8 Underrated National Parks

May 31, 2017

  • by
  • Drew Zieff

Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier. The very mention of these parks floods the senses with imagery, even if you’ve never been. These wild places are engrained in our national consciousness—they’re not simply highlights of our physical landscape, but they’re foundational to our spiritual landscape as well. 

As well-known national parks have established themselves as monumental pieces of our country’s patchwork puzzle, they’ve inevitably become overrun by crowds. However, parks in this Active Junky list won’t find you snaking among throngs of hikers ogling like museum goers craning necks to catch a glimpse of Mona Lisa’s grin.

By all means, visit Zion, check out the Grand Canyon, plan a trip to the Smokies. Every single one of our country’s national parks is worth visiting. But there’s something to be said for embracing a lesser-known, perhaps equally-alluring alternative—about exploring beyond the crowds. 

Brush back the facade of the frequented. Explore elsewhere. Because this landscape of ours is as big as it is beautiful, and we bet you haven’t seen it all. 

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

State: Alaska
Size: 13.2 million acres
Visitors (2016): 79,047

Wrangell St. Elias National Park is the biggest national park of the bunch, yet few—aside from Alaskans and/or mountaineers—even know it exists! Astoundingly, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is home to more than 50% of the United States’ 16 tallest peaks—including renowned mountaineering objectives like the park’s eponymous Mt. Saint Elias (number two after Denali at 18,009 feet). Glaciers the size of small states stretch as far as the eye can see; bears, moose, and caribou patrol the wild terrain; and at the coast, the mountains rise up as if erupting from the sea. The scope of this park is unlike any other, and many mountains that would be famous destinations in other states remain unnamed and even unclimbed. 

Great Basin National Park

State: Nevada
Size: 77,180 acres
Visitors (2016):144,846

Sandwiched between outdoor recreation heavyweights California and Utah, Nevada often gets the short end of the stick, as many see it simply as a casino-dotted stretch of highway through the desert, a destination for a bachelor party or girls weekend, nothing more. But that all changes when you consider Great Basin National Park, home both to the skyscraping summit of Wheeler Peak and the plunging depths of the Lehman Caves. A renowned dark night sky makes Great Basin an astronomer’s paradise, but come sunrise, the views aren’t too shabby, either.

North Cascades National Park

State: Washington
Size: 504,780 acres 
Visitors (2016): 28,646

The fact that North Cascades National Park sees fewer than 30,000 visitors annually while its neighbor, Olympic National Park, sees more than ten times that, is absolutely insane, especially when you keep in mind that they’re less than 3 hours from Washington state’s biggest metro hub of Seattle. Granted, the North Cascades are decidedly more difficult to access, but those hikers, climbers, and mountaineers who venture up into this high-alpine playground are rarely if ever disappointed. Looking to hit the trail? Check out the NPS’s Wilderness Trip Planner.

National Park of American Samoa 

Territory: American Samoa
Size: 13,497 acres 
Visitors (2016): 28,892

Relatively microscopic on the park scale, this tiny slice of heaven is home to flora and fauna you might not expect to find in an American national park, including curious creatures like fruit bats, tropical fish, and brilliantly-feathered migratory birds. Bridging across three islands, the National Park of American Samoa aims to protect not only the wildlife, but the way of life and culture of the Samoan people. 

Gates of the Arctic National Park

State: Alaska
Size: 8,472,320 acres  
Visitors (2016):10,047

Enormous in size yet barely visited, Gates of the Arctic National Park cannot be tackled in a spontaneous weekend road trip. “No trails or visitor services exist in the park,” reads the NPS website; “You must be self-sufficient.” The rugged Brooks Range mountains, raging and rarely rafted waters, and endless wilderness draw only a few bold visitors to this northern outpost, often by way of bush plane.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

State: Colorado
Size: 30,750 acres 
Visitors (2016): 238,018

Most Front Range visitors and out-of-towners funnel into Rocky Mountain National Park to score their park fix, but those willing to drive a bit farther should check out the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a shadowy canyon cleaved by time into the Colorado high plains. Casual hikers get their kicks strolling around the rim, while the more adventurous can take one of the steeper, unmarked routes into the belly of the beast. Fly fishermen and climbers alike are infatuated with the Black Canyon, thanks respectively to renowned, difficult-to-access angling and challenging multi-pitch routes.

Channel Islands National Park

State: California
Size: 249,600 acres
Visitors (2016): 364,807

A cluster of five small islands off the coast of southern California, Channel Islands National Park is carefully conserved by the Park Service. Given their proximity to the buzzing beaches of California’s mainland, the small park could be overrun in a single holiday weekend. That said, entry is limited, both by decree of the Park Service as well as the fact that a plane or boat is requisite. If you do manage to visit, kayaking off the coast, hiking along the bluffs, snorkeling in the wildlife-rich Pacific, and camping in designated backcountry zones are all excellent options.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

State: Colorado 
Size: 84,736 acres 
Visitors (2016): 388,308

The burnt orange Great Sand Dunes stand ever-changing in stark contrast to the endless grays and greens of the surrounding Rockies. This Colorado park contains the tallest dunes in the continent, but you might be surprised to know that the landscape for which the park is named makes up only a tiny fraction (30-square miles) of the protected zone. Alpine mountains and lakes, wildflower-speckled tundra, wild wetlands, and horizon-bending scrublands account for the bulk of this must-visit Colorado wilderness area.

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