Everyone loves a vacation, and America’s national parks are the perfect backdrop for a relaxing trip away from everyday life. But picking a park can be difficult. There are 58 national parks across the United States, with marquee options like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite getting the most attention. Those parks are beautiful, but they’re also somewhat pricier and can be very crowded. If you want to see America without the crowds, why not consider some of these unsung heroes within the National Parks system?
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – Colorado
The simplest way to describe Black Canyon is to say that it is a slightly smaller version of the famed Grand Canyon. While it’s not as wide as its famous cousin, Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park offers breathtaking views. The canyon drops over 2,700 feet from its plateaus, and its rivers shrink to 40-foot widths. Thrill seekers can enjoy advanced rock-climbing excursions, hikes into the canyon, or tricky Class V rapids. If hair-raising adventure isn’t quite your speed, you can still enjoy Black Canyon and the surrounding park thanks to moderate walking paths and driving trails.
Dry Tortugas National Park – Florida
Dry Tortugas National Park will probably defy your entire idea of what a U.S. park should look like. Home to historic Fort Jefferson, this landmark initially served as a strategic military deterrent along the busy shipping lanes between the Gulf Coast and the eastern seaboard. Today, the park looks more like a Caribbean oasis thanks to the clear blue-green waters and sandy beaches.
Located in the Florida Keys, this national treasure is an extension of the Florida Everglades and is one of the few parks that you can’t access by land. Most visitors reach the park with chartered ferries and seaplanes or arrive via private boats. Dry Tortugas also requires that you come prepared with everything you could need for your trip as you won’t find so much as a bottle of water for sale in this park. Likewise, if you want to enjoy outdoor activities like snorkeling, camping, swimming, or even bird watching, you need to bring your own gear.
North Cascades National Park – Washington
If you love the idea of hiking up glaciers but don’t know if you can escape to Alaska, then North Cascades National Park is a more accessible, less crowded option. Located just three hours north of Seattle, this park is a great way to drink in the nation’s beauty as part of a Northwest adventure vacation. The land boasts over 300 glaciers, with scientists predicting that roughly 25 of these large glaciers could be gone by 2030 because of climate change. So, that puts a bit of urgency to add this park to your bucket list. North Cascades National Park is full of activities ranging from outdoor classes to popular excursions such as hiking, climbing, or taking in the beautiful waters of Diablo Lake.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve – Colorado
You’ve probably seen pictures of people sandboarding through deserts in the Middle East and wished you could do the same here in America. There’s good news: You can! Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve offers more sand dunes than its more popular competitor, Death Valley National Park. Great Sand Dunes has the tallest elevation sand dunes in North America, with the highest dune reaching 750 feet. You can even rent sandboards and sleds to surf until your heart’s content. While you can also camp on the sand dunes, be aware that the park allows for only 10 camp permits per day. Be advised, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is more of a DIY-style park with no marked hiking trails.
Mesa Verde National Park – Colorado
Some people like a little history with their park visits. If this is you, Mesa Verde National Park is the perfect place to spend your vacation. Mesa Verde is a truly interactive park, offering a literal glimpse into the lives and homes of some of the country’s earliest inhabitants—the Ancestral Puebloans. The park contains over 5,000 archaeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings. Parkgoers will love visiting immersive sites via guided tours to sites like Balcony House, a former Puebloan cliff dwelling. Guests of all ages will confront their fear of heights as they scale a 32-foot ladder that peeks out over the Mesa Verde cliff.
If roughing it under the stars isn’t your thing, Mesa Verde National Park also features the Fair View Lodge, a hotel on the park grounds. The rooms and lodge grounds are designed to emphasize the beauty of the land and purposely don’t provide TVs or cell service. The lodge also creates seasonal menus in their Metate Room restaurant, inspired by heritage dishes from the region.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of all the lesser-known gems within the National Parks system, but these are a great start when you’re ready to begin planning your next vacation. Just remember that with so many beautiful options available, you don’t have to brave the crowds to see America.