Many of the national parks’ wonders are out in plain sight, but some are nearly impossible to see. Here are 10 of those frustratingly out-of-reach attractions as well as easier-to-get-to alternatives.
The wonders of the National Park System don’t generally play hard to get. Want to see the Grand Canyon? It might be a haul to get to the park, but it will be hard to miss once you’re there.
Some park jewels, however, are simply out of reach for almost every visitor. The reasons for this are multiple. In some cases, the Park Service consciously keeps the location of natural treasures secret to protect them from potential vandalism. Historical structures may be hard to get to because they’re in remote areas or underwater. Some of the parks’ iconic animals will do all they can to avoid visitors. And a couple of park sites are reserved for the person holding the country’s highest office and his illustrious guests.
This could be frustrating for people wanting to see all that the National Park System has to offer, but despair not. Along with these tantalizing attractions, we’ve listed 10 alternatives that will allow you to get close to the real thing.
1. An Ice ‘Coliseum’ on Top of a Mountain
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Mount Rainier is the highest peak of the Cascade Range, and the mountain’s summit sports a permanent snowcap visible from more than 100 miles away on clear days. Few would guess that underneath that snowcap lie natural wonders that, according to the scientists who examined them, are unique in the world: The heat that arises from the active volcano melts the ice above and creates a network of ice caves and azure lakes. One of the caves is so big that it was christened the “Coliseum.” Few of the 5,000 or so people who summit Mount Rainier every year even know of the caves’ existence, and only rare scientific expeditions make it to the caves themselves.
Alternative: Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California boasts spectacular ice formations in some of its lava caves. The origin of the ice is likely rain and ground water, and tests have shown that some of the ice is about 700 years old. Visitors can tour Crystal Ice Cave in the winter, but be warned that the tour includes squeezing in tight spaces and holding onto a rope to climb up the ice floor.
2. The World’s Tallest Tree
Redwood National and State Parks, California
The world’s tallest tree, a coast redwood named Hyperion after a titan of Greek mythology, stands (obviously very tall) in a remote section of Redwood National and State Parks in Northern California. The tree was discovered by naturalists Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor on Aug. 25, 2006 (the 90th birthday of the Park Service) and was measured at nearly 380 feet the following month. To measure the giant tree, a team climbed to the top and dropped a measuring tape all the way to the ground. The location of the tree hasn’t been officially divulged, though. In recent years, the park has experienced an increase in the poaching of redwood chunks, and Hyperion’s discoverers have kept the tree’s location secret to avoid drawing crowds and potential vandals to it.
Alternative: Instead, visit the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park. The tree is the world’s largest by volume and a respectable 275 feet in height. Unlike Hyperion, it’s easy to find, only half a mile away from the parking lot.
3. The Oval Office
President’s Park, Washington, DC
The nation’s most famous office space is where presidents work, receive officials, members of Congress and friends, and occasionally play golf. This is also the room that many presidents use to address the country on solemn occasions. It was from the Oval Office that John F. Kennedy announced the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, Richard Nixon communicated his resignation in 1974, and George W. Bush talked to the nation in the evening of September 11, 2001. The White House is actually a national park site, but unless you’re a presidential guest or a member of the White House staff, you won’t be allowed in the Oval Office (unless, of course, you get elected to the nation’s highest office yourself).
Alternative: The Oval Office is off limits, but other parts of the White House are open to the public. Visitors must request tours through their members of Congress or their country’s embassy, for foreign citizens, up to three months in advance.
4. A Prehistoric Stomping Ground
Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada.
Camels, tapirs and leopard-size cats in Death Valley? The mudstone walls of a remote canyon in this popular desert park are covered in tracks left more than 3 million years ago by these animals as well as long-gone mastodons and prehistoric horses that roamed the shore of what was then a spring-fed lake. Concerned about potential vandalism, park officials have kept the location of the canyon secret and issue only about 100 permits a year to paleontologists and a select few others. Some have called for the canyon to be opened to the general public, but shortly after scientists completed an inventory of the tracks a couple of years ago, they noticed that some animal footprints had been carved out and stolen from the park. The location of the tracks remains unknown to most.
Alternative: Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in Idaho preserves fossils of many of the same kinds of animals that left those tracks in what is now Death Valley. Besides the eponymous Hagerman horse, paleontologists have found fossils of saber-toothed cats, camels and sloths, among others. While visitors won’t be able to see fossils in their original setting, they can view both fossils and fossil replicas at the park’s visitor center.
5. Rare wolves
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Wolves are a major draw for many national park visitors, but they’re not easy to see in general — and nearly impossible to spot at Isle Royale National Park, the 45-mile-long island in the waters of Lake Superior. That’s because the island’s wolf population has plummeted from a high of 50 in 1980 to just two today, making it one of the smallest wolf populations in the world. The wolves were decimated when a visitor’s pet dog introduced canine parvovirus to the island. The population has also suffered from severe inbreeding — as the climate warmed in recent decades, ice bridges that allowed wolves to cross naturally from the mainland have become less frequent. To count the remaining wolves, scientists board planes each winter and look for tracks in the snow. This time, they located the two wolves after following their tracks for 30 miles on their second flyover of the winter.
Alternative: Fortunately, the odds of seeing wolves at Isle Royale are set to improve, but it will require a little bit of patience, as the process could take years. In March, the Park Service announced that it was planning to introduce 20 to 30 wolves to Isle Royale, starting as early as this fall, with the goal to establish a sustainable wolf population. NPCA has long advocated the introduction of wolves to Isle Royale, which would help control the burgeoning moose population and limit the impact of the numerous moose on the island’s vegetation. Of course, 30 wolves in a large and densely forested area offer no guarantee of sightings for visitors, but the Park Service’s move will increase their chances of spotting one by at least 1,000 percent. Visitors eager to see wolves before the introduction at Isle Royale unfolds can head for Lamar Valley at Yellowstone National Park and see the results of a successful wolf restoration effort two decades ago.
6. A Sunken Piece of History
World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, Hawaii
The U.S. involvement in World War II was triggered by Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which killed some 2,400 Americans. Almost half were marines and sailors on the USS Arizona, a battleship that sank after coming under heavy bombing from the Japanese. Today, the vessel sits under 40 feet of water. The USS Arizona Memorial was built above the ship but does not touch it. The wreck is an underwater cemetery, as many of the men killed remain entombed within it. Recreational diving is not allowed, and each year, just a few authorized divers including Park Service archaeologists have access to the battleship.
Alternative: People can visit the memorial, learn about the events of Dec. 7, 1941, and reflect on the sacrifice of the marines and sailors who died in the ship below. While the sinking of the USS Arizona and the attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the U.S. entry into World War II, the USS Missouri, another battleship, was the site of the end of the war, which was achieved when Japan surrendered on the ship on Sept. 2, 1945. That ship is now moored not far from the wreck of the USS Arizona and has been turned into a memorial and museum.
7. Moving Tributes
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.
When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was opened in 1982, Park Service staff did not expect the memorial would be flooded with mementos left by surviving veterans, relatives and friends of the soldiers whose names are engraved on the wall. Over the past three-and-a-half decades, park employees have collected more than 400,000 items that include letters to the dead, Purple Heart medals, teddy bears, car keys and even sonograms of a yet-unborn grandchild. The collection is housed at a Park Service storage facility in Maryland that is closed to the public.
Alternative: A planned museum near the memorial will display some of the offerings left at the wall, but the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund hasn’t raised all the funds necessary for construction yet. In the meantime, visitors are likely to see some tributes during any visit to the wall as mementos continue to be left at the memorial more than 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War (each year, thousands of new items are collected by park staff). If you do see any objects, please leave them in place. Park employees will collect and evaluate them to determine whether they fit the collection. They’ll dispose respectfully of objects that are not selected.
8. The Country’s Most Elusive Bird?
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Interested in a true wild goose chase (or perhaps a wild woodpecker chase)? Head toward Congaree National Park in South Carolina and start looking for a bird that might or might not be there. The last uncontested sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker in the U.S. dates back to 1944, and while many think the bird is extinct, it is still listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Congaree National Park’s old-growth forests is ideal habitat for the ivory-billed woodpecker, and several surveys have been conducted there after possible sightings out of Arkansas in 2004 buoyed hopes that the bird was still alive. None of the surveys was able to confirm the woodpecker’s presence at Congaree, though.
Alternative: Not counting the ivory-bill, Congaree is home to eight other woodpecker species, including pileated woodpeckers, North America’s second-largest woodpeckers after the ivory-bills.
9. The Presidents’ Retreat
Catoctin Mountain Park, Maryland
U.S. presidents work and reside in a national park, and often when they want to get away from it all, they go to another national park. Camp David, which is formally known as the Naval Support Facility Thurmont, has been the retreat of choice for many presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt. The main lodge and neighboring buildings sit within Catoctin Mountain Park in northern Maryland, but access is even more limited than at the White House, and the location of the facility is not marked on park maps. Presidents have relaxed at Camp David, but they’ve also gotten some work done, including a tension-filled meeting between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during the Cold War and the Camp David Accords brokered in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter that paved the way for a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt the following year.
Alternative: Eisenhower and Khrushchev didn’t spend all their time at Camp David during that September 1959 visit. Eisenhower liked to bring world leaders to his home and farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and he and Khrushchev took a four-minute helicopter ride there from Camp David. The two toured the farm, and Khrushchev met with Eisenhower’s son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. “He liked the children very much, and he was very grandfatherly, which is strange,” Eisenhower’s daughter-in-law, Barbara, later said about the Soviet leader. “You know, you don’t think of him that way.” Khrushchev also gave Eisenhower’s grandchildren little red stars for their lapel. Barbara Eisenhower collected them all and later threw them out the car window. “The reason I did was because they were Communist insignia,” she said. “I just didn’t want them wearing souvenirs of his visit.” Eisenhower donated his home to the Park Service, and it is now the Eisenhower National Historic Site.
10. The World’s Rarest Fish
Death Valley National Park, Nevada
Down a seemingly bottomless hole on the edge of the Mojave Desert live perhaps fewer than 100 of what have been described as the world’s rarest fish. The Devils Hole pupfish have been living isolated for thousands of years in a water-filled cavern that is now an enclave of Death Valley National Park located within Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Devils Hole is easily accessible through a very short trail from the road, and visitors can peek down the hole from a viewing platform. The fish are less than an inch long, though, so even though you know some of them are in there, you might have trouble actually spotting one.
Alternative: The Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge actually counts other species of pupfish, including the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish. Go to the refuge’s Point of Rocks Springs, and you’ll be almost guaranteed to see one of the blue iridescent pupfish dart under the surface of the clear water.
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About the author
Nicolas Brulliard Associate Editor
Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as associate editor of National Parks magazine.