Travel

Incredible Places in the US That Aren't National Parks (But Should Be)

Your move, NPS.

benedek/E+/Getty Images
benedek/E+/Getty Images
benedek/E+/Getty Images

We’ve all been there: Perched atop a gorgeous vista, a cool breeze in your hair, nothing but you and Mother Nature… and a family of 18 from Des Moines shouting that this is the best national park they’ve ever visited.

The national parks are, indeed, America’s best idea. They’re such a great idea, in fact, that they’re all bucket-list destinations for the masses, from the OG splendour of Yellowstone to new kid on the block New River Gorge. They’re also, inevitably, extremely crowded. Ditto for those national monuments.

The spots on this list represent trails less traveled. You’ll find far-flung old-growth forests and underexplored coasts that exist just a few clicks outside the typical travel itinerary. All pack the same breathtaking landscapes as the national parks, and who knows, perhaps one day they’ll all be promoted to Yellowstone status.

Lonnie Paulson/Shutterstock
Lonnie Paulson/Shutterstock
Lonnie Paulson/Shutterstock

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Michigan
Michigan’s only full-fledged national park, Isle Royale, is probably the toughest one to get to-it’s plopped smack in the middle of Lake Superior. But that same lake is home to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the most surreal, hallucinogenic stretch of Michigan’s shoreline.

The area takes its name from the wall of imposing limestone cliffs, seemingly painted by a giant toddler millions of years ago, that are best admired from the clear, cold waters below via kayak or boat tour. The cliffs taper off into dense forests of pine, where you’ll find miles of winding trails and secluded beaches. Photo opps include bizarre natural landmarks like Chapel Rock, a freestanding limestone column capped by a lone tree that stretches across thin air and plunges into the nutritional dirt.

Eloi_Omella/E+/Getty Images
Eloi_Omella/E+/Getty Images
Eloi_Omella/E+/Getty Images

Monument Valley

Arizona/Utah
A huge swath of Arizona seems to have been designed by cartoonists, from the trippy Dr. Seuss waves of the Vermillion Cliffs to the splaying cacti of Saguaro National Park. But Monument Valley is where nature gets serious. This is a land of monolithic red sandstone bluffs seemingly carved by the gods, where enormous spires emerge so far in the distance, they’re shrouded by haze even on a clear day. Each crevice tells a story and every ledge is its own unforgettable vista.

While Monument Valley is undoubtedly national park-worthy, this is a Navajo Tribal Park and we hope it stays that way. It’s a place rooted in ancient Native religion and new-school Hollywood iconography serving as an expansive gateway to the wondrous desert landscapes of both Utah and Arizona.

Federica Grassi/Moment/Getty Images
Federica Grassi/Moment/Getty Images
Federica Grassi/Moment/Getty Images

Custer State Park/The Black Hills National Forest

South Dakota
Great news: You can skip Mt. Rushmore. Mother Nature is plenty good at art without using explosives. Custer State Park on the west end of SoDak is home to the Needles Highway, a dizzyingly twisty stretch of road that zigzags around pointed spires rising out of the ground like fossilized teeth, and along the crystalline waters of Sylvan Lake.

Once you’re done in Custer, unleash yourself on the Black Hills National Forest, a 1.2 million-acre swath of land that includes the tunnel-like Spearfish Canyon, endless mountain lakes, and plenty of caves to explore. This is a place that rewards wanderlust-it’s no wonder a million bikers descend upon the area every year to ride free/listen to Smash Mouth-and once you’ve had your fill of the Hills, Devils Tower is a short ride west in Wyoming, while the Badlands (and America’s greatest roadside attraction) await back east.

PamelaJoeMcFarlane/E+/Getty Images
PamelaJoeMcFarlane/E+/Getty Images
PamelaJoeMcFarlane/E+/Getty Images

Oregon Dunes/The Southern Oregon Coast

Oregon
The northern coast of Oregon is rife with cute fishing towns and tourist magnets, but as Highway 101 descends south, things get odder by the minute. What begins as a sea stack-laden procession of beaches takes a turn toward the Saharan at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, a nearly 32,000-acre expanse of blowing sands. Brave a rugged 3-mile hike and you’ll have the Pacific Ocean all to yourself… if you can cut it.

Proceed even further south and you’d be forgiven for thinking MC Escher took over landscaping duties, particularly along the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, a 12-mile, winding stretch of road just north of California where you’ll encounter a blink-and-you’ll-miss-them-or, more accurately, a blink-and-you’ll-veer-off-a-cliff-array of otherworldly sights. Look for the mythical Arch Rock and Natural Bridges, which stretch from land over the crashing sea like some ancient challenge to be overcome by Odysseus. Don’t take the challenge. Just sit and stare, preferably after stopping at one of the many, many dispensaries along your path.

 Johnathan A. Esper, Wildernesscapes Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images
Johnathan A. Esper, Wildernesscapes Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images
Johnathan A. Esper, Wildernesscapes Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

Adirondack Park

New York
At an astonishing 6.1 million acres, Adirondack State Park is nearly three times the size of Yellowstone, and while there is absolutely a New York real estate joke to be made here, we’re too busy marveling at the 46 high peaks, 30,000 snaking miles of river, and 3,000 lakes contained in this wilderness to think of one.

This is the crown jewel of New York’s natural resources. Ponder your place in the world from atop panoramic Mount Marcy; in fall, do the Upstate thing and go leaf-peeping; and when winter melts into spring, go careening down some of America’s most thrilling whitewater rapids. And when you’re ready to turn it in for the evening, you’ve got no shortage of options: along with thousands of campsites and dozens of cozy cabins, there are about 105 charming small towns, including hits like Lake George and Lake Placid, scattered throughout the wilderness.

Posnov/Moment/Getty Images
Posnov/Moment/Getty Images
Posnov/Moment/Getty Images

Red River Gorge

Kentucky
The Red, as it’s known to the legions of climbers who descend on this 13,000-acre wonderland to scale its world-famous crags, has been designated a National Natural Landmark-but at this point, it’s almost shocking that it hasn’t been elevated to national park status.

In many ways, it’s a more rustic version of recently NPS-canonized New River Gorge. Here, more than 100 natural sandstone arches flit in and out of thick forests. The namesake river draws daredevil river folk, and nigh endless waterfalls roar amid the wilderness. Taken on its own, it’s a marvel. But the Red’s also got some great neighbours, among them Natural Bridges State Park, one of the most vertiginous and alien stone bridges in the world. And it’s all surrounded by the legendary Daniel Boone National Forest, which seems to stretch on beyond the horizon and offers up endless opportunities to discover your feral side.

Thomas H. Mitchell/500Px Plus/Getty Images
Thomas H. Mitchell/500Px Plus/Getty Images
Thomas H. Mitchell/500Px Plus/Getty Images

The Northeast Kingdom

Vermont
Is it weird to straight-up put 20% of a state as one of America’s ultimate outdoor destinations? No. Because this is Vermont, not Indiana. And the Northeast Kingdom-a densely forested mass that covers the entirety of northeast Vermont-is chockablock with incredible sights, tastes, and experiences.

Sandwiched between the Green Mountains and the Connecticut River, here you’ll find the dreamy small towns (and general stores) that immediately come to mind when you think “Vermont,” which serve as waypoints en route to places like the crystalline Lake Willoughby and the sentinel Mount Pisgah. Just be cool: This is the Vermont of your dreams because the locals made maintaining it their reality, and they’re not afraid to go NIMBY if you roll in and mess with their spot.

wanderluster/E+/Getty Images
wanderluster/E+/Getty Images
wanderluster/E+/Getty Images

Caddo Lake State Park

Texas
We all know that Texas is massive, but even though the Lone Star State is only slightly bigger than France, the fact remains that much of it is a homogenous sprawl of cracked deserts, 10-gallon hats, and 20-pound BBQ platters. Except for when you roll into Karnack and realize that the bayous of Louisiana might have invaded a chunk of Texas.

Amid this 30,000-acre waterway, you’ll row through a maze of bayous where sunlight (and moonbeams) slant through Cyprus trees and hanging moss. It’s a spooky and wholly unexpected stretch that will have you questioning whether you really knew Texas at all… until you wander into the rowdy speakeasy known as Dick & Charlie’s Tea Room in the middle of Earth’s largest Cypress grove. That, undoubtedly, is a clue that you’re still in the right state.

Unsplash/Sarah Parlier
Unsplash/Sarah Parlier
Unsplash/Sarah Parlier

Pisgah National Forest

North Carolina
For a national forest, Pisgah is pretty small at 500,000 acres, and it’s downright diminutive sitting in the shadows of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, whose 12.1 million visitors make it the busiest in the system by far. (That number is inflated by the fact that most people are just driving through, but still.)

Pisgah may be small, but it’s got some serious Napoleon syndrome, packing in wonder atop wonder as if it’s got something to prove. That includes towering waterfalls, roaring rapids, welcoming swimming holes, and every manner of vista to fully enjoy some of the most stunning fall foliage in the US. And once you’re done camping and adventuring, you can cruise up the Blue Ridge Parkway to see what the fuss is about in the Smokies. Just expect the big park to seem a lot smaller after you see what Pisgah has to offer.

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Andy Kryza is a former Thrillist editor.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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