104 years and still going strong! On August 25th, 2020 the National Park Service celebrates 104 years as “America’s best idea.” We couldn’t agree more. And as a party favor, the NPS is opening all of their national parks and monuments free of charge! So load up your pandemic pod, grab your masks, and get out there. Here’s our list of some of our favorite, lesser-known National Parks and forests – the gems off the beaten path, the less crowded but equally as pleasing trails, the grand vistas with ne’er a selfie in sight. Give the popular spots a rest and try these national treasures on for size.
Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico
Just across the Colorado border from the popular Mesa Verde National Park is Bandelier National Monument – an equally intriguing example of Ancestral Pueblo culture. This park monument is 33,000 acres of canyons and mesa country with gorgeous hiking trails (some easy, come difficult) and views of ancient ruins and petroglyphs. Archaeology and history buffs are sure to love it.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Deep in the heart of Texas is another “El Capitan” that’s equally as impressive as the more popular face in Yosemite. You can find this larger-than-life Captain in Guadalupe Mountains National Park halfway between El Paso and Carlsbad New Mexico (also the home of an epic National Park). The Guadalupe Mountains were formed millions of years ago when a vast tropical sea covered the region; today, fossilized reefs stand as tall as the mountains – and El Capitan is the chief. There are more than 80 miles of trails and the best (and only) way to view these natural specimens is on foot. Bring a lot of water and binoculars – the park is also home to more than 300 bird species.
Cuyahoga Valley National Monument, Ohio
Love waterfalls and lush, verdant valleys? Cuyahoga is the place for you. In between Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga is a quieter version of Great Smokey Mountains National Park (easily the most-visited national park). The park is filled with forests, hills, creeks and the namesake Cuyahoga River, as well as historical canals that played a key role in the American settlement of the 1800’s. Another bonus: The historical Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad that winds through the park. Hike in, train out.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Ok, the Grand Canyon is obviously mind blowing (the word “grand” is part of the name), but what Black Canyon lacks in width, it makes up for in depth. The great cliffs of Black Canyon plunge into the Gunnison River, some place more than 2,700 ft down. This results in some stellar echoes and even more stellar rock climbing opportunities. Deep in the canyons there are some radical Class V rapids if you are a skilled paddler (NOT recommended for beginners!) as well as some rewarding but complicated hikes (also recommended for a more intermediate or advanced hiker). For the beginners, there are ample scenic hikes along the South and North rims as well as world-class trout fishing in the Gunnison River.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
One of the newest parks in the system, Congaree National Park is like Texas’ Big Bend but without the crowds and coolers of Lone Star. Tucked along the mystical Congaree River near Columbia, South Carolina, this national park boasts 27,000 acres of old growth floodplain forests dropping with biodiversity. The park has more than 25 miles of hiking trails and offers gorgeous boardwalks for great accessibility. You can also explore via kayak or canoe (yours or rented) or camp along hiking or canoe trails (permits are required but free). Bring a harmonica, a dram of whiskey, and harmonize with the bullfrogs.
Muir Woods National Monument, California
Just across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is Muir Woods National Park – a big-time redwood experience nestled along the coastline of northern California. President Teddy Roosevelt declared the land a National Monument in 1908 to preserve the redwood forests, so lose yourself among these giants and marvel at the fantastic views along the way – look out at the wide pacific or across at the sparkling city on the bay. Make a weekend of it and explore adjacent Marin County for more hikes, beach walks, and oyster dinners.
North Cascades National Park, Washington
Glaciers around the globe are quickly melting, so Montana’s Glacier National Park is certainly worthy of your “Must Visit” list (especially since some scientist think the GNP glaciers will be gone by 2030!) In the meantime, get yourself to North Cascades National Park – 3 hours north of Seattle and home to more than 300 glaciers and impressive mountain peaks and cascading waterfalls. You can hike and camp in the park and even explore by boat via numerous lakes and rivers. Just be sure to bring some warm socks!
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
In the middle of Lake Superior (the largest freshwater lake in the world!), Isle Royale National Park is just about the dreamiest island escape we can think of. This park is a series of over 450 islands (most very small!) that make up an archipelago of 132,000 acres of crystal blue waters and dramatic, craggy cliffs. What it lacks in transportation (there are no cars on the islands) it makes up for in adventure. When you get there (by boat or sea plane), explore the many lakes and trails by foot, paddle board, or kayak (you can rent one there). If you are a scuba diver, look into some of the organized trips that you can take. It’s well worth the trek to this remote slice of paradise.
With more than 400 national parks, forests, and monuments, there are plenty of places to check out. For more information, visit www.nationalparks.org.