Updated: Aug 18, 2019
America’s national parks, maintained by the National Park Service, display and protect the immense natural beauty of the United States. The more popular national parks - Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Yellowstone National Park - are popular for good reason. They have spectacular views and unique natural features, like the majestic Grand Canyon, the towering Half Dome, and reliable Old Faithful. However, there are many less popular national parks that are overlooked, but showcase equally stunning beauty. Here are the seven most underrated national parks in the United States that you should visit:
1. Bryce Canyon National Park - Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah often gets overshadowed by the nearby more popular Zion National Park. However, Bryce Canyon boasts both great hiking and a great view. It houses the largest collection of hoodoos (odd-shaped pillars of rock) in the world. Sure, it’s the twelfth most visited national park, but it deserves better! It’s worth the visit, as photographs cannot do it justice.
2. Crater Lake National Park - Crater Lake in Oregon is the deepest lake in the United States and the ninth deepest in the world. It’s actually a volcanic crater filled with water, perfect for a refreshing swim in the middle of the summer. It’s also only a short drive from Bend, Oregon, well-known for its microbreweries.
3. Capitol Reef National Park - Also in Utah, Capitol Reef National Park is home to all sorts of geologic formations, including cliffs, slot canyons, and natural bridges. The park encompasses the site of many pioneer homesteads, so there are several historic orchards of cherry, peach, apple, and pear trees in the park. You can even pick the fruit from these trees if you visit in season. The park is also a great location for stargazing, since light pollution is limited and the sky is generally free of haze..
4. Gates of the Arctic National Park - Gates of the Arctic National Park does not contain any roads or trails, so it is truly a place where you can get away for some quiet time. As a virtually untouched wilderness north of the Arctic Circle, visitors can wander at will by foot or canoe. However, since cell phone service is unavailable and emergency aid is extremely limited, visitors must be experienced with outdoor survival. Though it’s inaccessible by car, you can view parts of the park from a distance as you drive along the Dalton Highway north of Fairbanks. If you can get there, it’s well worth the visit!
5. Great Sand Dunes National Park - Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado is a strange sight to behold. The sand dunes, which are the tallest in North America, rise hundreds of feet in the air in stark contrast with the Rocky Mountains in the background. At the base of the dunes runs Medano Creek, a wide, shallow creek perfect place for relaxing, cooling off on a hot summer day, or building a sand castle.
6. Mammoth Cave National Park - Mammoth Cave National Park is the only national park on this list that lies east of the Rocky Mountains. It’s only a couple hours drive from the extremely popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but the visit is not for the faint of heart. Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world, with over 400 miles of its vast chambers and labyrinths explored. If you have claustrophobia or are afraid of dark places, steer clear!
7. North Cascades National Park - Lying between the popular Olympic and Glacier National Parks, North Cascades National Park is often overlooked. The park has great hiking, backpacking, and camping, with rugged terrain and stunning views of glacier-covered mountains and emerald lakes. Located only 100 miles from Seattle, it’s an easy weekend getaway for anyone living in the Pacific Northwest, but well worth the visit no matter where you travel from.
Check out our other posts for traveling, hiking, and camping tips, including our 11 Camping Hacks that Will Make Your Next Outdoor Adventure a Breeze and The Ultimate Road Trip Series.