There are 59 national parks in the United States, and chances are, you haven’t heard of most of them.
For every Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, there’s a Katmai and a Haleakala (yes, those are real national parks). And for every park where hordes of tourists thwart your moment of peace with Mother Nature, there’s a majestic slice of land that’s blissfully desolate.
Yosemite and Zion have gotten enough press. In honor of the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service, we wanted to celebrate by shining a light on some of America’s under-appreciated parks. So here are 10 national parks you’ve probably never heard of:
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Great Basin is 300 miles and a world away from the bright lights of Las Vegas. In fact, the only thing the two have in common is that you probably won't find a clock in either.
This little-known park has the kind of glacier-carved, snow-capped peak-studded landscapes you'd expect to see in the Rocky Mountains more than desert-filled Nevada. But, sure enough, halfway between Sin City and Salt Lake City lies this park filled with alpine lakes, marble caves and glacial moraines.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Say it out loud: "Kohn-guh-ree." How fun does that sound? If the park’s musical-sounding name isn’t enough to convince you of its greatness on its own, consider this: Congaree claims one of the tallest temperate hardwood forests on earth, with more champion trees (trees judged to be the largest of their species) than anywhere in North America.
The Congaree River floods through the park, not only feeding these massive hardwoods, but providing the setting for forest canoe rides complete with plenty of reflection-filled photo ops.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Reserve, Alaska
Size does matter – at least when it comes to nature. The National Park Service boasts that Wrangell-St. Elias is “the same size as Yellowstone Nat. Park, Yosemite Nat. Park, and Switzerland combined!"
That means if you make the trip out to this gargantuan landmass, you won’t have to share your views of towering walls of ice, the 18,008-ft. Mount St. Elias or the ocean below with too many tourists. And with a bit of luck, you can spot diverse wildlife ranging from whales to bald eagles to wolves.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Lassen Volcanic is a bubbling, boiling steaming cauldron of hydrothermal activity. But fear not. It's been more than 100 years since the park’s last eruption – and another probably won’t occur for another couple thousand years (give or take). Hiking trails will wind you past natural wonders like mudpots, painted dunes, cinder cones, fumaroles, boiling pools, steaming lakes and every type of volcanic peak.
North Cascades National Park, Washington
Just northeast of the seemingly endless rain of Seattle lies one of the snowiest places on earth. North Cascades is filled with giant snowfields, mountain lakes and immense peaks that reach more than 9,000 feet.
And then there are the 300+ glaciers, making it the most heavily glaciated area in the U.S. outside of Alaska (take that, Glacier National Park). The area stretches from the temperate rainforest on the west side of the park to the coniferous landscapes of the east.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
If you look up “isolated” in the dictionary, you’ll probably find a picture of, well, nothing – because dictionaries don’t have pictures. That would be ridiculous. But if they did, you might find a picture of Isle Royale.
To reach this slice of land floating in Lake Superior you have two choices: boat or float plane. That is probably why well less than 20,000 visitors per year visit the northernmost point in Michigan (which is actually closer to Canada).
One of the country’s most rugged national parks, Isle Royale is an adventure lover’s dream. The few who do make it here often spend their days in solitude, hiking, canoeing and fishing. And real thrill seekers can strap on a scuba tank and explore the island’s 10 known shipwrecks.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Need a reason to visit Petrified Forest? Dinosaurs. That’s right, dinosaurs. Paleontologists have unearthed several dino fossils from the Triassic Period in this section of Arizona, which means you’ll be following in the footsteps of the coolest animals ever to walk the earth.
Need another reason besides getting your Triassic Park on? The area is littered with huge pieces of petrified wood – fossilized trees that have crystallized over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. Made mostly of quartz, these red, gray and cream ribboned crystals stretch back more than 200 million years and still look like tree trunks.
Wander across badlands known as the Painted Desert, and you might also spot some coyotes or pronghorns.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
This cave in south central Kentucky is, as its name indicates, mammoth. The subterranean labyrinth is the longest known cave system in the world, stretching for nearly 400 miles. And that doesn’t include the 200+ disconnected caves throughout the park.
Less than a hundred miles from both Nashville and Louisville, this creepy bat-filled paradise of stalagmites and stalactites (and at least one other kind of “ite”) can claim 70 threatened, endangered or state-listed species.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Black Canyon of the Gunninson might not be the biggest canyon in the national park system, but it’s most definitely grand. This 48-mile canyon is less than a fifth of the size of that other impressive canyon in Arizona, but what it lacks in length it makes up for with sheer beauty.
The near-vertical walls stretch almost 2,000 feet from the rushing river at the bottom. The rims offer several hikes with gorgeous views, but the bottom of the canyon is only for advanced rock climbers and kayakers who can handle the extreme class V rapids.
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Utah has more national parks than any state outside of California or Alaska, and of its five parks the cliff-and-canyon-filled Capitol Reef might just be Utah’s best-kept secret.
The park’s defining element is Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline which the National Park Service describes as “a giant, sinuous wrinkle in the earth’s crust (that) stretches for 100 miles across south central Utah” and climbs 7,000 feet. Layers of red rock and eroded sandstone – along with towering spires, delicate arches and lonely monoliths – spread across the park’s 378 square miles.