Seven Less Visited and Beautiful National Parks in the Contiguous USA
Great Smoky, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone – all these iconic national parks are incredibly magnificent. Long snaking car lines at these park entrances each summer are evidence of their popularity which has spiked in recent years partially because of social media. In summer the lines are longer and the trails are crowded. If you are looking for a slice of true nature rather than being a part of a large crowd, if you want to enjoy wilderness rather than witnessing wildlife abuse, you may like to reconsider your plans. Perhaps you might prefer to visit the most popular ones in spring or fall. In summer visit some of the less crowded ones to experience the tranquility of nature and a sense of adventure.
Here are my favorite national parks which are far less visited (so far) not because they are not worth visiting but mostly due to the lack of easy accessibility. Each of these parks has a lot to explore and is worth spending at least a week. I have experienced some of the best sunrises, sunsets, and night skies of my life, besides great times exploring the wilderness.
With more than 300 glaciers, pristine alpine lakes, and steep mountain peaks, the North Cascades National Park is a hidden gem. Bears, marmots, wolverines, gray wolves, eagles, osprey, and many birds call it home. The intense turquoise-hued Diablo and Ross lakes are hard to ignore for those who enjoy paddle-boarding, kayaking, or canoeing. Sometimes you may be the only one in the campground grilling your fresh-caught fish. Plenty of days and multi-day hiking options are available. My favorite hike is to Thornton Lake, where camping is possible next to the lake.
Carved by Gunnison River, the Black Canyon is the steepest canyon in North America, exposing 1.7 billion-year-old rock on its sheer walls. It is so narrow and so deep, making it hard for sunlight to reach into its depths, hence the name – Black Canyon. It surely stirs a mix of awe and fear. You have options to explore the park by hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, or driving.
I will highly recommend staying at one of the campgrounds for a few nights to explore it.
Another not-over-crowded gem in Colorado is Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. It offers mountains, wetlands, and forests, and the tallest sand dunes in North America. It is one of my kids’ favorites! A typical day here includes a leisurely hike through forests in the morning, a hike up the Star Dune in the evening for a dramatic sunset, rolling down to the camp for dinner, and looking up at the extra-lit Milky Way galaxy. Bring a board along if you want to try sandboarding.
That’s correct, Yosemite! Let the crowd gather in the valley; we will go up and away to the Tuolumne meadows where the Tuolumne River gently meanders. Get on the 47-mile scenic Tioga Pass that is open from June through October/November. This winding road will take you through forests, lakes, and meadows with impressive views of Half Dome and valley. The subalpine meadows surrounded by lofty jagged peaks is truly a breathtaking landscape. Feel the joy as you hike to the top of the domes or to ultra blue lakes. Take a short drive further to Mono Lake. Limestone towers rising from this soda lake gives it a surrealistic aura.
Kings Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the USA at more than 1.5 miles deep in some parts. Drive down Highway 180 along the South Fork of Kings River, typically open from May through October. Enjoy breathtaking scenery along the drive as you descend down into a narrowing canyon. The road terminates at Road’s End and the adventure begins. This awe-inspiring park has tall granite mountains, deep canyons, rushing waterfalls, glacial lakes, vibrant meadows, crystal caverns, and the world’s largest trees. General Grant Tree, the second largest sequoia tree in the world, has been growing here for the last 1,600 years.
At the Road’s End is Cedar Grove, the one and only lodge in the park and a campground is also nearby. Explore the park by walking under the towering sequoia trees, strolling in the lush meadows, taking short hikes to waterfalls, or backpacking into the true wilderness.
Adjacent to Kings Canyon Park, though not accessible through it, Sequoia National Park is one the most beautiful National Parks. The second national park of the country that has the dramatic landscape of Sierra Nevada – sweeping vistas, verdant meadows, crystal-laden caves, and off course sequoia groves. Learn about sequoias at Giant Forest Museum before venturing into the Giant Forest Grove, home to General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree, standing 275 feet tall with a base more than 36 feet in diameter. Sequoia National Park is indeed a humbling place to visit.
Let the peace and joy wash over as you stroll John Muir’s beloved Crescent Meadow loop. Climbing about 400 stairs up Moro Rock in the early morning is highly recommended for breathtaking clear views of the park and the Great Western Divide.
Approximately 502 square miles, the expansive Canyonlands National Park is a desert wonderland made of impressive canyons, huge mesas, and astounding landforms with prehistoric stories carved on its rocks. The park is divided into four districts – the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the confluence of Colorado and Green rivers. The first three districts are not connected and have different access points, perhaps that keeps many drive-by visitors away from it. Island in the Sky is the highest district and the most easily accessible from Moab. A 22-mile road passes through the most spectacular overlooks of Canyonlands from above. Rent a sturdy 4WD to drive through the canyons from below for a memorable experience. Hike through the rock spires in Needles. The Maze is the most remote district with only a ranger station. It calls those who seek pure wilderness adventure and solitude.
These are my top seven national parks with spectacular scenery and not so-jam-packed with visitors. If you would like to spend your time in the park rather than waiting in line, consider visiting one or many of these. And now, here is a fun National Park quiz for you to enjoy.
Happy and safe travels!