While thousands of visitors flock annually to land in the U.S. National Park system, these 10 parks offer the dramatic landscapes and abundant wildlife found in the more popular parks–minus all the hype.
Alaska boasts the largest number of national parks of any state in the union, leading the charge with 8 different parks found within its borders. Given the scenery of places such as Kenai Fjords National Park, it is no secret why. While all Alaska National parks exist somewhat in the shadow of the more popular Denali National Park, each are unique for their own respective landscapes and wildlife. In Kenai Fjords, retreating glaciers such as Aialik and Holbrook calve powerfully into the sea as pods of orca, humpbacks, and minke whales gorge themselves on the nutrient rich green waters. Further inland, it is possible to hike directly to the base of Exit Glacier, and then climb a steep switchbacking trail for a view over the expansive Harding Icefield that covers the center of the Kenai peninsula.
Los Angeles was once desert before it became Hollywood and highrises, and in no place is that landscape more perfectly preserved than in Joshua Tree National Park. Two hours east of the booming metropolis, the most overwhelming noise found inside of the park is that of complete and total silence. Amongst the calm,the furry looking Joshua trees that give the park its name rise from the rock desert and boulders. A renowned playground for rock climbers and hikers, a great hike is to watch the sunrise from the summit of Ryan Mountain, where if you’re lucky you can find big horn ram silhouetted against the dimly lit desert sky.
Another desert gem, Guadelupe Mountains National Park sits quietly tucked in the far western corner of Texas, 110 miles from the city of El Paso and a world away from the more crowded Big Bend National Park. Here in the Guadelupe Mountains, the desert climate yields nearly year-round sunshine, and the 80 miles of hiking trails provide ample opportunity to catch a glimpse of desert wildlife such as coyote, mule deer, or black-tailed jackrabbits. For those feeling fit, one of the park’s most popular activites is to tackle the trail to “the top of Texas”, and stand atop 8,749 ft.Guadelupe Peak, the highest point in the entire state.
The pearl of western Montana–and one of the nation’s more popular parks– Glacier National Park epitomizes the beauty and jaw-dropping capabilities of the famous Rocky Mountains. Celebrating its 100th anniversary as a National Park in 2010, Glacier offers nearly every outdoor activity even the most outdoorsy adventurer could conjure up. Camping is available at any number of backcountry or frontcountry campgrounds, and opportunities for fishing, mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, or boating can be found around nearly every bend in the park. For those simply wanting to stay in the car, head out onto the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, regarded as one of the most dramatically stunning stretches of road in the nation where it possible to experience panoramic mountain vistas while mountain goat graze in a ravine right next to your car.
While many visitors to Hawaii make a journey to see active Kilauea volcano in the Big Island’s Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, dormant Haleakala volcano on the neighboring island of Maui is home to Hawaii’s “other” national park. Home to one of the most diverse and sensitive ecosystems on the planet, Haleakala National Park stretches from its 10,023 ft. summit all the way down to the waterfall-lined seashore. Up on the mountain, catch the sunrise from the summit overlook and then descend for a dayhike into the high altitude moonscape of the crater floor below. Those wanting to truly explore the crater floor can camp at one of two backcountry camgrounds, or book a night at one of three backcountry cabins. Lucky visitors can happen across a flock of endangered nene geese–the unoffical stewards of this park and the official state bird. Down on the coastline, visitors can cool off in the pools of Oheo Gulch on their drive from Hana, or tackle the two mile hike through a dense bamboo forest to the base of 400 ft. Waimoku Falls.
Perhaps America’s most underrated park, North Cascades National Park encompasses a terrain and level of biodiversity found nowhere else in the nation. Largely acessible only in the summer months, North Cascades possesses over 300 glaciers (the most of any park in the country), and is home to land mammals such as elk, grizzly bear, mountain lion, and the elusive gray wolf. For anyone truly wanting to get away from it all, take a boat over tranquil Lake Chelan to the outpost community of Stehekin, an area inaccessible by road and impermeable to cell phone reception that is tucked far back in the dramatic mountains that ring this outstanding park.
Great Smoky Mountains
What the Rockies represent to the American west, the Great Smokies take their place in the American southeast. Occupying the mountainous corridor along the Tennessee/North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is perhaps the most stunning concentration of nature found in the entire Appalachian mountain range. Heavily visited but thinly publicized, anyone who watches the sun set behind endless ridges of hazy mountains from atop Tennessee’s Clingman Dome will know exactly why they have come. Other more leisurely activites include hiking or biking the extensive network of trails, heading out in search of a playful black bear, or cooling off in one of the park’s numerous watering holes and pools. In the autumn months, the hillsides come alive with the changing of the leaves, and powerful oranges, reds, and yellows add brilliant colors to this already majestic outdoor sanctuary.
Easily accessible off of Arizona’s stretch of Interstate 40, Petrified Forest National Park sits somewhat forgotten in the heart of the Southwest’s Navajo country. Exceptionally rich in cultural artifacts and fossilized natural history, time–like everything else in the park–seems to stand completely and totally still. For hikers, massive pertrified logs rest calmly at the base of desert rock formations, skirting past ancient Native American dwellings and artifacts literally frozen in time. Those wanting to learn more about the rich Native American heritage of the region can attend any number of cultural exhibitions by tribes such as the Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi Indians that have historically called this wide-open desert home.
One of two national parks set in a United States territory, Virgin Islands National Park is a literal tropical paradise set mostly on the island of St. John. While numerous visitors annually pay a visit to the golden shores of beaches such as Cinnamon Bay and Trunk Bay, many are surprised to find out that these picturesque slivers of nature are actually a U.S. national park. Aside from the teeming underwater reefs and lazy iguanas lounging in treetops, the park possesses the rich cultural heritage of the native Taino people, whose rock art and various remains lay scattered throughout the park.
Scuba diving in Los Angeles? It’s not as a strange a notion as you may think. Located just offshore of southern California’s sprawling concrete jungle, Channel Islands National Park is a little-visited corner of nature set astonishingly close to millions of residents who have never paid it a visit. While many visitors annually take to the waters off of the park in hopes of glimpsing a migrating gray whale or to dive the legendary kelp beds beneath the chilly waters, few vistors actually venture ashore one of the park’s five accesible islands to tackle the coastal trails or learn of the island’s little-known cultural history.