Nearly everyone has heard of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains but many other national parks aren’t as famous. There are lots of rewards for heading off the beaten path. It’ll be easier to find a place to park or camp and you won’t bump elbows with as many other people.
Let’s shine a spotlight on some lesser-known national parks that you may not even be aware of but may decide to visit.
About the U.S. National Park System
Yellowstone was the first national park and there are 62 others in 30 states and two U.S. territories. The National Park Service (NPS), established in 1916, oversees these parks.
The park service maintains a total of 423 different sites. With so many protected sites, it’s no wonder we see so many of those brown and white signs with the NPS arrowhead logo. It’s also no surprise that you may not have heard of some of these parks.
But just because they’re not a household name doesn’t mean they aren’t just as beautiful and worthwhile as some of the better-known parks.
The most celebrated parks draw millions of visitors every year. But at least several of these lesser-known national parks may not ring a bell with you.
About the Park: South Carolina’s national park protects the nation’s largest remaining stand of bottomland hardwood trees. It’s in the central part of the state near the capital, Columbia.
This lesser-known park is 26,276 acres and protects the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the United States.
Directions: From Interstate 77, take Exit 5 and turn onto State Highway 48 East/Bluff Road. Go approximately eight miles and take a slight right onto Old Bluff Road. Follow Old Bluff Road for 4.5 miles to the park entrance sign (on the right). The visitor center is a mile ahead.
Why You Should Visit: The old-growth trees include giant bald cypresses and longleaf pines. They’re rare in the region because most were logged. The miles of trails are incredibly scenic and mostly flat. For canoeists and kayakers, the Blue Trail starts in Columbia and follows the Congaree River to its confluence with the Wateree River.
About the Park: Overshadowed by four other national parks in the state, Capitol Reef is the lesser-known. Located in south-central Utah, it has stunning sandstone canyons and cliffs. It became a national park in 1971 after almost 30 years as a national monument.
Directions: From Interstate 70, take Exit 149, then State Route 24 west for 43.8 miles. Turn right (continuing on UT-24) for another 37.3 miles.
From Interstate 15, take Exit 188, then US-50 east toward Scipio. Take a left on UT-50 for 0.7 miles, then turn right onto US-50 East for 24.4 miles. Turn right onto UT-260 South and continue 4.2 miles, then right on UT-24 for 71.3 miles.
Why You Should Visit: Geologists call the unusual Waterpocket Fold a wrinkle on the Earth’s crust. The 60-mile “reef” of Navajo sandstone was once part of a tourist attraction called Wayne’s Wonderland. Hiking, backpacking, climbing, and canyoneering are the main recreational pursuits. It’s also certified as an International Dark Sky Park.
About the Park: You’ll find the largest concentration of petrified wood in the world at this park east of Winslow. Besides the scenic wonder, including parts of the Painted Desert, you can see fossils that are 225 million years old.
Directions: Westbound travelers on Interstate 40 should take Exit 311, drive the 28 miles through the park, and connect with Highway 180 at the south end. Then travel 19 miles on Highway 180 North to return to Interstate 40 via Holbrook.
Those traveling east on I-40 should take Exit 285 into Holbrook, then travel 19 miles on Highway 180 South to the park’s south entrance.
Why You Should Visit: Petrified wood is basically a fossil that forms when sediment covers the original tree or plant. So it’s like a 3D impression made from minerals.
It takes about an hour to drive through the park and stop at some overlooks. Make a little more time to walk the pet-friendly trails. You’ll get to see the ruins of an ancient village and petroglyphs plus the famed Painted Desert and Crystal Forest.
About the Park: President Theodore Roosevelt, for whom the park is named, was a leader in conservation. The park covers 70,400 acres and is a haven for bison, elk, and wild horses. The Little Missouri River runs through all of the three park units, creating a vibrant ecosystem amongst the rolling North Dakota badlands.
Directions: This national park’s location is a major reason that it is relatively unknown. The South Unit entrance is in Medora, North Dakota off of Interstate 94, exits 24 and 27.
The North Unit entrance is on Highway 85, about 14 miles south of Watford City. This is about an hour and a half drive north from the south entrance. The remote Elkhorn Ranch Unit is between the north and south units. You can access it via gravel roads.
Why You Should Visit: This area was President Roosevelt’s escape from the politics of Washington, D.C. even long before he was president. He is known to have credited this land and the experiences he had ranching and hunting here for shaping him into the man he was.
The park has three units, and the one to the north is the most rugged. All of the areas have scenic drives and hiking trails. The park’s lesser-known status means it is often very quiet and peaceful.
About the Park: One of the reasons Pinnacles National Park is lesser-known than some of the other national parks in California is that it is fairly new. First established as a part of the Pinnacles Forest Preserve, then a National Monument in 1908, it was officially designated as a National Park in 2013.
The unique geological features of the park are the remains of the extinct Neenach volcano that eroded away. The spires, pinnacles, caves, gorges, and rock fractures left from this fault-line activity create visually stimulating hikes and exploration opportunities for visitors.
Directions: Pinnacles National Park is located in south-central California, about 80 miles southeast of San Jose. The park is divided into two halves with no road connecting the two sides, although you can hike from one side to the other over the separating ridgeline.
To get to the west entrance, go 10 miles east on Highway 146 from Soledad, a town located 85 miles south on Highway 101 from San Jose, California. To get to the east entrance, drive 30 miles south of Hollister, CA on Highway 25 and turn right onto the park entrance road.
Why You Should Visit: The pinnacles for which the park was named is known for attracting rock climbers to scale the peaks and steep walls. Caves formed by fractures and erosion are home to at least 13 species of bats. A number of these caves have trails that wind through them, like Bear Gulch Caves. Other notable wildlife that calls the park home are prairie falcons and the California condors released after being hatched in captivity.
One of the biggest knocks against national parks is that they’re too crowded. That’s less of a problem at these under-the-radar treasures. They aren’t as famous as some of the other national parks, but maybe they should be.
However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.