Magnificent Off-the-Beaten Path National Parks and Monuments

We all have Yosemite and Yellowstone on our lists, but the best national parks aren’t necessarily the best-known!

Look deep into nature. And then you will understand everything better.

—Albert Einstein

One of the best ways to be at one with nature is in a national park.

The National Park System encompasses 423 national park service sites. While most of us are familiar with marquee parks like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the Great Smoky Mountains, many other national sites are awe-inspiring as well. The best part is these spectacular places aren’t as well-known or crowded, providing visitors a much-more private, intimate look at these national treasures.

I’ve gathered some of the off-the-beaten-path favorites—places that also make for an ideal road trip in your RV.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

This national park marvel is tucked beneath the rugged but scenic Chihuahuan Desert in the Guadalupe Mountains of remote southeastern New Mexico. One of the largest and most spectacular cave systems in the world, the park features more than 100 caverns containing some of the most unique, fanciful, and subterranean fascinating formations in the world.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The primary showstopper here is Carlsbad Cavern, the park’s main cave boasting a 25-story high ceiling, an immense floor as large as six football fields… and lots of bats. 300,000 Mexican free-tailed bats hang from the ceiling during the day but put on a spectacular evening show as they leave the cavern in search of food.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

A dominant feature of this Northern California park is Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world. Home to pristine mountain lakes, bubbling streams, steaming fumaroles, and wildflower-covered meadows, Lassen is a fascinating piece of heaven on Earth. My biggest surprise when visiting in October was to discover snow-covered mountaintops, eight-foot snowdrifts, and a lake partially frozen over.

Related: From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen also boasts breathtaking mountain scenery reminiscent of Yosemite and fascinating thermal wonders similar to Yellowstone, all without the crowds of these popular national parks. The bottom line, is it’s a must-do hidden gem.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is a park for isolation. Both the north and south units offer great hiking, expansive vistas, easily accessible wilderness, abundant wildlife, and not many visitors.

This is a wonderful park for hiking due to the elevation (or lack thereof) and abundance of trails.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oh, and for wildlife, too. There are bison, pronghorns, wild horses, and ground squirrels.

The adjacent wilderness area is also a good alternative to Petrified Forest National Park with the Petrified Forest Loop well worth the trip. The Painted Canyon Nature Trail is an easy 45-minute hike. The canyon looks amazing from the rim but waits until you experience a hike down into it. Get up close and personal with the rock layers, junipers, and wildlife. Remember, every step-down means a step back up on the return.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present-day life of the Navajo who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor.

Related: Get Off the Beaten Path with These Lesser-Known National Parks

People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years making it the longest continuously inhabited area on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient ruins are tucked along its cliffs, as are centuries-old pictographs.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are two ways to experience Arizona’s lesser-known canyon. You can drive along the rim stopping at overlooks to marvel at the vertical cliffs and stone spires and hike on one trail, the White House Trail. Otherwise, there is no entry into the canyon without a permit and Navajo guide. A popular choice is riding down the canyon aboard a 20-passenger tour truck.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through the floodplain, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate this ecosystem and support the growth of national and state champion trees.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking the park’s many trails lets you get up close and personal with Congaree National Park. Whether you are looking for a short hike on the Boardwalk Trail or desire to make a longer trek into the backcountry, there are options available for visitors of all skills and abilities. Depending on what you want to see, trails can lead you to oxbow lakes, the Congaree River, or stands of magnificent old-growth trees that help make up the tallest deciduous forest in the United States. 

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument, located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’, while Sipapu, the second largest natural bridge in the state, means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive overlooks the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins.

Related: Escape Crowded National Parks at these 4 Alternate Destinations

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A nine-mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three natural bridges. Moderate hiking trails, some with metal stairs or wooden ladders, provide closer access to each bridge. An 8.6-mile hiking trail links the three natural bridges which are located in two adjacent canyons.

The park is rather remote and not close to other parks and as a result, is not heavily visited.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park has it all—vast amounts of open space, rivers, canyons, pictographs, and hot springs. Located in southwest Texas, the park can be wonderfully warm in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer offering year-round access to some of the most beautiful terrain in the state. Big Bend National Park is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains and it’s where you’ll find the Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone cliff canyon carved by the Rio Grande.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend is among the largest national parks in the United States. With numerous trails, mountains, canyons, and nearby villages to explore; each point of interest could easily yield itself to days of exploration. For the best experience resist making a set plan—allow yourself plenty of time to explore and discover each desert sanctuary at your own pace.

Related: National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson