The creation of the National Parks system has been called the “US best idea”, emulated across the globe as the best way to protect the beauty and diversity of our planet for future generations; it’s an idea that turns 100 years old this year. All across the vast territory of the US, visitors and locals can find pieces of land and history being preserved for exploration and enjoyment, no easy task with the continuous pressures of modern living, economic exploitation,at and urban encroachment. But the National Park Service has continued to safeguard the unique places and landscapes which are as magical as their names and stories associated with them suggest.
World-renowned places such as Yosemite and Yellowstone have conquered the imagination of millions of people across the world, and every summer these two parks hailed as the crown jewels of the park system, can feel a little bit like theme parks in the most commonly visited attractions. Yellowstone has traffic jams not only caused by bison and Yosemite’s campgrounds are bursting at the seams. Their fame is justified as they possess some of the most beautiful and accessible natural wonders in the US, from giant granite formations and fantastic waterfalls to hot springs and wildlife. However, with 59 parks dotting the landscape, there are a few hidden gems that can still feel remote and empty even in the height of summer, some are harder to get some others are just not as well-known but all of them are incredible and surprising places to visit.
Let’s travel through five of the lesser known parks and start planning an adventure sure to provide memories for years to come.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Fly to Rapid City in South Dakota and star driving west and you’ll find a landscape so beautiful and strange it will seem you moved to a different planet. The Badlands bursts with Native American history and wildlife such as bison and bighorn sheep, but the collection of pinnacles, buttes, and spires in all shades of orange and ochre are the real stars. Driving the Badlands in the summer gives you a feel for the harsh environment the Native American tribes had to endure and how it shaped their culture and beliefs.
Badlands National Park (source pixabay)
Take a detour: Stop by Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial to see two examples of ambitious monuments and the competing narratives of the conflicts between first nations and settlers.
Denali National Park, Alaska
Denali, with its 6 million acres, is so vast it’s difficult to comprehend until you see it. Home to the tallest peak in North America, the 20.310 feet Denali mountain, it is a wild and underdeveloped park with only a solitary road crossing it. Wildlife roams free everywhere you go and solitude can be found venturing a few minutes out of the road. It is a park for backcountry exploration, for camping and contemplation. The park road is open to buses during the summer and they give you a front row seat to bears, moose, and other amazing wildlife.
Denali National Park (source pixabay)
Take a detour: Feel the excitement of high mountaineering by taking a trip to the base of Denali, or sign up for a climbing expedition if you want to climb on of the summits in the Explorer’s Grand Slam.
Olympic National Park, Washington
The diversity of landscapes in Olympic National Park is astounding, enough to make it also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the coastline with its colorful tidal pools to the old growth rainforest with the intense green of moss-covered trees and canopy creating a magical place near unspoiled rivers; the park brings a sensory overload hard to forget. There are roads into the park but they don’t go far into the interior, Olympic is best experienced through its network of hiking trails. Be prepared as it will rain even during the summer.
Olympic National Park (source pixabay)
Take a detour: Visit one of the glaciers which top the Olympic Mountains inside the park, the largest one is Hoh Glacier which is almost 5 kilometres in length.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Petrified Forest Park is named because of its high concentration of petrified wood, as old as 225 million years, formed when this part of the world was a great forest close to the equator of the original Pangea. The park is a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils and more than 350 Native American sites which can be visited through several hiking trails across the park. The surrounding Painted Desert with its bright red volcanic rock lives up to its name and in the heat of the summer, it creates an otherworldly effect.
Petrified Forest National Park (source pixabay)
Take a detour: Visit the historic US Route 66 that crosses the park and feel the excitement of the original Mother Road.
Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska
For a true wilderness experience, pay a visit to the Gates of the Arctic Park, the northernmost park in the US with no park facilities where you have to rely on your own experience. The park is home to Alaska native peoples who have relied on the land and hunting caribou for 11000 years. It is the ultimate frontier with a landscape as beautiful as harsh. It is the least visited park in the system, with only 11000 people per year compared to the whopping 4.5 million that visit the Grand Canyon in the same period.
Gates of the Arctic National Park (source pixabay)
Take a detour: Get a permit and experience the hunting and trapping lifestyle of the small communities living inside the protected area