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While just about everyone has heard of famous national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, there are many lesser-known parks in North America that are also well worth a visit. As they don’t tend to attract the masses, they often provide an even more rewarding experience. After all, who really wants to fight the crowds to get just a small glimpse of that bucket-list attraction? Your next vacation strategy might be to travel to one of the top parks for enjoying the scenery and a variety of other highlights in relative peace.
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For the ultimate in wilderness travel, there are few better destinations than Gates of the Arctic National Park. It straddles the Arctic Divide in the Brooks Range of Alaska, the northernmost chain of mountains in the U.S. You’ll have to go during the summer and make sure your survival skills are up to par as there are no facilities, roads, trails or established campsites. Spend your nights camping under the stars and your days hiking through spectacular scenery, watching out for wildlife like caribou, grizzly, wolverines and more. It’s also possible to hire a local guide or join a guided trip with one of the multiple outfitters in the region.
Another one of the country’s least-visited and most remote national parks, Great Basin National Park features everything from hiking trails to pristine mountain lakes and ancient pine forests where you can walk for hours without seeing another soul. It’s one of the best places to visit in Nevada, as its isolation along the eastern Nevada border and clear desert air results in some of the darkest night skies in the continental U.S, with meteors, millions of stars and five planets all coming into view. Rising for more than 13,000 feet out of a massive 200,000-square-mile basin, Wheeler Peak offers a unique ecosystem where alpine forest meets high desert and adds a limestone cave to the mix. Lehman Caves, a magnificent marble cave ornately decorated with stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, popcorn and more, can be visited on a guided tour.
Dry Tortugas is an outdoor lover’s dream, not only boasting stunningly azure surrounding waters, but it’s also home to the 19th century Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the country, making it popular with history buffs. Built as the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, the fort has a fascinating history along with unique brickwork and 2,000 arches. Visitors can also enjoy world-class bird watching and snorkeling on a day trip from Key West, or while camping at Garden Key campground.
Lassen Volcanic National Park offers many impressive attractions yet it doesn’t tend to draw big crowds. The park was called “The West’s most beautiful, least visited wonderland,” by Sunset magazine, and its hike to Lassen Peak has been compared to Half Dome. Discover many features similar to Yellowstone like multiple groups of hot springs and fumaroles that are remnants of former volcanic activity, along with jagged peaks, serene alpine lakes and tranquil wildflower-filled meadows.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve highlights the tallest dunes in North America, but it’s certainly not devoid of life. It’s one of the most biologically and geologically diverse places in the country. It also offers two unique outdoor adventures: sand-boarding and sand-sledding. There are also rugged 13,000-foot peaks, alpine lakes and tundra, forests, creeks, grassland and wetlands, all waiting to be explored.
The small town of Chitina, Alaska, population 125, is the prime jumping off point to the largest national park in the state, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park which covers 13 million acres around the confluence of the mighty Copper River and the Chitina River. The mighty 16,390-foot-high Mount Blackburn soars over the landscape. Most visitors experience it via McCarthy Road, which winds 60 miles east into the heart of the park. With habitats ranging from temperate rain forest to tundra, you’ll find an incredible diversity of animals like moose which are often seen near willow bogs and lakes. Other species of large mammals include mountain goats, caribou, wolves, bison, black bears and brown bears.
Petrified Forest National Park is a unique outdoor attraction in Arizona, offering visitors the chance to explore one of the largest and most vibrantly colored collections of petrified wood, historic structures and archaeological sites, all set among the breathtaking Painted Desert. The “trees” are fragmented, fossilized logs spread across a vast area of grassland. Many are huge, up to six feet in diameter, and at least one spans a ravine, forming a natural bridge. At 225 million years old, they’re as ancient as the first dinosaurs that roamed the planet in the Late Triassic period. Hit the hiking trails ranging from less than a half-mile to three miles to take in a variety of impressive views and opportunities to glimpse wildlife like mule deer, coyote, lizards, rabbits and birds.
At Big Bend National Park, discover rigid canyon walls that meet with flat, desert land by hiking, rafting the Rio Grande River or taking a scenic drive. It’s also popular for stargazing with some of the darkest measured skies in the lower 48, with thousands of stars and planets all visible to the naked eye.
Wind Cave in the lush Black Hills of South Dakota was the first cave to be declared a national park. It’s home to the world’s largest concentration of rare boxwork formations and hosts a 28,295-acre wildlife sanctuary above ground. The cave was discovered by early explorers in 1881, but many Native American tribes considered it a sacred place for centuries before. Ranger-led tours are offered, taking visitors through the narrow passageways to view the remarkable geological phenomenons.
Just three hours from the hustle and bustle of Seattle you’ll find one of the least visited national parks in the country. North Cascades National Park hosts under 27,000 visitors per year, which means you can enjoy this incredibly scenic, rugged wilderness area practically all to yourself. It’s home to one of the biggest concentrations of glaciers outside of Alaska, with over 300, and has one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. As you hike the miles and miles of trails, watch for bald eagles and osprey perched among the lush forests and rocky slopes as well as elusive creatures like the fisher, wolverine, gray wolf, black and grizzly bears, moose and cougars.