Photo by Sean Pavone
Photo by SoisudaS
Mount Shukshan, which is part of the North Cascades National Park as viewed from Picture Lake, just outside the park's boundaries
These parks may not have the same international reputation as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular.
With 63 U.S. national parks spanning a variety of ecosystems, the U.S. National Park System offers seemingly endless opportunities for outdoor adventure. Yet most visitors tend to gravitate toward our most iconic and well-known ones. In 2020, 57 percent of all recreational visits to a national park were to the 10 most visited: Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Zion, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, Cuyahoga Valley, Acadia, Olympic, and Joshua Tree National Parks.
While each of those are popular for good reason, there are many others that are underrated and under-visited—whether because they’re less well-known, more far-flung, or simply overshadowed by other, more famous, nearby parks. As we head into warmer months and start thinking about ways to get outside—while still socially distancing and avoiding crowds—consider adding one of these nine underrated U.S. national parks to your must-visit list for 2021.
Just last year, “the New River Gorge, formerly a national river, was upgraded to a national park and preserve,” reports Sarah Buder, making this West Virginia park the newest in the United States.
Encompassing more than 70,000 acres of land, this rugged Appalachian canyon has something for everyone: rock climbing routes on sandstone cliffs for climbers of all levels, whitewater rafting along 53 miles of whitewater that include Class IV and V rapids, and hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain biking trails.
New River Gorge is an hour-long drive from Charleston, West Virginia. If you’re spending the night, there are several campgrounds within the park.
For a more cozy cabin-in-the-woods experience, book one of the rentals at ACE Adventure Resort (from $159 per night, aceraft.com) a wooded 1,500-acre resort and whitewater tour operator just outside the park. Or—if you’re lucky—stay the night at the Cabin on Coney Island (from $332 per night; guesthousewv.com), a boat-accessible cabin on a private island within the park’s boundaries.
Congaree National Park in South Carolina is best known for its large collection of old-growth, bottomland hardwood trees, although more than 80 tree species can be found here. “This biodiversity, along with a rich cultural heritage, in 1983 earned Congaree UNESCO biosphere reserve status,” writes Brooke Vaughan.
Come here to hike among the trees or take a guided tour down Cedar Creek canoe trail. But be warned: The park sits on a floodplain fed by the Congaree and Wateree Rivers and it can be swampy (in other words, full of mosquitoes) in warmer months. Spring and fall are the best times to visit.
Two hours from Charleston, and half an hour from Columbia, South Carolina, Congaree can easily be visited as a day or weekend trip from either city. If you’re staying the night, make a reservation at one of the park’s two drive-in campgrounds, Longleaf Campground and Bluff Campground.
Located 70-miles offshore from Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas National Park is often passed over in favor of Florida’s more well-known and easy-to-reach Everglades National Park. Although a neighbor of the Everglades, Dry Tortugas is entirely different. This park consists mostly of open water, with coral reefs and seven small islands, putting marine life at the center of its attractions.
Sadly, climate change threatens the ecosystem at Dry Tortugas but, for now at least, visitors can explore its unique beauty by snorkeling, diving, or kayaking—as well as the history of Fort Jefferson, built in the 1800s on Garden Key. For the few who choose to spend the night and camp, the remoteness of the islands also offers incredible stargazing and afternoons of crowd-free swims once the day-trippers have returned to shore.
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The Yankee Freedom III ferry, which departs Key West at 8 each morning, is the easiest way to access the park. Day passes start at $190 per adult, and adult camping passes run $210 plus the park fee. Camping is the only way to spend the night here, and you must have a reservation in advance.
With just 263,091 visitors in 2020, Voyageurs National Park along the Canadian border in Minnesota doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, despite being a wonderland for water lovers. More than 40 percent of the park is water, a series of interconnected waterways as well as the Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan, and Sand Point Lakes. There is evidence that for over 10,000 years, humans have centered life in this area around the waterways: using them for fishing, foraging, and as transportation corridors—activities that continue to be a main draw for visitors to this day.
As a certified International Dark Sky Park, Voyageurs offers some incredible stargazing, as well as an opportunity to glimpse the aurora borealis. Visitors shouldn’t skip on the chance to spend the night, either at one of the park’s many campgrounds (some drive-in, some backcountry, and many only accessible by canoe) or on the water in a houseboat (permit required). Ebel’s, located in the gateway community of Ash River, provides houseboat rentals from which you can navigate and explore Voyageur’s waterways and lakes.
Located in the southwest corner of Texas, Big Bend National Park is “underrated because of the location . . . it’s definitely one of the harder parks to get to,” says Norman Aynbinder, president and CEO of Excursionist, a luxury tour operator that has a variety of unique, expert-led options for exploring the U.S. national parks. But “unlike some parks that are more limited in the season, you can visit [Big Bend] year-round.”
It’s worth the effort—Big Bend is one of the most biodiverse parks in the United States, home to over 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, 22 species of lizards, as well as three distinct landscapes centered around the Chisos Mountains, Chihuahuan Desert, and the Rio Grande. Vast, rugged, and varied, the park offers plenty of ways to explore—whether it’s a hike to the park’s historic hot springs, a multiday canoe trip down the Rio Grande, or bird-watching along the 5.2-mile Window Trail.
Since Big Bend is only about 90 minutes from the small, artistic town of Marfa, they “make for a great combination,” Aynbinder says, especially as part of a West Texas road trip.
If you decide to make Marfa your homebase, Aynbinder recommends staying at the luxurious, Cibolo Creek Ranch (from $225/night, expedia.com). For a more under-the-stars experience, consider a luxury safari tent or yurt at the bright and bohemian El Cosmico (from $75/night, elcosmico.com). Within the park, there are several options for both drive-in (reservations recommended) and backcountry camping.
“One of my favorite [national parks] is . . . Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado,” said Marty Behr of Abercrombie & Kent in a recent interview with AFAR. True to its name, the park is home to some of the tallest sand dunes at North America, formed by sand from southwestern deserts being blown up against the adjacent Rocky Mountains. “So it’s sand dunes up against 14,000-foot peaks [as well as] marshlands and wetlands with a huge variety of birds. It’s like three ecosystems in one—extraordinary and diverse. They don’t allow any motorized vehicles, but you can hike 750 feet up [the dunes] and slide down on a disk,” says Behr.
Colorado Springs (to the north), Durango (to the west), and Santa Fe (to the south) are the closest cities to the park, all of which are about three hours away. There are limited accommodation options near Great Sand Dunes National Park, but you can camp at Piñon Flats Campground within the park (reservations recommended) and several hike-in, backpacking campgrounds.
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Although considered one of Utah’s “Big 5,” Canyonlands is the least visited of the five—despite its proximity to the ever-popular Arches National Park and easy access from Moab. However, at 257,640 acres, Canyonlands is much more vast than Arches, with “some of the best rafting, hiking, jeep tours, and canyoneering,” according to Excursionist’s Aynbinder. The park also has plenty of the iconic slot canyons Utah is so well-known for.
The Colorado River snakes through Canyonlands, making it a fantastic alternative to the nearby Grand Canyon for rafting trips. “The Grand Canyon rafting tours are hard because they’re crowded, booked up for years, but you can get just as stunning views in Canyonlands [and] with fewer people,” Aynbinder says.
You can visit and camp in Canyonlands on your own, but you’ll get more access if you go with a tour, like those organized by Excursionist, which can bring you to hard-to-access parts of the park by jeep.
Alternatively, the luxury glampsite Under Canvas Moab (from $300 per night, expedia.com) sits right between Arches and Canyonlands and can help organize tours—whether it’s a 4x4 excursion or canyoneering—in either park.
With nine national parks, California has more than any other state. However, Pinnacles National Park—located roughly two hours south of San Francisco—gets far less attention (and far fewer visitors) than its iconic neighbors. Nonetheless, it’s home to a striking and unique landscape of rock spires and caves formed by volcanic eruptions just as worthy of exploring as the vast deserts of Joshua Tree and dunes of Death Valley.
Not surprisingly, the unique rock formations throughout the park make Pinnacles a popular destination for climbers, especially in cooler months. For those who prefer to stay grounded, there are still miles of trails that will take hikers past the formations, through lava tunnels, and to the top of mountain peaks for scenic vistas. If you only have one day, check out the Condor Gulch to High Peaks Loop trail, a challenging, 5- to 6-mile loop through the heart of the Pinnacles rock formations.
If you want to spend the night, your best option is to book a site at the Pinnacles Campground on the east side of the park. Hotels and Airbnbs near the park are otherwise sparse, but it’s a relatively easy day trip from Monterey, Carmel Valley, or San Jose. Just be sure to choose your route carefully—the east and west entrances of the park connect by trail, not road, and you can’t drive through the park to reach the other access point.
North Cascades National Park on the Canadian border in Washington State is known as The American Alps,“with more than 1,000 cascades and waterfalls, high peaks, and gorgeous scenery,” says Behr. It’s also home to dramatic, snow-tipped mountains, colorful wildflower displays, and over 500 lakes and ponds, some of which you can boat in.
Despite its beauty, it’s had fewer than 40,000 annual visitors for the past decade, making it one of the least-visited national parks in the U.S. “But it’s also only open in the summer [since] State Highway 20 is usually closed by October 1. People really go for spectacular hiking, but there is also whitewater rafting and horseback riding,” Behr says.
Campers have a variety of options within North Cascades National Park, both drive-up (reservations recommended), boat-in, and backcountry (permits required). In the neighboring national forest land, a unique camping experience at a lookout tower on Winchester Mountain allows hikers to spend the night on a first-come, first-serve basis.
For a less rugged accommodation option “there is Sun Mountain Lodge (from $140/night; expedia.com), a beautiful property [in Winthrop] up on a hillside with gorgeous views, a rustic feel, and a good restaurant,” Behr says.
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