America’s most popular national parks are the Great Smoky Mountains, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, collectively drawing over 17.5 million visitors during 2013. This list is not about those parks. The following parks — all within the continental U.S. — have been forgotten, overshadowed, or are simply too remote for your average visitor. But for a discerning vacationer, one looking to see untouched parks without the crowds or bustle of Yellowstone, these parks offer spectacular and unseen glimpses of wildlife, caves and the night sky. And who knows, you might live within a few hours of one or two of them.
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Shenandoah National Park
Location: Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia
Which is: 90 minutes northwest of Richmond, VA, and 90 minutes southwest of Washington, D.C.
Visitors in 2013: 1,136,505
This Park: is the most popular park on this list, yes, but it’s also the only centrally located National Park in the northeast (the other being Acadia up in Maine) and is extremely underutilized for its location. The park incorporates a long and narrow section of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River and Virginia Piedmont that facilitates hiking, backcountry camping and guided tours.
GP Verdict: The 105-mile stretch of road called Skyline Drive winds along the mountain ridge of Shenandoah. Particularly in the fall, when the leaves are changing colors, the drive is well worth a detour for anyone driving through Virginia. Almost 75 look-outs along the drive offer gorgeous views of the river, mountains and the Piedmont.
Biscayne National Park
Location: Miami-Dade County, Florida
Which is: 45 minutes south of Miami, FL
Visitors in 2013: 486,848
This Park: is 95 percent underwater, with a mangrove forest making up the shoreline. A portion of the Florida Reef — one of the largest coral reefs left in the world — resides inside the park, along with the northernmost extension of the Florida keys.
GP Verdict: The Florida Everglades are a classic stop on any Florida tour, but for a more adventurous, hands-on experience, anyone with a snorkel needs to take a dip in Biscayne. Since the 16th century, the park’s reefs have sunk some 44 ships, leading to some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the nation. The marine life is fragile and susceptible to current environmental changes, so see it while it lasts — but only after you drink your fill in Miami and South Beach.
Congaree National Park
Location: Richland County, South Carolina
Which is: 30 minutes southeast of Columbia, SC
Visitors in 2013: 120,340
This Park: is the largest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the U.S. The 41 square mile swamp contains bobcats, armadillos and alligators along with the tallest and largest Loblolly Pines in existence, which form some of the highest remaining deciduous forest canopies in the world.
GP Verdict: Close to the Southern culture and fantastic food of Columbia, SC, Congaree is the best place to immerse yourself in the foliage of the Lowcountry, one of the most unique regions on the East Coast. Foot paths, ranging from under one mile to over ten, take you around the park while free park ranger canoe rides tour the swamp on weekends.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Location: Edmonson County, Kentucky
Which is: 90 minutes north of Knoxville, TN and 90 minutes south of Louisville, KY
Visitors in 2013: 494,541
This Park: is a section of Mammoth Cave, which, at over 400 miles in length (10 of which are open to the public), is the biggest known cave in the world by a factor of two. Above ground, the park offers hiking, biking, canoeing and horseback riding through the rolling green Kentucky countryside.
GP Verdict: Centrally located but offering an extraordinarily other-worldly experience, this park is the best way to learn about and experience caves firsthand. Rangers offer tours by candlelight or flashlight, which can range from a 75-minute quarter mile walking tour to six hours spent crawling through five miles of tight spaces during the “Wild Cave Tour”.
Crater Lake National Park
Location: Klamath County, Oregon
Which is: Two hours southeast of Eugene, OR
Visitors in 2013: 523,027
This Park: contains the deepest lake in North America, Crater Lake, which is known for its incredible blue hue. It also features a thick stretch of porous rock called The Pumice Desert where plants can’t grow and Jurassic Park-like spires of cemented ash and pumice called The Pinnacles.
GP Verdict: It’s not the easiest place to reach, but well worth it for the rare geological features and stunning bike trail encircling the lake. Just remember to pack a coat: even in the summer, temperatures hover around the 60s, and the water stays at a wickedly chilly 55.
North Cascades National Park
Location: Mount Vernon, Washington
Which is: Two hours northeast of Seattle, WA
Visitors in 2013: 21,623
This Park: is protected as “Stephen Mather Wilderness”, meaning that it’s a haven for the 75 species of mammals, 200 species of bird and 11 species of fish that call the rugged Cascade peaks their home. Few buildings exist along the trails, making this as close to the Alaskan Wilderness as you can get while remaining in the lower 48.
GP Verdict: For climbers, the park is nicknamed the “American Alps”, partly due to Mount Terror. Yeah, that’s a real mountain, but unless you’re ready for a challenging climb, consider something more forgiving. The high amount of snowfall and glaciers make this a beautiful park for snow hiking and exploring both waterfalls and an amazingly diverse set of plant species.
Location: White Pine County, Nevada
Which is: Four and a half hours north of Las Vegas
Visitors in 2013: 92,893
This Park: is known for its incredible collection of conifers, including ancient groves of bristlecone pines, the oldest non-clonal organisms on Earth. (In 1964, the U.S. Forest Service cut down Prometheus, a 5,000-year-old Great Basin Bristlecone Pine.) The Lehman Caves, a marble cave system filled with incredible stalactites, stalagmites, pools and over 300 rare shield formations, are another popular attraction.
GP Verdict: Experience the Southwest in all its glory with ancient trees, winding creeks, dry rock and prickly foliage. Visit from April to June or September to November, when temperatures stay mild.
Isle Royale National Park
Location: Houghton, Michigan
Which is: 35 minutes by plane from Laurium, MI and 90 minutes by ferry from Grand Portage, MN
Visitors in 2013: 16,274
This Park: is the least visited park in the continental U.S., and for good reason. Commonly accessed by ferry from Grand Portage, MN, Copper Harbor, MI and Houghton, MI or seaplane from Laurium, MI, the island is inaccessible by car or on foot.
GP Verdict: Yes, it’s remote, but if you’re in the Great Lakes Region, take a weekend and see the rocky cliffs and amazing untouched wildlife, including the extremely unique relationship between the island’s wolves and moose. Fishing, camping, hiking and canoeing are available for adventurers while Rock Harbor houses an island shop and lodge.
Wind Cave National Park
Location: Custer County, South Dakota
Which is: 90 minutes south of Rapid City, SD
Visitors in 2013: 516,142
This Park: breathes. No really, caves equalize pressure with the outside air, causing large movements of air. The openings to Wind Cave are relatively small compared to the size of the cave, creating strong breezes and giving the cave its name.
GP Verdict: Wind Cave is home to 95 percent of all the discovered boxwork — an amazing honeycomb pattern of intersecting thin shards of the mineral calcite — on Earth. Above ground the park has 44 square miles of South Dakota landscape, home to bison, elk, pronghorn and coyotes.
Big Bend National Park
Location: Brewster County, Texas
Which is: 4 hours south of Odessa, TX
Visitors in 2013: 316,953
The Park: is a Rhode Island-sized one-stop-shop of hiking, golfing, biking, horseback riding and camping for any ability level.
GP Verdict: We featured this park in our Armchair Adventure series and couldn’t help including it on this list. Texas has geography unlike anywhere else in the country; walking in West Texas is like walking on the moon. Experience West Texas through its untouched National Park, and hop down to Mexico since you’ve already made the trip.