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, the 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 staggering natural beauty as the well-trod parks minus the crowds and the calamity (looking at you, reckless Yellowstone tourists). When it comes to underrated natural beauty not ruined by overcrowding, these are the best of the bunch. Follow the links below for more details about each park and the can’t-miss ways to visit each one.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia
Even though New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is the newest national park in the country upgraded from a national river in 2020 there’s nothing youthful about this ancient landscape. Flowing northward through mountainous Appalachia in West Virginia, this mighty waterway is among the oldest rivers in the world, carving and splashing its way through a 53-mile canyon of trees, hills, and cliffs. Famed as a mecca for white-water rafting and rock climbing along with ample activities both on land and on water, this sleeper hit of a park puts the gorge in gorgeous.
Marvel at the third-highest bridge in the U.S. The New River Gorge Bridge is to West Virginia as the Space Needle is to Seattle—a feat of architectural prowess and innovation ascending to staggering heights. A centerpiece attraction in the park, it’s the longest steel span bridge in the western hemisphere designed to significantly reduce travel time for drivers on roads. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places it’s an essential sight in New River Gorge best seen from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center north of the bridge.
Get wet in one of the oldest rivers on the planet. For a waterway that might be as old as 360 million years, the New River is certainly still spry and lively. Adrenaline junkies come from far and wide to suit up and float the river navigating white water that can reach as high as Class V rapids. Altogether, the park protects 53 miles worth of river from Bluestone Sam to Hawks Nest Lake with the more intense rapids accumulating in the lower gorge. Experienced rafters can hit the river themselves or licensed outfitters in the area provide guided trips.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
An optimal example of quality over quantity, Congaree National Park is smack dab in the middle of South Carolina’s murkiest floodplains. At just 26,000 acres, it’s a tiny but mighty park that has the mystical look and feel of a mildly haunted forest with some of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi thrown in for good measure. It may look like a giant swamp but Congaree is a huge floodplain of its namesake Congaree River where the constant ebb and flow of water levels is a healthy part of the natural ecosystem filtering nutrients down into the roots of loblolly pines and tupelos so colossal and towering that they block out the sun.
Though it may look like a big ol’ swamp it’s a massive floodplain. The river routinely floods carrying vital nutrients down into the roots of skyscraping giants like loblolly pines, laurel oaks, and swamp tupelos. This being flat-as-a-flapjack South Carolina, the trails are all easy (albeit occasionally muddy). An absolute must is the mud-free elevated Boardwalk Loop Trail which winds through high-canopy forests so dense it gives the park an eerie, Blair Witch Project kind of vibe. But don’t worry—the only wildlife you’re likely to see are owls, armadillos, and otters.
Paddle Cedar Creek. South Carolina is infamously flat and considering the watery focal point here paddling is the main draw. Guests can book a guided kayak or canoe trip with an area outfitter (or bring your own) on Cedar Creek, a moody waterway that meanders through the thick of the forest like a wooded labyrinth. The slow-moving creek is also gentle as can be which means you won’t have to work too hard to paddle in either direction—rather, sit back and enjoy the peaceful journey through an ominous forest so quiet that the only sounds are distant woodpeckers and hooting owls. The longest journey is a 15-mile float from Bannister’s Bridge to the far-mightier Congaree River.
Hike the Boardwalk Trail. Although the park is flat and hiking is really more like scenic strolling, the Boardwalk Trail is a beauty to behold getting visitors up close and personal to the park’s most epic plant life. The easy—and dog-friendly—trail traverses a 2.5-mile boardwalk loop starting at the visitor center and passing through trees, over creeks, and alongside rivers. The boardwalk is raised several feet off the forest floor, so it’s accessible—even during heavy rain—and it’s a lot less muddy than some of the other trails through the woods.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
A gypsum dune field so vast that it’s visible from space, White Sands National Park truly looks out of this world. This New Mexico park located in a southwestern region of the state once awash in a prehistoric sea is now home to the largest gypsum desert on Earth with dunes 30 feet deep and 60 feet tall stretching for 275 square miles.
Soft and silken, the dunes look more like granulated sugar than sand and the fact that they’re made of gypsum means they don’t absorb heat from the sun so you can walk barefoot without burning your soles. With mountains looming in the distance and rockets roaring in the background from the nearby missile range it doesn’t get much more otherworldly than this.
Slide on a sand sled. Because the dunes are snow-white it feels appropriate that sledding is one of White Sands’ premier activities. But unlike snow, sand is not naturally slick which is why waxed plastic saucers are recommended—and available for rent or purchase from the gift shop at the entrance visitor center.
The entire park is accessible for sledding and exploring but sledders are reminded not to slide down dunes that lead towards roads or ones that end on a hard surface (spoiler alert: the area at the base of the dunes is not as soft as it may look).
Explore the dunes via the Alkali Flat Trail. The longest of the park’s five designated trails this is a five-mile loop at the end of the scenic Dunes Drive with mesmerizing desert views that extend to the horizon. Clip-on shoe covers are a wise choice since you’ll 100 percent be shimmying up and down a plethora of tall dunes through shifting sands and unstable surfaces as you follow the red diamond trail markers. Wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, and ample sunscreen are also advised along with plenty of water.
A bit easier, the Dune Life Nature Trail is a one-mile loop through the grassier portion of the park where you might see tracks in the sand of critters like kit foxes, badgers, and lizards. For something truly unique embark on a guided full moon hike offered once a month by reservation.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
An underrated park Lassen Volcanic is the the least visited national park in California. With its thermal features, soaring peaks, volcanic history, and shimmering lakes it feels like a mini-Yellowstone with a fraction of the crowds. Nestled in a quiet section of central northern California it’s a place where rugged extremes and intensity like the fuming mud pots in Bumpass Hell are juxtaposed by the peaceful bliss of Manzanita Lake. Like Yellowstone, too, Lassen Peak is also an active volcano that could blow at a moment’s notice.
The key difference here, though, is that, unlike the global catastrophe that would ensue from a Yellowstone eruption, Lassen is far tamer. When it last erupted in 1917 shattering a lava dome, spewing a fine layer of ash, and triggering avalanches and floods it certainly caused damage and disarray but it wasn’t the end of humanity. Rather, nowadays the 10,457-foot mountain is a requisite hike for park-goers, and the sleeping giant forms an almost cinematic-like backdrop from many prized vantage points in this explosive, fiery, and gorgeous park.
Hike to the top of Lassen Peak. It’s a five-mile round-trip journey to the cratered summit where panoramic views of the Cascade Range (including Mount Shasta in the distance) await. The trail gets quite steep at points and much of it is in the direct sun so plan accordingly. Even in the height of summer, traces of snow can be found at the top so proper hiking boots and layers are especially recommended for fall.
Another iconic area to explore is Bumpass Hell, a moderate three-mile trek through the largest hydrothermal area in the park, home to vibrant hot springs, bubbling mud pots, and acidic boiling water. Due to its high elevations, it’s an area prone to lots of snow which means it’s closed in the winter and into late spring.
Paddle Manzanita Lake. In the shadows of Lassen Peak this regal-blue lake offers the ultimate in tranquility. Rental equipment for paddle boards and kayaks is available at the Manzanita Lake Camper Store and the utter stillness of the water makes it a lovely place for a leisurely float in the sun. Fishing for trout is another popular pastime here as is strolling the flat trail that surrounds the lake and picnicking in the area.
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