Photograph by Michael Melford
From the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything—National Parks
Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon deserve the appreciation they receive, but the National Park System includes nearly 400 units, scores of lesser known sites that well reward a visit—and that are far less crowded than big-name parks. From vast wilderness to varied history, from swamp to desert, these places should be more famous.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Alpine Lakes, a Glacier, and Lehman Caves
Feel the urge to climb a 13,000-foot mountain? Want to tour a beautiful cave? Eager to backpack to alpine lakes and through high desert where few others venture? Want to marvel at some of the oldest living things on Earth? All that and more awaits at this park in eastern Nevada, where glacier-sculpted, 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak rises like an outpost of the Rocky Mountains in the Great Basin. A beautifully scenic drive climbs to more than 10,000 feet on Wheeler’s flank, providing fabulous views with minimal effort. At the road’s end, an easy hike leads to groves of picturesquely contorted bristlecone pines, some more than 3,000 years old. Wheeler is also home to the southernmost glacier in the Northern Hemisphere (small, but geologically unique). After exploring the mountains, take a ranger-guided tour of Lehman Caves, where paths snake through marble and limestone passages featuring strange helictites, delicate argonite crystals, and rare formations called cave shields. Travelers to Great Basin National Park can find these attractions in a place that sees only about 90,000 visitors a year.
Buffalo National River, Arkansas
America’s First National River
This beautiful northwestern Arkansas stream was designated America’s first official national river in 1972, after years of controversy pitting those who wanted to protect its crystal-clear water, lush forests, and spectacular bluffs against those who wanted the river dammed to form a sprawling reservoir. People who canoe or raft the 135-mile Ozark river today—the spring white water on the upper parts or the gentle flat water of its lower reaches—give thanks that the conservationists won. Three official wilderness areas along its length add to the “wild” quality of the river. At places like Steel Creek, sheer sandstone cliffs rise 400 feet from the water’s edge, and all along the river are gravel bars for primitive camping, swimming holes for cooling off on a summer day, and rewarding hiking trails. There’s even a ghost town on the lower river: Rush, where zinc was once mined. All in all, Buffalo National River preserves some of the finest scenery in the central United States, as well as one of the country’s best float streams.
Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Wetlands and Swamps
There aren’t very many big cypress trees in this southern Florida park; rather, it’s named for the expansive size of the forests in Big Cypress Swamp, covering hundreds of thousands of acres. The park offers many of the attractions of Everglades National Park, just to the south, with only a small fraction of the visitation. Driving either of Big Cypress’s two scenic roads will bring into view alligators and abundant birdlife, including such striking species as wood stork, anhinga, white ibis, purple gallinule, and snowy egret. The Turner River, Upper Wagonwheel, and Birdon Road Loop Drive passes for miles alongside canals built for drainage long ago, now creating a virtual roadside zoo of wildlife.
Colorado National Monument, Colorado
Southwest Red-Rock Country
The red-rock country of the Southwest is justifiably famous for its spectacular canyons, buttes, spires, and other sandstone formations. Colorado National Monument offers a splendid array of eroded cliffs and pinnacles in an accessible and easily toured location, without the crowds and long-distance drives associated with more famous sites in the region. Much of the park can be seen on the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive, which can be reached just a few minutes off I-70 near Grand Junction, Colorado. Trails here range from the short, easy Window Rock Trail to more strenuous hikes such as the route into Monument Canyon, which passes major rock sculptures including Independence Monument (a 450-foot-high sandstone monolith), Kissing Couple, and the Coke Ovens.
Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Glaciers and Boreal Forests
Although Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve draws more visitors, the state’s Wrangell–St. Elias deserves recognition as well. It is the largest national park in the United States and site of 9 of the 16 highest mountains in the country. Many outfitters and concessionaires offer adventure tours into the park, including river rafting, sea kayaking, scenic flights, and guided glacier hikes. There’s another option, too: Travelers can (with care and depending on weather) explore the park on two mostly unpaved roads, which provide access to trailheads, campsites, and historic sites. The McCarthy Road runs 61 miles through boreal forest to the tiny community of McCarthy, following an old railroad right-of-way and crossing rivers on high trestles. Nearby are the remains of a once thriving copper mine, now a national historic landmark. The 42-mile Nabesna Road passes through spectacular mountain landscape and offers the chance to see Dall sheep, as well as other wildlife. Lucky visitors might come across caribou, moose, grizzly (brown) and black bears, mountain goats, gray wolves, coyotes, red foxes, wolverines, and porcupines. Both these drives are challenging and require planning and preparation, but offer thrilling experiences as a reward.
Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Cave and Grasslands
The film shown in the visitor center at this South Dakota park is titled "Wind Cave: One Park, Two Worlds"—an apt slogan. Not only does the park feature Wind Cave, with passages full of unusual and beautiful formations, the 44-square-mile landscape aboveground is home to a diverse array of wildlife. In 1903, this site became the first park in the world created to protect a cave, noted primarily for its outstanding display of boxwork, an unusual formation of thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs. Eventually Wind Cave came to be recognized as the world’s fourth largest cave. Various ranger-guided tours are offered, including one suitable for people with physical limitations. Before or after a cave tour, driving or hiking in the park can bring sightings of bison, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, and prairie dogs. The park’s approximately 450 bison move around as they graze; it’s easier to see the appealing little prairie dogs, whose colonies are easily visible near roads.
Mojave National Preserve, California
This expansive southern California park doesn’t show up often on travelers’ radar screens, and that’s a shame—at least in one way. For those who love Mojave National Preserve, its very remoteness, unpeopled landscapes, and opportunities for solitude are among its best features. Adventurous travelers can explore tall sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, the world’s largest forest of Joshua trees, and the remnants of a history of mining, ranching, and military activity. The preserve encompasses three of the four major North American deserts—Mojave, Great Basin, and Sonoran—and spans an elevation range from 7,929 feet atop Clark Mountain to 880 feet in the desert. All this adds up to a great biological diversity including, after wet winters, colorful displays of desert wildflowers.
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Louisiana
Cajun Cooking, Music, and History
Sometimes people ask why this multifaceted park is named for Jean Lafitte, a notorious 19th-century pirate and smuggler who traded in slaves and lived mostly outside the law. The answer . . . well, it’s complicated, just like the cultural landscape of southern Louisiana. Even today, this melting pot reflects the influence of pre-Columbus America, France, Spain, England, Africa, the Canary Islands, Germany, the Caribbean, the Confederate States, and many other places. You can learn a lot about local history at any or all of the six separate sites in this park, which spread across southern Louisiana from the swamps of the Mississippi River Delta to the prairies farther west. One can take a history walk in the French Quarter of New Orleans, see abundant wildlife in a nature preserve, attend a live radio broadcast of Cajun music in an old-time theater, visit the site of the famed 1815 Battle of New Orleans, watch a Cajun-cooking demonstration, and enjoy many other activities—too many to be summarized here. In few places in American do unique traditions endure as they have along the bayous and marshes of southern Louisiana.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Center of the Ancient Pueblo People
Other Native American sites in the Southwest are more famous—including Mesa Verde in Colorado and Canyon de Chelly in Arizona—but none was more important in its day than the communities that developed in Chaco Canyon, in what is now northwestern New Mexico. Only this park’s remoteness and distance from major highways have kept it from greater renown as a historical destination. From around A.D. 850 to 1250, Chaco Canyon was a major ceremonial, trade, and administrative center for the culture called the ancient Pueblo, with elaborate and spectacular public architecture that matched its highly developed social organization. For reasons unknown, the center’s inhabitants abandoned the site in the mid-13th century. In recognition of its importance, Chaco Culture National Historical Park and associated locations (including Aztec Ruins National Monument, 60 miles north) have been designated a World Heritage site. The park’s nine-mile Canyon Loop Drive accesses six major archaeological sites, including “great houses”: very large multistory public buildings with adjacent kivas, or ceremonial rooms. Truly awe-inspiring in both its appearance and historical significance, Chaco Culture is well worth the journey to see it.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, Arizona
Six Million Years of Volcanic Activity
Too few of the millions of people who visit Arizona’s Grand Canyon each year detour to this fascinating park just northeast of Flagstaff. Set in a landscape full of dozens of symmetrical cones and other evidence of six million years of volcanic activity, Sunset Crater is a classic example of a cinder cone, named for the reddish oxidized material at its top. Many volcanic features can be seen along trails, including lava “squeeze-ups,” spatter cones, and lava bubbles. No climbing is allowed on Sunset Crater Volcano, so symmetrical that it looks like every child’s drawing of a volcano. To see what the terrain is like, though, you can climb to the top of nearby Lenox Crater.
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