The names of America’s best known National Parks—Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Zion, Rocky Mountain, Acadia, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Denali—are ingrained in our national consciousness. Whether you’ve been there or not, you can picture them in your mind’s eye. The very names are iconic.
But there are other National Parks that are lesser known, less visited, less crowded, yet just as iconic. The next time you find yourself yearning for a trip into the great outdoors, consider these more than worthwhile alternatives.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska
At 13 million acres, one of the least visited National Parks in the U.S. is also the largest. Those acres are home to everything that makes the state of Alaska one of our most breathtaking—Monumental glaciers, including the 53 mile long Nabesna Glacier; Mount Wrangell, an active volcano; the magnificent, awe-inspiring 18,008 foot tall Mount St. Elias; and virtually untouched ice fields and arctic wilderness as far as the eye can see. Maybe you’re a mountain climber, a hardcore hiker, or a fisherman on the hunt for trophy arctic grayling, coho salmon, or lake trout. Or maybe, just maybe, your heart is craving someplace truly wild to get lost in. While most National Park enthusiasts head to Alaska to visit the better known Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve is truly special.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
When you want to get away from it all, without getting too far away from it all, Isle Royale National Park might be calling your name. It does take a little perseverance to reach, as Isle Royale is, as you might have guessed, an island smack dab in the middle of Lake Superior and only reachable by ferry, seaplane, or private boat. Passenger ferries operate from multiple locations in both Michigan and Minnesota, and Isle Royale Seaplanes fly daily between Hancock, Michigan and Grand Marais, Minnesota, to Windigo and Rock Harbor, Michigan. Is it worth the effort? Absolutely! There are trails to hike, majestic forests to wander, and rocky shorelines to explore. If you’ve arrived by private boat, there are more than 400 additional satellite islands nearby, and don’t forget your fishing gear. Finally, the waters surrounding Isle Royale National are paradise for scuba divers, as the icy cold water of Lake Superior has preserved the many shipwrecks just waiting for you to discover.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
If you have your sealegs, if you’re more comfortable on water than on land, this may be the place for you. Dry Tortugas National Park sits in the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles off the coast of Key West. The 100 square miles that encompass the park are mostly open water, with seven small islands. Swimming, kayaking, scuba diving, and snorkeling are the order of the day, as they’re the best way to take in the abundant sea life and colorful coral reefs. Spend the day exploring everything the park has to offer, or to really get in touch with nature, bring a tent and spend the night under a whirling canopy of stars. Dry Tortugas National Park can be reached by private boat, or a two hour ferry ride from Key West.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
If variety is the spice of life, Great Basin National Park is spicy, indeed. The extremes of elevation found within the park—from 5,000 to 13,000 feet—accounts for an astounding diversity of landscape and landforms, from deserts and playas to towering, conifer-covered mountains and alpine lakes. There are caves to explore, glaciers to hike, natural springs to drink from, and fields of wildflowers to ramble through. If wildlife is your jam, you can get up close and personal with more than 70 species of mammals, including the formidable mule deer that migrate through the park each winter, and more than 200 species of birds. Of special note: not too far off the beaten track is the Wheeler Peak Bristlecone Pine Grove. These twisted, spectral wonders are the oldest trees in the world, an intimate window into the distant past.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
The 218,055 acres of Voyageurs National Park hug the Canadian border. This is one of the least-visited National Parks in the U.S., which means you’ll have plenty of room to explore without fighting crowds. The wetlands, forests, streams, and lakes—over 40% of the park are water—that make up the park are a paradise for campers, hikers, boaters, kayakers, and fishermen. Come winter, the fun doesn’t stop, as snowmobiling, cross country skiing, and ice fishing are the order of the day. If you’ve always wanted to see the northern lights, but the sight has so far eluded you, plan a trip to Voyageurs and cross your fingers. The park is one of the few places in the U.S. lower 48 states where you can sometimes see the aurora borealis. They can appear at any time of the year, but winter, with its longer hours of darkness, may give you the best opportunity to experience atmospheric magic.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Come to Congaree National Park for the old-growth forest—some as tall as 170 feet—stay for the unique features that make this one of the most sparkling jewels of our National Park system. You can enjoy the more than 25 miles of hiking trails that weave their way through the park, and thanks to an ingenious series of elevated pathways, even when the park experiences frequent flooding from the Congaree and Watersee Rivers that flow through the floodplain. Primitive camping, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing are all on the menu. All of this makes Congaree National Park great, but the icing on the cake is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—between mid-May and mid-June, a species of synchronous fireflies fill the park with the wondrous display of synchronous flashing as they search for a mate. This event is so popular that you must enter a lottery for park passes.
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