Contrary to popular belief, fall is the ideal season to visit America’s national parks. Summer is beautiful and all but there’s only so much one can tolerate with the scorching temperatures, parking lot road rage, and crowds swarming like they’re at a rock concert.
Come fall, however, the tides start to shift—kids are back in school, campground availability becomes less of a challenge, and in many parts of the country foliage turns scenic drives and trails into luminous leafy tunnels. Also, bears go back into hibernation so that’s one less thing to worry about.
This is all well and good for clamorous national parks like Zion, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Grand Canyon but it’s even more true of America’s more underrated gems. Of the 63 national parks not including the more than 400 national monuments, memorials, and scenic byways overseen by the National Park Service (NPS) a good chunk of them are far-flung places you’ve likely never heard of—let alone traveled hours out of your way into the vast wilderness to visit.
These are places with the same level of the staggering natural beauty of the well-trod parks minus the crowds and the calamity (looking at you, reckless Yellowstone tourists). From middle-of-nowhere in Texas to the solitude of North Dakota, America’s least visited national parks provide the purest sense of discovery and awe be it a majestic petrified forest, ancient cave dwelling you never knew existed, or a canyon so stunning it gives Arizona a run for its money. These are the best of the bunch when it comes to underrated natural beauty not ruined by overcrowding. Follow the links below for more details about each park and the can’t-miss ways to visit each one.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
With five national parks and some of the most majestic ski resorts in the nation, Utah has a reputation for nature. However, at least a few of those national parks are notoriously swarming with tour buses and so crowded that they hold public meetings to address closure concerns. But unlike Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches, Canyonlands National Park is a singular beauty that offers just as much wow, without any of the woes.
Essentially neighbors with the much more popular Arches, Canyonlands is a high-desert dreamscape in southeastern Utah marked by river-carved canyons, twinkling starlight, and 337,598 acres of rusty red rock mesas, buttes, arches, and spires that look more like a Dr. Seuss fever dream than real life.
Hike the Island in the Sky district. The most accessible of the park’s districts (the others being The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves), Island in the Sky is an otherworldly realm of sandstone cliffs rising some 1,000 feet over the surrounding canyons. Driving out along the road offers endless overlooks but be sure and get out to explore on your own two feet for a closer look at this jaw-dropping terrain. Mesa Arch is a must-see—the enormous rocky arch is at the end of a ½-mile trail acting as a colossal frame for the deep canyons behind it. For something a tad more hardcore hike 1,400 feet down to the White Rim along the Gooseberry Canyon trail, a 5.5-mile trek along cliffs and slopes with views for days.
Climb the sandstone towers at Island in the Sky. Considering this is the place that inspired 127 Hours, the James Franco movie is about a rock climber who resorts to extreme measures to escape a narrow canyon it’s no wonder Canyonlands is a climbing mecca. Just be careful, please. Island in the Sky is also the most popular place in the park for rock climbing, especially along the district’s towering sandstone walls. Permits are not required but climbers must bring their gear, abide by a slew of rules and regulations, and most importantly, be prepared.
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Big Bend National Park, Texas
With Big Bend National Park in way-out-there West Texas, you know exactly what you’re getting: it’s big, and boy is it bendy. That’s thanks to its 1,200 square miles of vast desert terrain, craggy mountains, prickly fauna, and the meandering Rio Grande carving its way along the Mexican border and forming a gigantic bend between the two countries.
Visitation to this remote park has slightly increased of late to a modest 400,000 but its still 4.5 hours from the nearest major airport and big city (El Paso) and those numbers pale in comparison to the millions who flock to the Great Smoky Mountains and Yosemite every year. It’s worth the 300-mile voyage, though, for the opportunity to hike the Chisos Mountains, float the mighty river, watch for roadrunners, and see the night sky aglow under an endless canopy of stars.
Explore the Chisos Mountains which is the only mountain range contained entirely within the borders of a national park. And considering that park is Big Bend that might explain why you’ve never heard of them. Altogether, the expansive desert park is a hiker’s haven with more than 150 miles of designated trails through mountains and limestone canyons. A good starter course is the Chisos Basin Loop Trail, a moderate two-mile round-trip route from the Chisos Basin Trailhead that provides stunning mountain panoramas without a ton of elevation gain. For something more strenuous hoof it up the Lost Mine Trail, a five-mile jaunt through juniper and pine forest to the top of an expansive ridge that rewards hikers with staggering vistas of the canyon below.
Float the Rio Grande. A star attraction in the park, the wide river offers a unique vantage point from which to experience its canyons. Kayaks, canoes, and rafts are all available from area outfitters or you’re welcome to bring your own. Just keep in mind that the middle of the river is the international border and while it’s perfectly fine to dip back and forth between the two countries landing is technically illegal and could turn your leisurely float trip into an arrest. The most popular aquatic outing is Santa Elena Canyon, home to the tallest canyon wall in the park. Depending on the water levels rapids may or may not exist but regardless of the adrenaline, it’s a majestic sight to paddle from Lajitas downriver through the canyon with day trips and overnight excursions both optional.
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Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
It’s no surprise that the most underrated Dakota is also home to a national park so underrated that most folks—even diehard nature enthusiasts—don’t even know it exists. But Theodore Roosevelt National Park stands in stunningly stark contrast to preconceived notions about a state assumed to be grassy, flat monotony.
It’s a park in western North Dakota that seems to erupt out of a sea of prairie where rolling badlands and winding rivers carve their way through a landscape teeming with bison and prairie dogs. In this region of the country where the Great Plains collide with badlands and the more mountainous west you’ll find a landscape so mesmerizingly wild complete with wild horses and petrified forests it’ll become instantly clear why North Dakota inspired Teddy Roosevelt to become a conservationist and advocate for national parks.
Go wild with immense wildlife. While you won’t find grizzly bears, wolves, or mountain goats here (for better or worse) you will find an impressive amount of larger-than-life fauna. Bison are the most prominent giants here easily seen on scenic drives and hikes along with black-tailed prairie dogs whose chirping noises are like an adorable chorus. Big-horn sheep and elk can also be found here albeit rare and longhorn cattle are known to mosey through the park’s north unit. Wild horses, meanwhile, are popular denizens in the south unit of the park (the two main units of the park are about an hour apart). Although not native to the region the horses are indicative of Roosevelt’s history as a rancher and they’re one of only a few NPS sites where wild equines roam free (another is Cumberland Island National Seashore). Usually seen in small groups they can commonly be seen along I-94 and from trails at Painted Canyon Overlook and Buck Hill, the tallest point in the park.
Hike the Petrified Forest Loop, an epic 10-mile loop in the northwest corner of the south unit. Not only are you likely to see wild horses out in the prairies but this wildly diverse trek contains a variety of different features and terrains including fossilized logs, badlands, canyons, cliffs, and wide-open plains. Start at Peaceful Valley Ranch and bring plenty of sunscreen and water no matter the season—much of the route is exposed to the sun. The Wind Canyon Trail, an easy .4-mile trip through a wind-blown canyon is a south unit sensation for its unparalleled views of the Little Missouri River. In the north, units expect to find even more badass badlands at the 1.5-mile Caprock Coulee Nature Trail. This same trailhead can be used to access the Buckhorn Trail for a quick detour to a prairie dog town.
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Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
This a bit of a misnomer, don’t come to Petrified Forest National Park expecting a forest. Rather, hidden away in a quiet nook of northeastern Arizona along a sleepy stretch of Route 66 this nondescript park is a barren desert landscape where the only trees have been fossilized for millions of years. A far cry from Arizona’s other national parks especially the attention-hogging Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest is comparatively unvisited and untapped, a place where what brief trails exist are likely to be empty.
But it’s a worthwhile stopover for its low-key staggering scenic drives, its Jurassic-level lore, and its boulder-sized petrified logs, the latter of which are in greater abundance here than almost anywhere on Earth. These ancient remnants of a time 200 million years ago when this area was once a tropical forest filled with sequoia-sized trees. Long since fallen buried under sediment and slowly crystallized into solid quartz what remains are majestic logs shimmering with tints of green and purple.
Drive the entire length of the park. Considering that Petrified Forest is the only national park bisected by Route 66, America’s most iconic thoroughfare this park feels particularly apt for a scenic drive. Driving the entire 28-mile length of the park from end to end is one of its chief attractions. At the north entrance, the Painted Desert Visitor Center has an introductory film that provides some historical and geological context before moseying towards the southern end of the park home to the largest concentration of petrified wood and the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center. Along the way, look for scenic overlooks for views of the Painted Desert, colorful badlands, ancient petroglyphs, and luminous logs shimmering from the side of the road.
Stroll the Blue Mesa Trail. This short-but-sweet one-mile loop trail combines two of the park’s primary draws, petrified wood, and badlands. This easy paved trail is located at the end of Blue Mesa Scenic Road atop a mesa that steadily descends into a desert canyon strewn with petrified wood. On all sides, craggy badlands sparkle with tints of deep blue and purple, a color scheme echoed by the colossal logs twinkling in the Arizona sun. In general, there are only a handful of hiking trails in the park and all of them are short and easy but they pack a punch. Another biggie is the Giant Logs trail, a half-mile loop behind the Rainbow Forest Museum home to the largest specimens of petrified wood in the park including the 10-foot-wide Old Faithful.
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Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Nestled in the fertile landscape of verdant southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is in a league of its own. The seventh national park to be designated in the U.S. and the first in Colorado it also became the first national park created to protect a place for man-made cultural significance. Declared by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 the culture and history here in indeed significant. As far back as the year 600 AD this region was home to Ancestral Puebloan peoples who built and lived in extensive cliff dwellings leaving behind thousands of archeological sites and some 600 cliff dwellings. Here in this 50,000-acre park archeology, history, and nature collide.
Tour the cliff dwellings. The star attraction at Mesa Verde and something that sets this park entirely apart from anything else in the National Park Service most cliff dwellings is only accessible on pre-booked ranger-guided tours. And for good reason, because these places of immense archeological and cultural significance are delicate and vital to Puebloan history. A simple step in the wrong spot can leave lingering damage. The cream of the crop is Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Built mainly of sandstone bricks and mortar between the years 1190 and 1280, its Puebloan population once surpassed 100, and 30-minute tours of this veritable cliff city showcase the stunning ingenuity, effort, and engineering that went into the construction of its various rooms and structures. Whether here or at other cliff dwellings like Long House or Balcony House visitors learn about daily life for the ancient peoples who dwelled, hunted, and thrived here for centuries.
Traverse the Chapin Mesa. With a name that translates in Spanish to “green table,” Mesa Verde is indeed a lush and beautiful place for a hike and the Chapin Mesa area does not disappoint. For a route that combines more Puebloan history with immense nature tries the Petroglyph Point Trail. It’s a 2.5-mile round trip hike that starts at the Spruce Tree House Overlook before navigating stone staircases, boulder-clad passageways, and cliffs to reach the mesa top. Along the way, you’ll see a huge wall of petroglyphs, a further illustrious indication of ancient human activity here.
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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
— Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken