diving to some awesome shipwreck sites if you’re interested in that. This is a pretty remote area to explore for anyone who wants to hike, kayak, camp, or just get really adventurous.
8Fire Island, New York
New York State boasts a lot of national parks, but on a personal note, Fire Island National Seashore is my favorite. A tiny barrier island that’s about a 30-minute boat ride away from the main shores of Long Island, Fire Island offers miles of gorgeous seashore with sandy beaches, lots of boating opportunities on the Great South Bay, and glimpses at some adorable wildlife, like deer and foxes (if you’re lucky, you’ll see dolphins swimming around in the ocean as well). Fire Island is often known for its party atmosphere throughout the tristate area, but it’s a lot more than that. Visit for the stunning natural beauty, as well as a trip to the Sunken Forrest.
9St. John, The Virgin Islands
You may not realize that the U.S. Virgin Islands are a national park site, but they are. St. Thomas gets a lot of attention because that’s where the planes and cruise ships come in, while St. John is a little bit more underrated and just a boat ride away. It’s full of incredible snorkeling, beaches, and beautiful walks. Unfortunately, the Virgin Islands got beat up pretty badly during last year’s hurricane season, but according to the NPS site, recovery efforts are going well, so don’t let that keep you from visiting.
10Congaree National Park, South Carolina
If you really want to experience nature, Congaree National Park in South Carolina is the perfect place to go. It’s home to one of the tallest deciduous forest canopies on earth, which offers great bird watching and wilderness tours. For those feeling more adventurous, there is also kayaking, hiking, canoeing, fishing, and even camping. There are tons of trees to delight in, and you’ll feel super connected to the planet.
11Valles Caldera, New Mexico
Valles Caldera, located not too far from Bandelier National Monument, is the newest national preserve. It was created by a volcanic eruption that happened about 1.25 million years ago, leaving a 13-mile circular depression (known as the Valles Caldera). The preserve is gigantic, and is known for the mountain meadows, steams, and history behind it (it was once the home to ancestral native peoples). There is also a lot of wildlife — when I visited, I saw coyotes, prairie dogs, and elk, which was awesome. Since Valles Caldera is so big, I recommend exploring on horseback or by bike.
12Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska
If you can get out to Alaska, you should absolutely check of Gates of the Arctic, which is the second-largest and northernmost national park in the country. It’s 8.4 million acres! In 2016, the park only received just over 10,000 visitors, which means it needs, and deserves, some more love. There are no roads or trails, and it’s very remote, so you might need to be a little bit of an experienced hiker or traveler to take this one on. But if you do, you’ll get incredible views and a glimpse at some amazing wildlife, like polar bears and caribou.
13Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
The Guadalupe Mountains National Park actually protects the world’s biggest Permian fossil reef, as well as the four highest mountain peaks in Texas. There is a ton to see here, from plants to wildlife, and the mountains, canyons, deserts, dunes, and vistas are all gorgeous. This is a truly special place that definitely doesn’t receive enough attention.
14Biscayne National Park, Florida
When it comes to national parks, Florida is known for the Everglades — but that’s not all the state offers. Biscayne National Park is a gorgeous underwater national park that is worth exploring if you’re willing to get adventurous. Well, 95% of it is underwater, at least. It offers 173,000 acres of Caribbean waters in the Biscayne Bay, as well as the world’s third largest coral reef. There are 72 shipwrecks to explore, as well as lots of sea life, like manatees and over 200 species of fish.
15Buffalo National River, Arkansas
Buffalo National River is full of beauty and history. The river was established in 1972 and flows for 135 miles. It’s one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the U.S. You can see running rapids, quiet pools, beautiful mountains, and so much wilderness there. You can hike or get in a canoe in the river if you want, but just know that hiking offers some pretty tough trails.
If you want to check out even more parks close to you, check out FindYourPark.com for tons of info. I don’t know about you, but I’m already thinking of about 10 different trips I can plan this summer. Happy exploring!