Nearly every traveler has heard of the incredible US National Parks, from the Grand Canyon to Yosemite and Yellowstone, and many visitors to the US come especially for these natural wonders. However, in 2021 55% of all recreational visits to a National Park were to the ten most visited: Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Acadia, Grand Teton, Yosemite, Indiana Dunes, and Glacier National Parks.
While these parks are popular for a reason, there are 53 other parks that are often overlooked, partly due to their more remote locations but mostly because they are overshadowed by the other big names. But these parks are very worthy of a visit too and capture some of the most spectacular and unique landscapes across the United States. Here are some of the most underrated parks across the country that you might not have heard of but should certainly add to your travel bucket list!
10 Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Tiny Congaree National Park, close to Columbia, South Carolina, is the largest area of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. Although the dark, muddy waters look very swamp-like, Congaree is actually a floodplain as it is only covered in water for part of the year. Congaree is home to some of the tallest loblolly pines and oldest cypress trees in all of the US. The beautiful wheelchair-accessible Boardwalk Loop from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center is a wonderful introduction to the park for first-time visitors.
9 Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park, Colorado
For an alternative National Park in Colorado, try Black Canyon National Park. It has about 4 million fewer visitors per year than the Rocky Mountains but is every bit as beautiful. So named because the canyon is so steep and narrow that it is almost constantly in its own shadow, Black Canyon is the fifth-steepest mountain descent in North America. One of the best ways to view the park is by car; in particular, the South Rim Road provides stunning vistas down into the canyon. There are plenty of hiking trails around both the North and South Rim, and it is a wonderful place for experienced rock climbers.
8 Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Another National Park many visitors to the US have not heard of is the Guadalupe Mountains. Found up in the corner of west Texas, it is home to some of the tallest peaks in all of Texas, including the tallest Guadalupe Peak. Visitors can hike to the top via a grueling 8.5-mile roundtrip with 3,000 feet of elevation, those who make it will be rewarded with spectacular 360-desert views. There are many other less challenging trails throughout the park with incredible views of springs, canyons, and sand dunes.
7 Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
One of the more remote National Parks is Dry Tortugas which is found 70 miles offshore from Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. This unique park has enchanting coral reefs and seven idyllic islands to explore by diving, snorkeling, or kayaking. Visitors who camp overnight will be rewarded with incredible stargazing. The crystal-clear waters and relative solitude more than make up for the difficulty of reaching this memorable National Park.
6 North Cascades National Park, Washington
The North Cascades is one of the most underrated of all the National Parks. It is found up in Washington State, close to the Canadian border, and is one of the snowiest places in the US. Because of this, it is only open during the warmer months. The combination of winter closures and its relative remoteness makes it one of the least visited National Parks, but those who make the journey will not be disappointed. With more than 1,000 cascades and waterfalls, incredible craggy peaks, and colorful wildflowers, it is some of the most beautiful scenery across the US. The park is home to some of the most challenging hikes across the country, as well as opportunities for rafting, horseback riding, and climbing, making it the perfect wilderness for outdoor adventurers.
5 White Sands National Park, New Mexico
White Sands National Park in New Mexico has one of the most unique landscapes of any park in the United States. As the name suggests, the park is covered in white sand, making the dunes look like snow drifts. The barren terrain combined with blistering temperatures means there are very few plants and animals adapted to live here, but the park is the only place in the world where the white sands pupfish live. This other-worldly landscape has to be seen to be believed!
4 Kings Canyon National Park
One of California’s little-known parks is Kings Canyon National Park. It is found in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range and is connected to the more popular Sequoia National Park by a road called Generals Highway. It is a fantastic place for hiking and has some of the most beautiful scenery in all of California. In fact, John Muir once called Kings Canyon “a rival to Yosemite.” This underrated park has two different regions, one of which is Redwood Canyon which is home to the largest remaining grove of sequoia trees in the world. The other is Grant Grove and Cedar Grove, where visitors can explore the sequoia grove and see ‘The Nation’s Christmas Tree.’
3 Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Utah is jam-packed with incredible National Parks, so it is no surprise that some of the less well-known tend to be overlooked in favor of the more popular. One of these is Capitol Reef National Park, down in the southeast corner of Utah. It is an unusual shape, roughly 60 miles long but only 6 miles wide, and has breathtaking red rock formations throughout the park, including Capitol Dome, which closely resembles the United States Capitol Building in DC.
2 Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Amongst the rolling grassland plains up in the Badlands of North Dakota lies another incredible National Park, which is often overlooked; Theodore Roosevelt National Park named. The park was named after Teddy Roosevelt after spending time up in North Dakota ignited his passion for conservation. The park has petrified forests and sharp rocky mountains to explore, and visitors come for the free-roaming bison, bighorn sheep, and wild horses.
1 Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Just four hours north of Las Vegas in remote mid-Nevada lies the diverse Great Basin National Park, a remarkably little-visited park. However, its remoteness makes it a spectacular place to see the stars and enjoy peace and quiet. Ranger-led astronomy programs are available for those wanting to learn more about the Milky Way, and ranger-led tours are also offered to explore Lehman Caves. For another unique activity, visit the oldest known living tree, a 5,000-year-old Great Basin Bristlecone Pine.