Hidden Gems: America's less visited National Parks.
We’ve all heard of Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. Most of you reading this have probably been to at least one of these beautiful locations. They deserve the attention but within the last thirty years the National Parks of the United States are under siege by record breaking crowds and budget shortfalls which have caused critics to suggest we are “loving our parks to death”. In all there are 391 sites managed by the National Park Service and they run the gamut of preserving wilderness, battlefields, archaeological sites, historic buildings, and maintaining scenic trails. Of the 391 sites 58 are designated as National Parks, with emphasis on the word park, not to be confused with a National monument. The latter are also administered by the National Park Service, a division of the Department of Interior established in 1916, but have a separate naming convention. Of the 58 National Parks, some are veritable tourist traps such as those mentioned above, and some struggle to attract visitors mostly because of their location and lack of branding. Among these are the state-sized National Parks of Alaska, which are arguably the most spectacular. On the other hand, there are some surprisingly close to home, in the lower 48, that are off the radar as well. While the list that follows is based on observation, visitors' statistics tell another story. Below is a suggested description of National Parks in the lower 48 that are no less beautiful and spectacular than the rest, yet are altogether unknown to the mainstream tourists. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado. This national park was one of many that finally graduated in 1999 after years of being a national monument. For good reason too. Its canyon walls, carved out of Precambrian schist and gneiss, reach depths of almost 2,500 sheer feet and are 1,100 feet across at the narrowest point. Located in western Colorado away from any major city, the canyon rims are about 8,000 feet above sea level and within view of the high peaks of the Rockies. The park saw 219,000 visitors in 2007.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah. This is one of five national parks in the state of Utah. Although it is close to the popular Arches National Park, it sees less than half the visitors as the former. Long access roads are one reason why. The park preserves a tangle of canyons that have formed from the long and slow erosion of the sandstone layers around the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. There are excellent views from the mesa tops, especially Island-in-the-Sky, that look down into this scene which makes the park’s name fitting. If time allows a float trip or hike down into the canyons is well rewarded. The 337,598 acre park was visited by 396,000 people in 2006 and established in 1964.
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. While Capitol Reef National Park sees more visitors than Canyonlands National Park in the same state, Capitol Reef is more isolated and farther off the beaten path. Capitol Reef National Park is a 242,000 acre park in south central Utah which preserves canyons, valleys, and interesting rock formations of which the Waterpocket Fold is the most well known. The Waterpocket Fold is an upthrust of the earth’s crust formed 65 million years ago during the Rocky Mountain Orogeny. Much of the park is inaccessible for the automobile and is wilderness best suited for the hiker. Elevations in the park vary greatly ranging from over 9,000’ in the north to under 4,000’ in the southern end of the park. The park was established in 1971 and logged 511,000 visitors in 2006.
Channel Island National Park, California. The Channel Islands National Park was created in 1980 although it had been a national monument since 1938. It is close to Los Angeles, the second largest metropolitan area in the United States, and its location, exclusive to the five islands of Santa Rosa, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara, limits accessibility. Charter boats ferry visitors from Oxnard and Ventura. The park saw just over 375,000 visitors in 2006. Highlights include large marine mammals, kelp forests, and an unspoiled glimpse of what coastal California was probably like before large scale settlement took place. Kayaking and scuba diving are popular in the waters around the park because of the exceptional clarity and the fauna which includes sea lions, harbor seals, dolphins, and the occasional great white shark. Whales also frequent the area as the islands are along migration routes. The islands are mountainous and hiking trails criss-cross each of the islands. If you have only one day head to Anacapa Island. Most visitors do just that because Anacapa is the closest to shore - just over an hour by charter boat. The dolphins and seals that follow the boats are unbelievable in their sheer numbers.
Congaree Swamp National Park, South Carolina. Congaree Swamp became a national monument in 1976 and a national park in 2003. It preserves the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the United States. Interestingly it’s not a swamp but a river floodplain whose waters typically swell in the spring precipitation. Not surprisingly canoeing is a popular activity here and there is a 20 mile canoe trail. Besides a wide variety of wildlife, which includes the alligator, the park has some of the tallest loblolly pine trees in the eastern United States. Bald Cypress is also common. The 21,867 acre park logged 134,000 visitors in 2006 and it close to Columbia, the state's capital.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. When the first explorers happened upon these isolated keys they found no sources of fresh water, hence their dry designation. The centerpiece of the park is undoubtedly Fort Jefferson which has been preserved as a national monument since 1935. Construction was started in 1846 on Garden Key and the fort was active between the 1860s and 1930s. It was originally built to suppress piracy in the region and at its peak it was staffed by 1729 military personnel. Recent expansion of the park, established in 1992, makes it 61,480 acres, which is mostly water surface. Unless you have your own sea-worthy boat the access to the park is a charter trip to Fort Jefferson from Key West. The snorkeling in the moat walls is spectacular and the remoteness of the location keeps visitors at bay. Only 64,000 people came in 2006. The six-sided fort is an impressive masonry structure.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada. This small national park grew out of the former Lehman Caves National Monument and the Wheeler Peak Scenic Area, which was part of the Humboldt National Forest. In 1986 it was formed into a national park by an Act of Congress yet it only logged 78,524 visitors in 2006. The park has an amazing variety of scenic wonders and life zones. Glacial tarns, bristle cone pine forests, limestone caverns, and the Great Basin’s only glacier, are some of the features. If hiking is your thing, you’ve come to the right place. Wheeler Peak (13,063’), the highest peak in the Great Basin rears 7,000 feet up from the sagebrush covered valleys. Any approach offers spectacular views.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas. In the middle of west Texas the North American Cordillera rears ups abruptly from the desert floor and is encapsulated in this beautiful yet remote 86,416 acre national park just south of the New Mexico state line. The park was established in 1972. The Guadalupe Mountains contain the highest peak in Texas and are the remains of a Permian reef that was uplifted millions of years ago. The jagged limestone crags tower at least 4,000 feet above the stark desert floor and receive enough moisture, mostly in the winter, to sustain a variety of trees from pine to oak. Fall colors in McKittrick Canyon are especially beautiful. If you have only one day in the park and are in good physical shape climb to the summit of Guadalupe Peak (8,751’), Texas’ highest, for spectacular views. Only 165,000 people visited in 2007.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan. Isle Royale is a sliver-like island in Lake Superior with no means of transportation, boats and floatplanes excepting. Once you arrive on the island the only transportation is your two feet. For these reasons, along with no scheduled transportation during the long winter months, the park logged under 16,000 visitors in 2007 making it the least visited national park in the lower forty-eight. Isle Royale sums up the Great Lakes. The 45 mile long island has all the hallmarks of the far north beginning with a rugged and spiny backbone of Precambrian rocks. Striations left from the last glaciers are common, along with indented bays, numerous islets, and fjords. The flora is northern boreal with birch, spruce, fir, and pine dominating. The best way to see the island is to hike it from end to end using the trail that follows Greenstone Ridge. You may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the moose and wolves that populate the island. Established in 1940 the park is also an International Biosphere Reserve.
North Cascades National Park, Washington. Bordering Canada on the north this national park, often likened to the Alps, contains a spectacular jumble of jagged peaks, forest, glaciers, and hanging valleys. It has the most glaciers in the United States outside of Alaska. Access to the park is limited and the footpath remains the best means of getting around. Established in 1968 the 1,069 square mile park (684,000 acres), had 19,500 visitors in 2007. Besides the unbelievable scenery the park contains a good mix of large fauna which include moose, lynx, wolves, black bear, and wolverine. An occasional grizzly bear is also sighted. If your time is limited Heather Meadows, which is not actually in the park boundaries, has spectacular views of Mount Shuksan (9,127') said to be one of the most photographed mountains in the United States.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota. North Dakota is the least visited state in the United States but this park gets a fair share of visitors despite its isolated location. Theodore Roosevelt National Park preserves 70,448 acres in three sections of the scenic North Dakota badlands while memorializing its most famous resident, T.R., who lived and ranched in 1884-1885 following the death of his mother and wife. The park was established in 1978 although it has been a unit of the national park service since 1947. Before that it was a National Wildlife Refuge and a demonstration park, a relic program from the Great Depression. Broken into three units, appropriately named North unit, South unit and Elkhorn Ranch, the latter is the remains of the ranch where T.R. lived. The South Unit gets most of the traffic because it is close enough to I-94 to attract summer visitors but most of the park remains off the beaten path. Still, it is a renowned place for bird watchers as it sits along migratory routes. Antelope, coyote and buffalo still roam within the park. In 2006 435,359 people visited.