National parks are the stuff of bucket lists—who doesn’t dream of spending time in the country’s most celebrated places like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or the Everglades? As you’re thinking about where to explore this year, NPCA has ten less-visited, breathtaking places to add to your wish list.
1. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas
This preserve protects the largest area of tallgrass prairie remaining on Earth. Though these grasses once covered 170 million acres of the country, only a small fraction of this type of prairie remains. It is a singular experience to stand amid nearly 11,000 acres of rustling grasses and watch the sea of green blades ripple under a vast blue sky. For those lucky enough to visit in the spring, the preserve is also a top spot to see wildflowers, and the sunsets are dazzling year-round.
2. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
Three and a half hours east of the world-famous Grand Canyon, a majestic but much lesser-known canyon offers a more solitary Southwestern experience on colorful lands entirely within the Navajo Nation. Drive along the north and south rims to enjoy incredible vistas, including a view of the park’s dramatic 800-foot monolith, Spider Rock. Hike the only public trail (two and a half miles round-trip) into the canyon to see the White House Ruin left by Ancient Puebloans. Consider hiring a Navajo guide to explore even more of the canyon’s geology and learn about the native people who continue to live and grow food in the canyon as their families have for generations.
3. Olympic National Park, Washington
Exploring Olympic’s dynamic landscape is like visiting three parks in one. The high mountains offer snow, glaciers, deep wilderness, and—if you time it right—acres and acres of wildflowers. The lush, verdant Hoh Rainforest is unlike anything else in the Lower 48, and home to Roosevelt elk, black bears, mountain lions, and other charismatic wildlife. And the park’s stunning coast offers some of the country’s wildest and most spectacular beaches, dotted with tide pools and sea stacks. Visitors can now see where park staff recently removed two large dams, letting the Elwha River flow freely again for the first time in more than 100 years. Tucked away in the remote Northwest near Canada, this park can be hard to reach—but it’s worth it.
4. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
One of the country’s oldest national parks, Wind Cave combines rare mineral wonders underground with beautiful mixed-prairie habitat aboveground. Take a ranger-led tour to explore the unusual formations below the Earth’s surface, including cave walls that look like frost, textured honeycombs, and even popcorn. You can also hike through some of the park’s 34,000 acres of wildlife habitat to see prairie dogs, pronghorn, elk, and one of the last remaining herds of free-roaming, genetically pure bison in the country.
5. Channel Islands National Park, California
Channel Islands National Park’s five pristine islands off the California coast abound with opportunities for kayaking, snorkeling, fishing, hiking, and admiring the rare plant and animal life. These remote islands are only accessible by boat or plane, so they see relatively few (human) visitors each year. This car-free haven of rocky cliffs and clear blue waters is home to wildlife not seen anywhere else in the world, as well as numerous endangered and recovering species, including the Channel Island fox, the island night lizard, and the Scripps’s murrelet. Beneath the water’s surface, kelp forests provide nutrient-rich ocean habitat to a diverse array of marine life from sea lions to whales to exotic starfish.
6. Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
This Utah gem is far enough off of the beaten path that few of the visitors that head to Arches or Canyonlands make the two-hour trip south from the Moab area to see it. It’s a pity because it’s one of the best stargazing spots in the country and the only place where you can find three natural bridges in such close proximity. Hike right up to these stunning rock formations—among the largest natural bridges in the world—then pitch a tent at a campsite on the edge of the park’s canyon for a starry, magical desert experience.
7. Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
The country’s first national preserve, Big Cypress protects a 700,000-acre swamp with a diverse range of tropical and temperate plant and animal species, including alligators, Florida panthers, anhingas, fox squirrels, river otters, mangrove trees, and more than 30 kinds of orchid. Explore the park’s hiking and paddling trails on your own, or go on a free ranger-led swamp walk or guided canoe trip during the park’s busy season between November and April. It’s a perfect way to experience the timeless allure of the Everglades with only a fraction of the tourists you’d see at Everglades National Park.
8. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
The diversity of natural beauty at this park makes it a must-see destination for outdoor lovers—the hardest part is knowing where to start. Climb or take a scenic drive up Wheeler Peak, the park’s iconic 13,000-foot mountain, for spectacular views; wander through groves of 3,000-year-old bristlecone pines; take a ranger-led tour through the marble and limestone halls of Lehman Caves; and hike or backpack among pristine alpine lakes. After night falls, you’re still in luck: The dark skies and excellent astronomy programs are just as captivating as the incredible scenery you can see during the daylight hours.
9. The National Park of Samoa, American Samoa
Many people are surprised to learn there is a U.S. national park in the South Pacific. With rainforests, tropical wildlife, secluded villages, and coral-sand beaches, this remote and relatively new park is a find for adventurous travelers. Situated on three of American Samoa’s islands, the park lacks the visitor facilities of more established sites, but offers much to travelers willing to do a little extra planning. Enjoy uncrowded beaches, stunning hikes, exotic birdwatching, a view into Samoan culture, and opportunities to snorkel among more than 950 species of fish and 250 types of coral (if you bring your own gear or make arrangements in advance).
10. Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park, Texas
If you’re fascinated by presidential history, you’ll appreciate this park’s thorough portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson, the strong-willed Texan who served in both houses of Congress before leading the country as president. This Hill Country home site has been in the Johnson family since the 1860s. President Johnson was born on this tract of land, and this is where he lived for many years and retreated during his administration. He died and was buried here in 1973. Learn about President Johnson’s controversial role in escalating the Vietnam War and his celebrated “Great Society” legislation which expanded civil rights protections, national health care, and environmental laws. Then watch history come to life as you see his childhood bed, his clothes, his collection of rare automobiles, the one-room school he attended, and much more.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits, and moderates online content for NPCA.