Yellowstone National Park reportedly gets 3 million visitors annually. We don’t blame folks for making the trip: The place is heavenly. But just because Yellowstone, Yosemite and other popular parks get most of the foot traffic, it doesn’t mean they’re the ONLY stops that capture America in its unspoiled splendor. The following 10 natural wonders will only see a fraction of Yellowstone’s guests. But the fewer the visitors, the more of a unique experience in store for you and other clever travelers…
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
There’s lots to see in Utah. Most know all about Arches National Park and Zion National Park, but one place that’s a bit overlooked in the Beehive State is Canyonlands. With an insane amount of buttes and canyons carved out by the Colorado River, the three-sectioned park is an explorer’s dream. Drive an SUV around “Island in the Sky.” Four-wheel through “The Maze.” Hike across “The Needles.” You’ll be glad you did.
Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve, Louisiana
History books label Lafitte a pirate, smuggler and a spy. National park guidebooks likely use much warmer words when describing the facilities named after him. Though physically separated into six parts in different cities, each section of the park helps tell the story of the Mississippi River Delta. Some areas tell it with wildlife exhibits (Barataria Reserve), while others do it with historical reenactments (Chalmette Battlefield) and music (Acadian Cultural Center).
Biscayne National Park, Florida
LeBron James just brought the city of Miami an NBA title. Not 30 miles away from the arena where he claimed the title is this underwater jewel that’s quietly been winning over snorkelers for years. With over 173,000 acres and 72 shipwrecks to explore, Biscayne is literally swimming in things to see and do. So, have your fancy schmancy basketball parades; we’ll be over here, celebrating with the manatees and dolphins.
Buffalo National River, Arkansas
Along the beautiful, clear river lies the ghost town of Rush. When zinc was a must-have commodity in the early 1900s, the place thrived. Now it lives in quiet, empty ruins. Though the story reads differently for other stretches of the 135-mile waterway, America’s first national river, it’s still relatively quiet and empty. But for those who want nothing more than to lazily float by abandoned ghost towns in rafts, this Northern Arkansas destination is like something out of a fairytale.
Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico
It’s not totally uncommon for the northwestern sector of New Mexico to swing 60 degrees in one day. Some historians feel the temperamental weather played a role in the Pueblo peoples’ demise in the area. Most who visit Chaco Canyon today marvel at all the scientific and architectural ingenuity left behind. With kivas, massive, stoned areas reserved for spiritual ceremonies, as the backdrop, guided tours and campfire talks offer history lessons.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Explain this one: Isle Royale is the largest in a cluster of islands in the world’s largest freshwater lake (Lake Superior), yet it’s the fifth-least visited park in the nation. Makes no sense. The low numbers become even more of a head scratcher when you add in the fact that the Canada-bordering park is home to hundreds of moose and some of the most serene hiking to be found.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska
At over 13 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias is not only America’s biggest park; if it had a governor and local taxes, it would be the 41st largest state. The massive Alaska property offers glacier hikes, river rafting and sea kayaking. However, with the miles and miles of terrain, we understand it when trekkers elect to go the scenic flight route. It’s a good way to nurse aching feet and a great way to snap images of roaming caribou.
North Cascades National Park, Washington
Few places in the United States wear the effects of global warming on their sleeves quite like this Pacific Northwest retreat. As temperatures steadily rise, the 300+ glaciers have steadily receded. Some have melted away altogether. Even still, there’s plenty of magic left in these snowy hills. You’ll find spectacular waterfalls and hundreds of plant life species too. We just hope we’ll be able to say the same for our grandchildren’s grandchildren.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Our 26th president was a bit of a tough guy. The one-time deputy sheriff used to hunt bad guys and bison with equal fervor in these parts. Fast forward 130 years and the rugged landscape still looks the same…well, minus the outlaws. Buffalo still roam the remote lands. So, too, do bighorn sheep and white-tailed deer. In fact, the wildlife at this national park rivals that at Badlands, only Theodore Roosevelt has half the crowd. Guess which one gets our vote?
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Last year about 90,000 people ventured into this park. While we don’t have the figures to confirm, we’re willing to wager that half of them came to gawk at the glorious pines and wildflowers scattered about the 77,000 acres. The other half likely came to gaze at the stars. And no, we’re not talking about a vacationing Angelina Jolie. With low humidity, high elevation and modest light pollution, Great Basin provides some of the darkest night skies in the world. –DeMarco Williams
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