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Want to be able to enjoy nature in peace, without the traffic or the crowds? While parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite receive countless visitors every year, there are many that travelers don’t even think about visiting that offer an incredibly rewarding experience. These national parks, in particular, are destinations that everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime and are far more likely to provide more of a tranquil getaway.
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While North Cascades National Park is home to vast remote wilderness, it’s just a few hours from the city of Seattle. It draws fewer annual visitors than MLS Sounders’ games, yet it’s pure Pacific Northwest paradise. Home to over 300 glaciers, magnificent waterfalls, dense alpine forest and surreal turquoise lakes, backcountry hiking here is a real treat. The Horseshoe Basin hike, a 12-mile trek, is especially popular among backpackers. It can be extended even longer if you want to spend multiple days or even a week exploring unspoiled wilderness.
The Dry Tortugas are made up of seven tiny islands situated 70 miles from Key West which shelter nesting sea turtles and host spectacular white sand beaches as well as a fortress. Fort Jefferson is the largest all-masonry fort in the United States, but what really makes the park a must visit is its underwater world, with more than 99 percent of the park underwater, protecting extensive coral and some 200 shipwrecks. One of the best ways to get there is to hop aboard the Yankee Freedom II, a high-speed catamaran that will get you there in a little over two hours. You’ll have four hours to play, including snorkeling the clear, calm waters that are filled with colorful fish and living coral, right from the beach located at the fort.
Lake Clark National Park is what you’ll likely picture when you hear the term “Alaska wilderness.” It’s edged by the soaring Chigmit Mountains and contains remarkably diverse landscapes, from the Turquoise-Telaquana Plateau tundra to coastal forests. It’s all about outdoor adventure here, including camping alongside a mountain lake with no other humans in sight, though there are plenty of bald eagles and the bears. Paddle out onto the lake in the kayak and you’re likely to have it all to yourself. Hiking is a favorite activity here too, from easy day hikes to waterfalls to long treks like Tanalian Mountain where you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic vista of Lake Clark, the bay and the mountains.
Canyonlands was beautifully carved by the Colorado River, but it’s always taken second fiddle to its more well-known neighbors, the Grand Canyon and Arches National Park. Just a short drive from Moab, just some of the recreational activities that can be enjoyed here include hiking, mountain biking, backpacking, four-wheeling, kayaking and rafting, all while taking in the endless colorful landscape with its canyons, buttes and mesas lined along the Colorado and Green Rivers. After dark, you can look forward to gazing up at an ocean of stars.
Some 300 northeast of Las Vegas, Great Basin National Park is one of the least-visited and most remote national parks in the country. Set on the eastern border of Nevada, the isolation and desert air results in some of the darkest night skies in the nation, complete with meteors, countless stars and all five planets. Hiking trails here lead to pristine mountain lakes and ancient pine forests where you can walk for hours without seeing another soul. Lehman Caves, a stunning marble cave ornately decorated with stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, popcorn and more than 300 rare shield formations, can be toured as well.
Channel Islands National Park is located just off the central coast of California, yet the five-island archipelago is one of the state’s least visited national parks. Sometimes referred to as North America’s own Galapagos Isles, they’re teeming with wildlife, including sea lions, seals and nearly 400 bird species. By hiking through the mountains you’ll be able to scan the horizon, searching for a glimpse of the migrating gray whales too. Scuba diving in kelp forests and kayaking through sea caves are popular activities too.
Gates of the Arctic National Park is the least-visited national park in America. You won’t get cell service here, there are no roads, toilets, trails, signs or other facilities, but on the average day, the 8.5-million-acre park sees just 50 visitors. Most are adventurers who come to kayak the rivers or backpack through the forest. The entire park is situated above the Arctic Circle and can only be accessed by seaplane or air taxi, for the ultimate remote wilderness national park experience.
Colorado’s own version of the Grand Canyon is summed up by the National Park Service as “big enough to be overwhelming, still intimate enough to feel the pulse of time.” Named due to its walls that are often enveloped in shadows that make them appear black, it will truly leave you breathless and feeling small, standing next to the 2,000-foot-high canyon walls. The best views can be enjoyed by hiking the rim, with four fairly short and easy trails on the south rim, ranging from a one-mile-loop to a two-mile round-trip trek.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park lies in the vast Chihuahuan Desert in western Texas. It’s characterized by strikingly white salt basin dunes, rocky canyons, dense woodlands, wildlife-rich grasslands, pretty streams and fossilized reef mountains. There are over 80 miles of hiking trails, from beginner to expert, for exploring it, including the Guadalupe Peak Trail which snakes up through a conifer forest to the highest summit in Texas, providing views of El Capitan peak. The National Park Service offers a Fossil Identification Guide that can be printed out and brought along with you to discover clues into the park’s ancient past.