Once you leave the strip malls, skyscrapers, and suburbs behind, America is a breathtaking country. Nowhere is that beauty written larger than in the 419 expanses of land designated as National Parks by the U.S. National Parks systems.
Some of these National Parks are absolute rock stars. Think Yosemite in California, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Yellowstone in Wyoming. These National Parks are on the travel bucket list of nearly every American who loves the great outdoors.
Other National Parks get less ink and end up on fewer Instagram feeds. The more popular parks hog the spotlight. The only people who visit them are completists who make it a life goal to visit every National Park.
But plenty of these National Parks deserve more attention than they get, because they are national treasures in their own right. Here are the seven most underrated U.S. National Parks that deserve a higher place on your adventure checklist …
Great Sand Dunes National Park (Colorado)
Few Americans realize that they don’t have to fly to the Sahara to witness the silent majesty of sand dunes. In fact, they don’t need to look any further than southern Colorado.
Designated by President Hoover in 1932, Great Sand Dunes covers 65 square miles and encompasses the largest sand dunes in North America.
The park had only a half a million visitors in 2019, compared to nearly six million visitors to the Grand Canyon. This is a shame, because the bleak and otherworldly vistas of sand dunes are a different kind of beautiful—it’s like a trip to a different planet.
Springtime visitors can discover the effects of the seasonal flooding of Medano Creek over its banks. The floodwater pools into the dunes, forming a lake. Imagine—a sandy beach to swim and picnic on, in the middle of Colorado!
Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)
Isle Royale is not easy to get to. Part of the state of Michigan, it is actually much closer to Canada than to mainland Michigan, an 890-square-mile island in Lake Superior to the north of the Upper Peninsula.
Isle Royale enjoys the distinction as the least-visited National Park in the system, with less than 26,000 visitors in 2019. If you make the ferry or floatplane journey to Isle Royale and its hundreds of surrounding micro islands, however, you will discover one of the jewels of North American biodiversity.
With 36 campgrounds, some of them only accessible by kayak or hiking, you can come face-to-face with moose, timber wolves, and hundreds of species of birds.
Established by FDR in 1940, Isle Royale is one of the most remote and unspoiled pieces of real estate in the country, a paradise for dyed-in-the-wool naturalists.
Congaree National Park (South Carolina)
One of the newest National Parks, Congaree National Park was designated by President George W. Bush in 2003 after a decades-long campaign launched in 1969 to protect one of the largest old-growth bottomland hardwood forests in the world.
If you are one of the less than 150,000 people to visit Congaree National Park per year, and you catch it when the Congaree and Wateree Rivers overflow their banks, you can paddle a kayak around the 41 square miles of designated park. Your craft will butt up against some of the tallest moss-covered trees in the region, past alligators, turtles, and a whole menagerie of colorful birds.
Crater Lake National Park (Oregon)
The only National Park in Oregon gets less than 800,000 visitors per year, but it’s geology heaven. The titular lake pools in a crater formed by a volcanic caldera that blew its stack over 7,700 years ago.
One of the many National Parks designated by that famous outdoorsman, President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1902, Crater Lake contains some of the most pure water in the world, naturally filtered by igneous rock at elevations of over 7,000 feet.
Swimming or boating in this crystal-clear freshwater surrounded by unearthly scenery is one of the great pleasures available to Americans and their guests.
Big Bend National Park (Texas)
Sprawling over more than 1,250 square miles along the Rio Grande River at the Mexican Border, Big Bend National Park is one of the most remote National Parks in the country. As such, fewer than half a million visitors made the trek to Big Bend in 2019. That’s a shame. Once covered by a sea, Big Bend is a wonderland of limestone cliffs, full of sea life fossils and even dinosaur fossils.
There’s more to Big Bend than the fossil record, though—at least 75 mammal species, 56 reptile species, and 450 bird species call Big Bend home, along with over 1,200 plant species.
Designated by FDR in 1940, Big Bend is also a mandatory destination for astronomy enthusiasts to bring their telescopes and binoculars. Remote and far from city lights, Big Bend has been identified as one of the darkest places in America with the least light pollution, granting visitors a spectacular view of the night sky, with its vault of the Milky Way and far-away stars and galaxies.
Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)
Yellowstone gets all the attention and a million more visitors when it comes to National Parks in Wyoming. Grand Teton National Park, to the south of Yellowstone, is just as worthy of a visit.
As biodiverse as Yosemite, the 480 square miles of Grand Teton National Park, lorded over by the titular snow-capped peak is home to bison, moose, bear, wolves, bald eagles, and other noble fauna. One of the best ways to experience the park is a boat ride down the Snake River, which winds through the park past some of the most breathtaking scenery on the continent.
Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida)
Another remote destination, Dry Tortugas is the westernmost Florida Key, 68 miles beyond Key West, the most remote inhabited Key. Designated by FDR in 1935, it received less than 57,000 visitors in 2019.
These visitors made the journey by boat or by plane to this small archipelago of coral islands to discover a UNESCO-recognized biosphere observable by boating, hiking, or diving to visit a technicolor rainbow of fish and birds. Visitors can also tour Fort Jefferson, a Civil War-era naval base.
About the Author: Paul Greenamyer