Blog Post Jennifer Errick Mar 5, 2014

10 Hidden Gems in the National Park System

Want to explore a few remarkable places off the beaten path? These 10 NPCA picks offer great ways to escape the crowds while enjoying unique, underappreciated natural and cultural treasures around the country.

1. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan.

Nestled along Lake Superior’s southern shoreline on the Upper Peninsula, this remote park is a geologic wonder of colorful sandstone cliffs topped with stately pines, and miles of quiet, unspoiled beaches strewn with agate, jasper, and quartz. Stroll along the coast, hike quiet trails to the park’s historic lighthouse, and take a boat tour with the park concessioner to marvel at the mineral-rich rock faces that tower 200 feet above the lake.


2. Ocmulgee National Monument, Georgia

This site brings together the history of many cultures that have lived alongside the Ocmulgee River in Georgia since ancient times, featuring a trove of archaeological artifacts on display at the visitor center, a thousand-year-old earthen lodge, and seven burial and ceremonial mounds to explore. The river corridor itself offers hiking, boating, and bird-watching opportunities, and the park hosts a spectacular Native American festival each September, showcasing hundreds of dancers, singers, musicians, storytellers, and artists from more than a dozen different Native American nations. Visitors can also enjoy lantern tours of the park on weekend evenings in March for a small fee.


3. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska

This vast Alaskan wilderness is close enough to Anchorage to be fairly accessible (by plane), yet is not as well-known as other parks in the state, such as Denali or Glacier Bay, and its wild, stunning offerings are often overlooked. Visitors can kayak on the lake or the park’s rivers and backpack through the tundra amid spectacular mountain scenery, including two active volcanoes smoking in the distance. This park is also an excellent place to observe brown bears—professional guides specialize in trips to see them—as well as other wildlife, including caribou, moose, and a variety of birds.


4. Oregon Caves National Monument, Oregon

Way down in southwest Oregon, this relatively small park is easy to miss, along a winding road in the mountains and a long way from anywhere—but it’s worth seeking out. Sometimes referred to as the “marble halls of Oregon,” the park’s dramatic marble caves feature a flowing river, ancient wildlife bones, petrified rock gardens, and caverns to explore. The park also features a variety of plants and animals that live only in the region and a charming, rustic lodge with a double fireplace and a stream running through its dining room.


5. Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas

With its dense vegetation and diverse wildlife, Big Thicket is the perfect destination for the wild at heart. The preserve features an unusual mix of ecosystems spread across 15 park units in seven counties. Its diverse habitats, which range from sand hills to swamps, host a wide array of wildlife, including breeding grounds for many native animals, such as the American alligator, blue crab, and roseate spoonbill.


6. Kalaupapa National Historical Park, Hawaii

This isolated peninsula on the north coast of the island of Molokai is surrounded by sea and high cliffs—and not easy to get to. Visitors must pre-arrange access, then hike a steep three-and-a-half-mile trail to get to the entrance, beyond which there are no dining or shopping facilities. The reward for all of this advance preparation, however, is an ecological paradise with natural beauty as well as a fascinating history. Kalaupapa was once an isolated colony for Native Hawaiians suffering from Hansen’s disease; in addition to lush, rare flora and fauna, the park preserves many archaeological features dating back to ancient times and historic buildings and relics from its once-exiled residents.


7. Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, New Hampshire

Visit the home of one of America’s greatest sculptors and see more than 100 works of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ art in his studios and gardens, from heroic monuments to expressive portraits to the intricate gold coins he designed, changing the look of American money. Take a guided tour of the grounds, enjoy an outdoor concert or star party, walk the site’s nature trails, or indulge in a sculpture class at this stately New England campus.


8. White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

This sunny southwestern park is part of the largest gypsum dune field in the world, with 275 square miles of shifting, glistening minerals piled together in a valley of the Chihuahuan Desert. Because gypsum dissolves easily in water, it is rare to find it in sand form—let alone miles of it. Hiking through the rippling, pristine powder, with its sparse and specially adapted vegetation, is a unique and peaceful experience. The dunes are also an excellent place to toboggan—no snow or cold temperatures required!


9. Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, Washington, D.C.

Just a short walk from public transportation, this lush wetland park on the banks of the Anacostia River is an oasis of lily pads and blossoms behind the city streets. The park land was originally owned by Walter Shaw, a hobbyist who cultivated and sold rare and exotic water lilies and lotus flowers; in contrast, these historic man-made ponds are surrounded by unspoiled and uncultivated marshes that characterize what the area looked like before the city was built. Every July, the park hosts a free lotus and water lily festival, when the garden is in peak bloom.


10. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia

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This park sits at a natural opening in the Cumberland Mountains that served as one of the earliest gateways to the West for thousands of settlers traveling across the frontier. During the Civil War, Union and Confederate soldiers vied for strategic control of gap, and several forts still exist in the park. Visitors can also explore the Hensley Settlement from the early 1900s, a historic community with original, hand-hewn chestnut and oak cabins, complete with a blacksmith shop and a one-room schoolhouse. Hikers can also enjoy underground tours of the park’s impressive caves, as well as more than 85 miles of trails, including routes that lead to unique rock formations and dramatic waterfalls. The four-mile drive to Pinnacle Overlook offers wonderful views of three states.

About the author

  • Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications

    Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes and edits a wide variety of online content. She has won multiple awards for her audio storytelling.