From the Field

10 Great National Parks You’ve Never Heard Of

Petrified Forest National Park. Photo: © Andrew V Kearns VIP/NPS
Petrified Forest National Park. Photo: © Andrew V Kearns VIP/NPS

Grand Canyon. Great Smoky Mountains. Yellowstone. Yosemite. You’ve heard of, or maybe even traveled to, our nation’s most popular national parks, from Acadia’s rock beaches to Rocky Mountain’s snow-capped peaks. But the United States is home to 59 national parks, many of which are off the beaten path.

Avoid the crowds, cars, and noise of the popular parks — famously called “National Parking Lots” ­­by Edward Abbey — and get your dose of the great outdoors at one of these lesser-known national park destinations.

You may also be interested in these blogs: 10 Favorite National Wildlife Refuges and 10 Great State Parks for Wildlife

  1. The Painted Wall. Photo: © Damian Manda/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
    The Painted Wall. Photo: © Damian Manda/Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    Tucked away in Colorado’s southwestern corner, the sheer scale of this 48-mile-long canyon takes most visitors by surprise. Sculpted by the Gunnison River over 2 millions years, the canyon walls are nearly 2,000 feet tall, with near-vertical drops down to the river. Trails along the north and south rims wind through pinyon-juniper forests and gambel oak thickets typical of the Colorado Plateau. Hiking within the canyon is limited to experienced rock climbers willing to make their own route — there are no maintained trails to the bottom and crumbling rock makes the climbing difficult. Even if you’re not a climber, the views from the rim alone are worth a trip. Don’t miss the much-photographed painted wall, it’s the tallest cliff in Colorado at 2,250 feet high.

  2. Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. Photo © Joe Jiang/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
    Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. Photo © Joe Jiang/Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    The park is famous for its vast quantities of petrified wood, often in massive pieces that still look like tree trunks on a forest floor. These fossilized trees date back to the Late Triassic period, more than 200 million years ago. Petrified wood isn’t the only fossil found here — paleontologists have uncovered several fossils of dinosaurs and other dinosaur-like animals. While the red, grey, and cream-colored rocks of the park may look like a barren desert, in between the mesas lies a grassland ecosystem. Visitors should watch for herds of pronghorn antelope, which are a common sight within the park. Geocachers can test their skills searching for three hidden geocaches, while history buffs can drive part of historic Route 66, which runs through the park.

  3. The forest of Congaree. Photo: © Jeff/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
    The forest of Congaree. Photo: © Jeff/Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    This 27,000-acre park protects the largest intact stand of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the entire southeast. Because much of this forest was spared when industrial logging swept throughout the southeast, visitors can catch a glimpse of the ancient forests seen by early explorers. In fact, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto passed through the area in the 1540s. Congaree is especially famous for its trees. More than 75 different species are found within the park’s borders, including several champion trees — the tallest or largest of their species. Ancient bald cypress trees tower above winding waterways and sloughs, which are best explored by canoe or kayak. More than 30 miles of trails cross the park, too, but lookout for creeks and occasional flooding.

  4. Bristlecone Pines in Great Basin National Park. Photo ©  Tee Poole/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
    Bristlecone Pines in Great Basin National Park. Photo © Tee Poole/Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    Just across the border from Utah, this park captures the best of the basin and range topography that covers much of Nevada. Dominated by sagebrush, the Great Basin ecosystem is under threat from invasive cheatgrass. Native to Europe, Asia and Northern Africa, cheatgrass spreads quickly, is extremely flammable, and is difficult to eradicate. The park also contains Wheeler Peak, one of the state’s tallest mountains. An 8.6-mile long trail to the summit offers a tough hike and outstanding views. Hiking on the mountain also offers a chance to see one of the oldest living organisms on earth — the bristlecone pine. One of these trees, nicknamed Prometheus, was cut down as part of a scientific study in 1964. Researchers later discovered that the tree had 4,900 growth rings, meaning that it was nearly 5,000 years old. (Bristlecone pines grow so slowly and in such harsh conditions that they don’t always grow a ring each year.) At the time, it was the oldest living bristlecone pine ever identified.

  5. A geothermal hotspot in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Photo: © jankgo/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
    A geothermal hotspot in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Photo: © jankgo/Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    Lassen Volcanic is a geology enthusiast’s dream: bubbling mud pots, boiling pools of water, steaming ground, and volcanic vents are found throughout the park. You can also find all four types of volcanoes: shield, plug dome, cinder cone, and composite. As its name suggests, this park is powered by volcanic activity deep beneath Lassen Peak. The southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range, Lassen Peak forms part of a chain of volcanic hotspots around the entire Pacific Rim. Visitor’s needn’t worry about being caught in an eruption: the last one occurred in 1915, and the hotspot only erupts every few thousands years.

  6. Upper Muley Twist, Capitol Reef National Park. Photo © Jesse Varner/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
    Upper Muley Twist, Capitol Reef National Park. Photo © Jesse Varner/Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    Capitol Reef’s brilliant rock layers, spires, canyons, and arches are part of the Waterpocket Fold, a fold in the Earth’s crust nearly 100 miles long. Called a monocline, this geological formation is named after the pools of water that form throughout the rocks when rainwater erodes the sandstone. Pinyon-juniper forests are home to a wide variety of desert animals, including desert bighorn sheep and canyon bats, the smallest bats in North America. You might also catch a glimpse of the ring-tailed cat, a long-tailed relative of the raccoon that lives throughout the desert southwest. In many parts of the park, the soil is covered with a thin, crunchy, black crust. Called a biological soil, this crust is actually full of cyanobacteria, fungi, lichens, mosses, and algae. Horseback riding and pack trips are allowed inside the park, but check the list of approved trails before you saddle up.

  7. El Capitan. Photo: © Mark Stevens/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
    El Capitan. Photo: © Mark Stevens/Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    About 265 million years ago, this national park was at the bottom of a vast tropical sea. The dramatic limestone formations visitors see today are actually a fossilized reef, which stretched 400 miles along the ancient seashore during the Permian Era. The park’s most recognizable feature is El Capitan, a towering cliff named for the Capitan limestone found in the park. Trails through the foothills offer a glimpse of the Chihuahuan desert ecosystem, with desert-dwelling plants like yucca, agave, and dramatic ocotillo. Other trails into the park lead to McKittrick Canyon, where a creek feeds an unexpectedly lush deciduous forest, famous for its fall color.

  8. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado. Photo © ElCapitan/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
    Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado. Photo © ElCapitan/Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    The tallest sand dunes in North America aren’t found at the beach. This national park has 30 square miles of undulating dunes, which formed about 440,000 years ago when winds piled sand from an ancient lake bottom into 750-foot tall dunes along the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. While the dunes may look barren, hundreds of animal species call the park home. Entomology enthusiasts should keep an eye out for the predatory Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle, one of six insect species endemic to the dunes. Great Sand Dunes National Park also includes mountains, alpine tundra, and wetland habitat called sabkha. These wetlands are fed by fluctuating groundwater, which leaves behind white alkali deposits, which are similar to baking soda. When you’re sick of hiking, try your skill at sandboarding and sand sledding on specially designed boards.

  9. Fort Jefferson. Photo: © Matthew Paulson through a Creative Commons license
    Fort Jefferson. Photo: © Matthew Paulson through a Creative Commons license

    Nearly 70 miles off of Key West, the seven small islands that form Dry Tortugas National Park are the very end of the Florida Keys chain. You won’t find crowds here, as the park is only accessible by boat or plane. The ruins of Fort Jefferson dominate the park’s skyline. Built in the 19th century to protect the nearby shipping channel through the Gulf of Mexico, the fort’s construction was delayed by the Civil War, and then later abandoned. Offshore lies a network of thriving coral reefs, where snorkelers and divers can see multitudes of fish, sea turtles, and the occasional American crocodile. Surprisingly, the park is also a renowned birding hotspot. While few species reside year round, these small islands provide critical resting habitat for colorful neotropical songbirds migrating across the Gulf of Mexico between North and South America.

  10. A beaver pond in Voyageurs National Park. Photo ©  J. Stephen Conn/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
    A beaver pond in Voyageurs National Park. Photo © J. Stephen Conn/Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    Anchored by three lakes, this park is a labyrinth of waterways, peninsulas, and islands spanning 340 square miles of Minnesota’s northern border. In fact, 40 percent of the park is water; the rest is forested with rock outcrops scraped clean by glaciers about 10,000 years ago. Voyageur’s forests are unique ­­— the park lies at a transition point, where southern boreal forests of jack pine and spruce meet northern hardwood forests of maple, ash, and elm. Beavers are common along the waterways, while moose and gray wolves are spotted occasionally. The park is also home to a healthy population of bald eagles, and scientists band eagle chicks hatched in the park to help monitor the ecosystem’s health. Don’t let the northern snows deter you — winter activities include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and ice fishing.

Justine E. Hausheer

Justine E. Hausheer is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy, covering the innovative fieldwork and research conducted by Conservancy’s scientists around the world. She has a degree from Princeton University and a master's in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University. Justine has battled swarms of mosquitos, steep trails, and the wilds of the Papua New Guinea rainforest — all for a good story. When not writing about conservation science, she enjoys having far-flung adventures, long hikes, and waking up at dawn to bird. More from Justine

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  1. Went to petrified forest several times as a child with my family father died when I was nine but will always remember the fun. Went lots over the next two dozen years with my family. See America before going to other countries

    1. I’ve been to the Petrified Forest as well & it’s very beautiful. I also agree 100%. Visit America & it’s territories before you visit other countries. America is full of beautiful places. I have a tourism guide for each state in the nation which will help you find some lesser – known but awesome places to visit.

      1. Funny thing about life experiences: They occur sequentially. The suggestion was for the order in which parks are visited, not as an ultimate choice.

    1. How many outside the West Coast have ever heard of or been to Pinnacles National park?

      1. Camped at Pinnacles NP in 1973. Watched a Bird Spider cross the road in the campground and next day learned that they can jump 6 or 8 feet. Not sure how far I would have jumped if it had! I remember it as a beautiful park.

  2. Black Canyon National Park is in southwestern Colorado, not southeastern as you state in the article. There’s a big difference in terrain between the two areas. 🙂

    1. Thanks Sarah, we went ahead and corrected the article, you’re completely right! Thanks for reading.

    1. My husband, son (age 10 at the time) and I actually made it down to the river at Black Canyon. It was arduous and scary and the water was polluted down there, but we enjoyed the challenge. It is a beautiful place and one we hope to visit again.

  3. We’ve been to 6 of these parks. They were all swell, but we particularly love Great Basin, Capitol Reef, and Great Sand Dunes. Hope to get to at least several more.

  4. Great list, you hit some great parks that do not make the top 10 usually. A couple of these I have yet been to.

    Lassen Park #5 is worth a few days and a days drive from Yosemite and the Redwoods. A fun fact Lassen Park also has the highest paved road in the Cascades.

    Subway Caves just outside the park, are a Lava Tube and worth a stop.
    If you need lodging near the park please check-out the St. Bernard Lodge.

  5. I would add the Lewis and Clark National and Hostoric Parks. Most notably Cape Disappointment and Fort Columbia. Dismal Nitch and Station Camp are all within minutes of each other and covers two states (Washington and Oregon)

  6. Lucky enough to have been to Great Basin in 2013, but we were too early in the year and it was still half covered in snow. Hope to get back there someday… it’s a National Park for a reason 🙂

  7. Wonderful parks to explore! Climbed Lassen in 1981–I am sure it is still fantastic, 34 years later.

  8. Not only have I heard of those, but I actually visited more than half of them! I think you need to adjust your headlines a bit. How does “may never have heard of” sound?

    1. omg Renee – you were the kid in school who annoyed everyone by saying, “that’s not true, or I’ve done that.” The article should actually be called “10 parks everyone but Renee has never heard of because she’ll look them up and say she has even though she hasn’t. good grief – it’s a hook to grab your interest.

    1. Canoeing on the Congaree is one of the most breathtaking experiences I’ve ever had. Highly recommended!

  9. We have been to 4 (3 all in the same vacation!), REALLY want to visit 3 others, and the remaining 3, while I have heard of them, I haven’t decided when/if we’ll get to them.

    Guadalupe is AMAZING!!! Well worth the travel out there. You can day trip to Carlsbad Caverns.

  10. The Black Canyon is in the Southwestern Corner of Colorado. The article stated it correctly.

  11. Pretty funny that the “science blog” claims something–anything–is “200,000 million years” old. Those petrified trees are pretty old, but maybe not quite that old. Proofreading, anyone?

  12. I’ve been to the Dry Tortugas and loved it. We also explored Lassen and thought it was very interesting. I hope to visit many more parks in the next few years.

  13. Was a summer seasonal Ranger at a somewhat obscure National Monument. Have been interested in NPS since. Am always looking for lesser known and perhaps less visited parks and monuments. Have heard of or seen most of your postings. Thanks for sharing!

  14. I’ve been to the petrified forest national park an the guadalupe national park an would love to go back and really spend more time at each of these.

  15. Black Canyon twice briefly – second time vertical dive in a helicopter.
    Petrified Forest / Painted Desert a few times.
    Capitol Reef twice.
    Guadalupe Mountains twice. Rope too short to hang hammock between 2 trees, moved 100 yards away and napped at 4 pm under blue sky. Thunder woke us soon after and the first trees were charred. Ran down.
    Great Sand Dunes – loudest campground ever.
    Hoped to make Lassen but did not.
    Congaree the only I had not heard about.

  16. This is great! You should also include Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and list Grand Teton as one of the most popular NP (always seems to be left out of these lists. It is where the Wilderness Act was created.) Also, you should mention that there are 405 units of the NPS and at least one in every state.

  17. I’m lucky enough to see Mt Lassen every day and live but a short drive away. My father sent plenty of time visiting Mt Lassen as a child and as an adult it was one of his favorite places!

  18. I think the description of the forest transition zone for Voyageurs is incorrect. The boreal forest of jack pine and spruce is the north of the hardwood forests of maple, etc., not the other way around. I assume/hope NPS didn’t write the final copy.

    1. Hi Thomas,

      Thanks for your feedback! I understand the confusion. In Voyageurs the southern boreal forests are to the north, while the northern hardwood forests are to the south. “Southern boreal forests” are called “southern” because they the southernmost extent of the boreal forest ecosystem, while “northern hardwood forests” are called “northern” because they are hardwood forests that extend the farthest north. You can learn more about the park’s plants here:

      1. I knew what you meant by the northern hardwoods meeting the southern boreal forest. I noticed it when a friend took me to the UP, then over to northern Wisconsin, then to Voyageurs, which is wonderful for scenery, wildlife, and history. I noticed the change in first and thought it was magical.

  19. The comments give the impression that the article’s title should have been “10 National Parks Justine E. Hausheer Had Never Heard Of.”

  20. Capital Reef is a welcome relief from the crowds of Bryce Canyon and Zion. Lasson is like another planet w its steam pots and lava tubes. I look forward to visiting all of them!

  21. you forgot an extremely important detail – NEVER walk on biological soil!

  22. What a great list! We love when Lassen Volcanic National Park gets some much-deserved attention. Ranger-led snow shoe tours are happening now through snowmelt, and visitors should plan to attend Lassen’s Dark Sky Festival in late summer; the park is one of the last sanctuaries of natural darkness. There’s history and culture, outdoor recreation, and incredible exploring opportunities for all ages. It’s a short drive from Redding, and great for day trips. The best part? It’s never crowded… which is why it made this list!

  23. i’ve been to all of these on my 4 year National Parks Road Trip except Dry Tortuga which we decided to skip last December when we were in Everglades because we didn’t have time for the drive down the keys. We missed Voyagers last year because of trailer trouble but definitely plan to get back up there in 2015.

  24. Agree that Great Basin NP is a hidden gem. But you didn’t even mention *its* highlight: Lehman Caves. No one should visit the park without taking the time to tour the caves. Beautiful caverns with lots of formations…

  25. Great article. Looking forwarded to visiting the parks I have not yet. Love all the great comments. And not so much for the ego-centric ones. (You know who you are).

  26. There were only 3 I had not been to, Ca, TX and FL parks, bit they are on list now.

  27. Heard of all of them and been to 7. So the statement “parks you’ve never heard of” is not only stupid but further abuse of the English language.

  28. We have been in eight of them, missing Gunnison and Voyageurs National Parks. Love those we visited, strongly recomendable If you like no crouds and enjoy solitude!

  29. I’ve been to a few of those, my favorite was Dry Tortugas/ Fort Jefferson, great place to spend the day snorkeling. But watch out for the sharks. I couldn’t believe how many I saw on the flight out there. Even more troubling, when our plane took off I saw a Bullshark, that had to be over 12 feet, not 100 yards from where I had just been snorkeling. Still a fun and memorable day though.

    I’d really like to go to the petrified forest one day. My grandad always talked about how he wanted to go one day. He never did, but I’d like to make it.

  30. I’d just like to add a few points of attraction about Petrified Forest. A long swath of the original roadbed of Route 66 crosses the park and you can walk it. It’s littered with old bottles and car parts. There are also the remnants of some old CCC camps. There are many wonderful groupings of petroglyphs, particularly near the pueblo ruins and the southern visitor’s center/museum, and you can take an inspiring walk through the painted desert in the Black Forest. I spent two weeks there as an artist in residence one spring, and watched the place go from snow-covered to full of wildflowers.

  31. Great Basin is my favorite national park, really my favorite part of the country.

    Capital Reef is awesome, Lassen is OK and Petrified Forest was actually kind of disappointing (I was a kid and had probably built up the idea of the place too much, expected more).

    Dry Tortugas and Great Sand Dunes are high on my list of places to get to.

    So four I hadn’t hear of anyway. I doubt there are many people that actually have not her of any of these.

  32. How about Hot Springs National Park, in Hot Springs, Arkansas! Where you can get FREE WATER! No sulphur smell either cause we are NOT on a Volcano! Beautiful park to visit..

  33. Glad to hear someone mention Isle Royale in Michigan. Have never been there, but would love to, and hope to, sometime soon. It’s quiet, beautiful, many hiking trails and great for backpacking. Also has a lodge for the less ambitious and adventurous.

  34. Hunt down and discover Grosvenor Arch…completely secluded and completely awesome!!!

  35. been to all but #3 – we’ve been to all the NP in contiguous 48 + over 100 of the other parks. Fabulous resource.

  36. Great to do list, thank you. Another unsung NPS hero is Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. Great place with none to small crowds when your near the Black Hills.

  37. The Dry Tortugas National Park is so beautiful. I can’t wait to go back. They have tours of Ft. Jefferson, and you can snorkel around the walls of the fort.

  38. I worked and lived at Congaree for 6 months. It’s a beautiful park. If you ask at the visitor center, they can direct you to the Harry Hampton Cypress tree which has knees over 6ft tall! I also got to see the National Champion Loblolly Pine and canoe down the still waters of Cedar creek. I also saw plenty of Pileated Woodpeckers and Owls while there. Free camping and free admittance! And several miles of trail (I completed what I believe to be the first ever thru-hike of Congaree in one day…at 21 miles).

  39. To say “the United States is home to 59 national parks” perpetuates public confusion about our remarkable national park system. There are actually 407 national parks (at last count) which are formally given a variety of more or less meaningless designations when first established —all managed by the National Park Service and all following the same set of management policies. This may be a distinction without a great deal of difference. Why highlight it?

  40. I’m in Toronto, but have heard of ALL of these parks. Then again, I’m unusual in that I could probably name all 59 US national parks and locate them on a blank map. But this list seems restricted to only the USA. Surely there are grand national parks outside that limit about which it might be said the majority of folks *truly* have not heard. Auyuittuq or Torngat Mountains anyone?

  41. Re: the Dry Tortugas. No (much less than a few) birds stay there year round. These keys are aptly named. There is no water there. Birds land on the Tortugas,rest a while, then take off. Any birds you see walking about more than a few steps are not going to leave. They are looking for water. If you sail in AND BRING WATER this is a great place to visit. Lots of snorkeling and walking. Tour boats don’t stay long.

  42. Here in North and South Carolina we have Pisgah and Nantahala NPs. Both provide stunning views and wonderful Appalachian historic living. Unfortunately lots of the roads are being paved, which I think takes away some of the beauty. If you get up this way and aren’t scared of heights find Buzzards Roost near I 40 by the TN border. A rocky point with a 1500 foot vertical drop overlooking the river and I 40. And if you are a motorcycle rider the roads up there are amazingly twisty. Take something like a KLR so when you find some dirt you can take off on it. There are many 4×4 rated NP roads up there.

  43. I have been to all of these parks.I have taken many photos of each. whichever park you go to take time to observe and capture the beauty that each park contains. these parks are our “national-spiritual & aesthetic heritage. we need to be relentless in helping to maintain their integrity.

  44. Dry Tortugas trivia: these islands are the most remote places from roads in the lower 48 states. Want to get away from cars? This is THE place.

  45. I have been to all but Dry Tortugas National Park and the one in California, but I have been to many, many more throughout our country and Canada as well. State parks are great, too. People who spend so much money going to resorts don’t know what they are missing!

  46. The there are no NP in IA. The Herbert Hoover Birth NHS, off of I80, in West Branch and Effegy Mounds NM in Harpers Ferry. Many wonderful state and county parks in IA however.

    Looking forward to getting to Congaree this year, after 24 years living in SC.
    If you get there, look at going to the Francis Biedler Forest and Audubon Center, in the Four Holes Swamp, about 30 miles down I26 toward Charleston, from the Congaree exit off I26, just outside of Orangeburg, SC.

  47. As a Nevada resident I have explored the Great Basin National Park and other parts of this wonderful terrain. Many birding opportunities.

  48. Yeah, well even I’ve been to the Petrified Forest and I’m from Australia! It was in one of my favourite books – the How and Why Wonder Book of amazing places so we had to go when we went to Arizona. Along with the Painted Desert. Cool! Well hot, but also cool you know?

  49. […] altogether, but at least the post closest to January 25th contains an interesting link to a list of 10 Great National Parks [in the US] You’ve Never Heard Of. André and I have actually been to 2015five of the parks featured in the article, but we might […]

  50. can you show me where i can reserch the pics and where you did it

    1. Hi, Most of the pictures are from Flickr and are available through a Creative Commons license, if you click on the part of the caption that is in Green, it will hyperlink to the photo on Flickr.