Welcome to National Parks Uncovered, where we’ll help you discover the beauty of America’s most underrated (and least-crowded) national parks-from sweeping landscapes where you can get up close and personal with mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes, to sunny paradises hiding out near major cities like Chicago and LA. To find out what natural wonders you’ve been missing out on, check out the rest of the package here.We love us some Yosemite and some Zion, and no matter how many times we visit, the Grand Canyon will never cease to take our collective breath away. But when the swarms of tourists around Yellowstone’s Old Faithful start to make a day at the park look more like Coachella, we know it’s time to look America’s most popular parks in the eyes and say, “It’s not you, it’s us.”
Say goodbye to claustrophobic crowds and hello to getting remote, in a national park where your woes have less to do with slow-moving tour buses and more to do with the possibility of dormant volcanoes becoming…not dormant. Of America’s 63 main national parks, these 20 deserve a spot at the top of your anti-social bucket list, especially if you’re looking to emphasize the “wild” part of your next wilderness adventure.
California California is filled with some of the most iconic-and crowded-national parks in the nation, including Yosemite, Sequoia, and Joshua Tree. One park that miraculously flies under-the-radar, though, is Lassen Volcanic National Park, the least visited in the state with around 500,000 annual visitors (for reference, Yosemite sees about nine times that amount).
Nestled in central Northern California, this sleeper hit has a lot of elements similar to Yellowstone: your bubbling mud pots, hot springs, and freezing royal-blue lakes. Another thing the two share? The potential for volcanic eruption at any moment. Lassen Peak is an active volcano, though its most recent eruptions took place back in 1917, so there’s (probably) nothing to fear as you trek up the mountain and drink in the views of the Cascade Range. If you’d rather keep things closer to sea level, try paddling on pristine and peaceful Manzanita Lake, or exploring the Bumpass Hell area, a hydrothermal hot spot filled with billowing basins and kaleidoscopic springs.
Colorado With about 4 million fewer annual visitors than Rocky Mountain National Park, Black Canyon feels downright sleepy compared to the Centennial State’s more popular parks. Located near the quaint town of Montrose in the remote western part of Colorado, the state’s least visited park gets its name from a canyon so astonishingly deep and narrow-a gash in the ground carved over the course of millions of years by the raging Gunnison River-it’s almost constantly draped in its own shadow.
Masochists who don’t fear heights or death can hike certain routes down to the canyon floor, but if that sounds like a nightmare, there are plenty of scenic trails and outlooks along the south rim, each offering unique vantage points of a chasm so jagged and slim it looks like planet Earth got a giant paper cut. The north rim is even quieter, hardly getting any visitors since it takes a few hours’ drive all the way around the canyon to access it. The solitude, though, is well worth the cost of gas.
South Carolina In the national park Venn diagram between Everglades and Redwood, Congaree National Park is the overlap. This tiny 26,000-acre park smack dab in the center of South Carolina has the murky look and feel of Florida’s Everglades, complete with unnervingly dark water, along with some of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi. The result is a singularly unique park woven with meandering creeks and the namesake Congaree River, which provides a killer backdrop for paddling.
Though it may look like a big ol’ swamp, it’s actually a massive floodplain; the river routinely floods, carrying vital nutrients down into the roots of skyscraping giants like loblolly pines, laurel oaks, and swamp tupelos. This being flat-as-a-flapjack South Carolina, the trails are all easy (albeit occasionally muddy). An absolute must is the mud-free elevated Boardwalk Loop Trail, which winds through high-canopy forests so dense it gives the park an eerie, Blair Witch Project kind of vibe. But don’t worry-the only wildlife you’re likely to see are owls, armadillos, and otters.
Texas Talk about remote. In far West Texas, Big Bend National Park hugs the Rio Grande River with Mexico just on the other bank (the park is named for… wait for it… a gigantic bend in the river). Despite the fact that it offers some of the most awe-inspiring backpacking in the US, fewer folks visit Big Bend each year than watch the Longhorns play in Texas Memorial Stadium over the course of two or three Saturdays.
If you’re going, traverse the high country of the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range completely contained within the borders of a national park, or go lower to the trails on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Or just spend the day kayaking to your heart’s content. Once night falls, you’ll witness one of the greatest celestial panoramas you’ll likely ever see, as Big Bend’s far-flung location gives it the darkest measured skies in the continental US.
Texas If you thought Big Bend was underrated, try visiting Texas’ other super-remote national park, which sees about half the annual visitors. Located in the far corner of sleepy West Texas a stone’s throw from the New Mexico border, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is home to the state’s tallest peaks-plus some 80 miles worth of trails to get you up there. Guadalupe Peak, for example, is an 8.5-mile roundtrip beast with 3,000 feet of elevation gain and enough endless switchbacks to demoralize The Rock. But the sense of accomplishment-and the sweeping 360-degree desert views-you’ll find at the top of Texas’ tallest mountain are the stuff of bucket list dreams.
It isn’t all Olympic-level hiking, though. The diversity in terrain throughout Guadalupe Mountains is striking, from soaring peaks to peaceful springs, foliage-filled canyons, and sand dunes so sugary-white you’d think you were in Pensacola.
Florida In south Florida, Everglades National Park tends to absorb all the attention. So while a million annual visitors flock to the larger park, sneak out to an adjoining park with half the traffic-one that’s so underrated and undiscovered that even people living just 45 minutes away in Miami haven’t heard of it.
Despite the proximity, Biscayne National Park is a far cry from South Beach. At 172,971 acres, 95% of which is underwater, this is a watery wonderland like nothing else in the National Park Service. It’s home to the largest coral reef on the continent and an incredible amount of biodiversity, with 600 species of native fish plus manatees, crocodiles, sea turtles, and birds aplenty. Naturally, this is a park where you need to get out on (or in) the water to truly experience it. Departing from the visitor center marina, Biscayne leads guided tours that range from paddleboarding trips through mangroves in Jones Lagoon to snorkeling at shipwrecks.
Michigan Because it’s a 45-mile long island in the middle of Lake Superior, accessible only by three-hour boat ride or 45-minute seaplane flight and closed all winter, Isle Royale tallies an ultra-low visitor count: more folks visit Yellowstone in a single day than Isle Royale might see in a year. And once you get to this little rock of isolated wilderness you’ll be handsomely rewarded by seeing nary a soul.
That alone makes it incredible for some peace and quiet on a backpacking trip. Hikes will often find you alone on a trail, under fir and spruce trees with peeks of the lake. Fishing is a favorite pastime, as is kayaking, and diving with plenty of shipwrecks to explore. Moose are abundant, as are wolves. Over the past decade, the island’s celebrated pack dwindled to just two wolves, until 2018 when the National Park Service decided to restore the population-and as of spring 2019, the pack was up to 14. Stop in and say hello (you know… from a distance) before continuing along Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, yet another treasure trove of natural wonders most Americans have yet to catch wind of.
Arizona There’s nothing petrifying about Petrified Forest National Park, nor is there really anything forested about it. Hidden away in northeastern Arizona along a dusty stretch of Route 66 that looks like something from Cars, this mysterious 221,390-acre park has a lot more to it than meets the eye-except people, apparently, since the park gets less than one fifth the visitors the Grand Canyon sees each year.
Unlike any forest you’ve been to, Petrified Forest gets its name from the copious boulder-sized petrified logs strewn across the arid desert landscape. Some 200 million years ago, mighty trees stood here in what was once a tropical forest before being washed away by ancient rivers, buried under sediment, and slowly crystallized by volcanic ash and silica. Today, long gone are the rivers and leaves, replaced by petrified wood composed almost entirely of solid quartz and bedazzled by minerals like iron, carbon, and manganese, which give the logs shimmering tints of purple and green. Hiking trails here are short, but they pack a wallop of wow as you get up close and personal with these prehistoric gems.
Utah Located near the charming desert town of Moab in southeastern Utah, Canyonlands actually has a lot in common with that other canyon park. For instance, both colossal chasms were carved by the Colorado River, both are high desert meccas of red-hued earth, and both boast endless vistas of a landscape that looks all too otherworldly to exist on this planet. We suggest recruiting a buddy or two, hopping in a 4×4, and driving down White Rim Road, a 100-mile trip around and below the mesa top. You’ll spend hours taking in tremendous Mars-like desert panoramas while the crowds over at nearby Arches National Park are stuck in traffic.
To get even more secluded, visit in the wintertime, when the vast landscape morphs into a wonderland of snow-swept mesa tops dotted with hoof prints from mule deer ( the Utah equivalent of reindeer). Here, the four primary sections-Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon-are ripe for exploration. And at night, turn your gaze upward: Canyonlands is home to some of the darkest skies in the country.
Alaska There’s big, and then there’s Wrangell. At 13.2 million acres this colossal park, the nation’s largest, is six times the size of Yellowstone and boasts not one but four major mountain ranges, including nine of the 16 tallest peaks in the US, the largest glacial system in the US, and only 75,000 annual visitors to enjoy them.
Trek on horseback through the wilds to glacial river sources, raft down through glacial-melted whitewater, or helicopter over the massive glaciers of Bagley Icefield, the largest of its kind in North America. During your trip, you’ll see more caribou, moose, grizzlies, and wolves than you will people. And unlike many national parks across the country, this is one you’ll definitely want to hit in winter.
North Dakota You might not even know it’s there: in the vastly misunderstood state of North Dakota, usually thought of as just flat, rolling grasslands, Theodore Roosevelt National Park appears as if out of nowhere: where endless grass once stretched to the horizon, craggy, tree-dotted canyons flank the road. Petrified forests and river washes spread out between them, and mountains somehow appear like magic. The rangers still say “you betcha,” though. Some things about North Dakota are correctly understood.
This is where the Badlands start cutting into the landscape, carving sharp rock faces and hoodoos into the countryside, where the night sky alternates between panoramic star show and explosive thunderstorms, and where packs of buffalo and wild horses roam with abandon among its river valleys and painted hills. And there’s history: the only National Park named after a single person, it was a source of inspiration for our bespectacled 26th President, heavily influencing his conservation policies. You can still visit his Elkhorn Ranch–the foundation stones of the cabin, anyway–and perhaps be inspired yourself.
Nevada Next time you’re in Vegas, pack a tent, add a few days to your trip, and head four hours up US-93 to Great Basin, where you can trade the neon lights of Sin City for the hyper-real glow of the Milky Way. To see the stars, stay at the Wheeler Peak campground (at nearly 10,000 feet, you’ll feel the elevation), and in the morning, hike up to the summit at 13,065 feet-a completely doable trek, even if you partied hard back in LV.
Get things twisted with the ancient Bristlecone pines: shaped into surreal configurations by wind, snow, and rain, they’re the oldest non-clonal species on the planet and, having survived ice ages and volcanic eruptions, they’ve seen some things. Then take things underground with a ranger-guided tour of the Lehman Caves, the only way you’re allowed inside (scope it out beforehand with a virtual tour). After dark, take advantage of those light pollution-free skies with one of the ranger-led astronomy programs.
Washington In the deep-emerald forests near the Canadian border, North Cascades is frequently overlooked in favor of towering Rainier and the rainforests of Olympic in the pantheon of Washington’s national parks. But those in the know hold North Cascades among the country’s greatest natural treasures. Often called the American Alps, it’s a dense, ancient forest landscape full of surprises, from ice caves carved into glaciers– more than any US park, outside of Alaska– to towering cliff faces and opal waterways hidden in the valleys.
Within its rugged and remote boundaries, you’ll experience everything that makes the Pacific Northwest so enchanting. Be prepared for elevation changes and set aside ample time: the main road through the park– the one you’ll take to the turquoise gem of Lake Diablo–will take you six hours driving in and out. And don’t leave without seeing those cascading waterfalls, including Colonial Creek Falls, the tallest in the continental US. They’re the namesake of the range, after all.
Minnesota Located deep in the northern part of Minnesota, Voyageurs is so underrated it seldom even makes underrated lists. What those out of the loop are missing is an absolute paradise for lake-lovers, canoeists and kayakers, and stargazers. That lofty promise of 10,000 lakes in Minnesota? Voyageurs has over 30, along the US-Canada border (bring your passport, as you may unwittingly float into a new country). It’s broken up and divided by a series of interconnected waterways that the early voyagers used as a means of transportation, with a massive chain of islands dotting the interconnected waterways decorated by giant cliffs and gushing waterfalls.
On land there are twenty seven miles of trails to explore, plus petroglyphic evidence of inhabitants going back over ten thousand years. The park preserves over 400 archeological sites and counting, plus sixteen historical sites on the National Register. That includes the Ellsworth Rock Gardens, with rock sculptures by creator Jack Ellsworth, compared to the works of modern masters.
Arizona While it may be cliché to say the Sonoran Desert looks like the background of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, it’s certainly not untrue: hiking, biking, and driving through the forest of nearly 2 million lanky, 40-foot-tall cacti that make up Saguaro National Park is almost certain to take you back to those Saturday mornings eating Froot Loops in front of the TV. Long overshadowed by the Grand Canyon, Saguaro’s namesake giants-found only in southern Arizona and northern Mexico-sit just outside Tucson, making this one of the easiest-to-access national parks in the entire system.
Yet in 2021, it received just over a million visitors. (Compare that to Yellowstone’s 5 million.) But its relative obscurity is also its greatest strength: Here, you can still feel like you’re lost in nature without delving into the wilds of some remote backcountry. Hike the 7.9 mile Wasson Peak loop for sweeping vistas or trek amongst the saguaros on the Garwood Trail.
California It’s no secret that California is home to some incredible national parks. But while places like Yosemite and Redwood get all the street cred-and thus all the crowds-quiet giants like Channel Islands National Park, just 90 minutes off the coast of Los Angeles, have remained blissfully underrated. Sometimes referred to as the Galapagos of North America, unlike nearby Catalina Island, there are no cars, gift shops, or restaurants on the service-free islands. Instead you’ll find untouched nature just a ferry ride from Ventura, shuttling you back in time.
The park’s five islands offer unreal oceanic kayaking, dramatic cliffs, natural sea caves, solitary beaches, and scenic hikes like the 1.5 mile figure eight trail on Ancapa, the closest and most popular of the land masses. Plus, they’re home to nearly 150 endemic species: whales, bald eagles, sea lions, and rare miniature foxes. Who knew foxes were beach bums?
West Virginia Designated in December 2020 as the United States’ newest national park, New River Gorge National Park in southern West Virginia is home to more than 65,000 acres of lush Appalachian mountains and forest, as well as various superlatives: It’s best recognized by its dizzyingly tall bridge-the third-highest in the US-and its 53 miles of the New River, which despite its name is believed to be one of the oldest rivers on the planet.
Although the misty mountains may look soothing, this is not a place for the faint of heart: In New River Gorge, rock climbers can scale to extreme heights, and river rafters can careen through Class IV and Class V rapids. Oh, and also there’s ghosts–those who perished in the gunfights, cave-ins, and explosions during the days when the area was the frontier of coal mining. Even fearless ghost hunters might find themselves spooked by the various ghost towns tucked in throughout the area.
Indiana Indiana in general, and Chicago in particular, doesn’t exactly conjure images of Mother Nature’s splendor so much as it does evoke thoughts of public transit, deep-dish pizza, and bracing winters. But just 30 minutes outside the Windy City sits the relatively new Indiana Dunes National Park (upgraded from Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore) with gargantuan sand dunes, spectacular–and secluded–lakefront sunsets, and some of the country’s most ecologically rich flora, fauna, and vegetation.
And you can practically have it all to yourselves, as it’s one of the least-visited in the national parks system. Here, day-trippers usually wait for when the weather gets warm to lounge by the shores of Lake Michigan, and hike over 50 miles of trails of rugged dunes, wetlands, rivers and prairies. But those in the know come year-round, as each season offers a new experience, always a surprisingly quick escape from the bustle of nearby Chicago.
Alaska Alaska, the state with the second-most national parks, is also home to some of the least-visited in the entire system. But that’s definitely not from a lack of physical beauty-the Last Frontier’s remote, imposing mountains, shrubby tundras, and expansive valleys need no introduction. Rather it’s that some locations are so far-flung only the most adventurous travelers tend to forge ahead.
Of the state’s eight parks, Kenai Fjords is easily the most accessible: just a few hours’ drive or train ride south from Anchorage on the Alaska Railroad, open all year round, and free to enter. Carved by glaciers over several millennia, here you’ll find steep fjords, temperate rainforests, scraggly glaciers, plenty of coastline and the most notable feature: dozens of 23,000-year-old glaciers. Explore the park by land, plane, or sea and you’re in for a spectacle of electric-blue prehistoric glaciers, massive breaching whales, and cruises and kayak trips that’ll take you close to the plentiful wildlife action: winding through fields of icebergs in the company of sea otters, puffins, eagles and more.
New Mexico No offense to Batman, but the Dark Knight’s luxurious bat cave can’t hold a candle-or a flickering, old-fashioned lantern-to the tunnels of New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Hidden away in the Guadalupe Mountains of southern New Mexico, the park’s immense underground labyrinth of cavities were created hundreds of millions of years ago.
The caverns hide dozens of subterranean splendors, including stalactites, stalagmites, and a population of 700,000+ Brazilian free-tailed bats that migrate upward nightly in a quiet fluttering tornado. Plus underground treasures like the aptly-named Big Room, the largest cave chamber in North America, reachable only via a hike that’ll take you as deep underground as the Empire State Building takes people into the sky.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.
Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on IG @matt_kirouac.
When the waves of Lake Huron closed over my head as I sank down to the bottom of the Great Lake, I admit I was a little panicky. I definitely thought about drowning. After all, I’d nearly drowned three times in my life.
Though the first two times I was too young to now recall, the third time was in Wisconsin and the sensation has stuck with me. I remember how, as a middle schooler, I got pulled deeper and deeper into a wave pool until every wave sucked me underneath just long enough to choke on a gurgly mouthful of water. Despite kicking and fighting to swim back to safety, I could feel the water overtaking me, bubbling up over my head as I sank down. The pool was choking me, I was suffocating, and the fear of death was right in my face. As you can probably guess, I was eventually saved. Someone noticed and pulled me out of the pool, and that relief was enormous.
But here I was again, as an adult, watching sediment from the bottom of the lake swirl up around me. But this time I wasn’t drowning. This time I was perfectly safe. This time I was in a submarine.
My small group and I were passengers on one of Viking Cruises’ newest itineraries, the Great Lakes Explorer. The expedition allows guests on the Viking Octantis ship to see one of the great lakes from the other side of the surface. Though guests can participate in science-research activities like microplastics research, bird-watching, and weather balloon launches, it’s also just really cool to dive in a submarine. Whether you’re overcoming your own childhood experiences or you’re just an adventurer at heart, here’s what to know about going on a submarine expedition in the Great Lakes.
Boarding a submarine
These are-of course-yellow submarines. Can you guess their names? If you picked John, Paul, George, and Ringo… you’re absolutely right.
The Beatles can go down to about 1,000 feet and stay underwater for eight hours. Each side of the submarine has three very comfortable seats for passengers, surrounded by glass domes that allow optimal viewing at the dive site. It’s a small space (you can’t stand up straight), but you can hardly tell once you’re in the water. The seat platforms swivel so you can look out over the lake floor instead of staring at the pilot and other passengers.
The submarines are equipped with lights, cameras, and some handy claws to pick up anything valuable the pilot sees on the lakebed. They’re typically used as research vessels to take information back to the Octantis’ science program, which works in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA eventually plans to tack instruments to the bottoms of the submarines to get more detailed information about the water, the lakes, and the lakebed.
If you’re like me (that is, both claustrophobic and afraid of drowning), you’ll be happy to know that the subs are awash with safety features. Onboard, you’ll find directions on what to do if the pilot goes unconscious, supplemental oxygen hoods, a big green button to push if the sub needs to surface immediately, and a program that tells the submarine to surface if it doesn’t detect any activity from the pilot. Up above you, the sub is followed by a safety boat with a team that ensures the surrounding waters stay clear and everyone is safe beneath the surface. (So even when the safety boat radioed our pilot, Peppe from Sweden, and said, “You’re a little close to the rocks, but that’s as good a dive site as any,” I decided to trust the marine scientist.)
Sinking down to the depths
Here’s how the dive works. You take Viking-owned Zodiacs (military-grade rigid inflatable boats) to a predetermined dive site that the scientists onboard the ship picked out that morning. For now, the sites will always be in Canadian waters-because Viking is Norwegian, the Jones Act disallows them from deploying subs in the United States. To transfer from the Zodiac to the submarine, you have to hold onto a metal bar, climb out of the Zodiac, and sit down on the edge of the submarine hatch. You swing your legs into the hatch, then climb down a three-rung ladder into the middle of the sub to find your assigned seat.
Once everyone is in the sub, the pilot climbs in, closes the hatch, and then radios to the safety boat to make sure you’re clear to sink. With the all-clear, air is released from outside tanks on the submarine, and thrusters push the entire thing underwater.
For our dive, we went down about fifty feet to the floor of the lake. It had been raining all morning, which stirred up the sediment around us, making everything a mossy green colour that spotlights sparkled through to highlight the lakebed. I saw a few tiny fish and a ton of invasive zebra mussel shells. Depending on the weather and your dive site, you’re likely to see more. But even just exploring the floor of the Great Lakes, something almost no one in history has done before, is an amazing thing.
Sign me up!
If you want to take a submarine dive into the Great Lakes yourself, you have to be a passenger on the Viking Octantis or sister ship, Viking Polaris. As of this writing, no other companies offer passenger submarine trips down into the lakes-especially not in a military-grade exploration submarine that is worth $6 million each. The Great Lakes expedition itineraries start at about $6,500 and can be booked on the Viking website.
Hike, kayak, or get yourself a cinnamon roll afterwards
What you can see nearby depends on your dive site. On Octantis, the subs went down in Lake Huron and Lake Superior-my dive was in Lake Huron, surrounded by the stunning Georgian Bay UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Canada. Here, you can kayak in the bay, hike through the surrounding landscape, and enjoy a Zodiac nature cruise.
Or if you can, try to take your submarine dive at Silver Islet in Ontario’s slice of Lake Superior. The small community is historic and completely off the grid, and the general store has some of the best cinnamon rolls you can find around the Great Lakes.