Contrary to popular belief, fall is actually the ideal season to visit America’s national parks. Summer is beautiful and all, but there’s only so much one can tolerate with the scorching temperatures, parking lot road rage and mosh pit-level crowds swarming like they’re at a Harry Styles concert. Come autumn, however, the tides start to shift — kids go back to school, campground availability becomes less of a challenge, and in many parts of the country, foliage turns scenic drives and trails into luminous leafy tunnels. Also, bears go back into hibernation, so that’s one less thing to worry about.
This is all well and good for clamorous national parks like Zion, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, but it’s even more true of America’s more underrated gems. Of the 63 primary national parks (not including the more than 400 national monuments, memorials and scenic byways overseen by the National Park Service), a good chunk of them are far-flung places you’ve likely never heard of — let alone traveled hours out of your way into the vast wilderness to visit.
These are places with the same level of staggering natural beauty of the well-trod parks, minus the crowds and the calamity (looking at you, reckless Yellowstone tourists). From middle-of-nowhere Nevada to a tiny key in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, America’s least visited national parks provide the purest sense of discovery and awe, be it a majestic coral reef, a cave fixture you never knew existed or a canyon so stunning it gives Arizona a run for its money. When it comes to underrated natural beauty not ruined by overcrowding, these are the best of the bunch. Follow the links below for more details about each park — and the can’t-miss ways to visit each one.
Hike to the highest point in Texas
Mountainous dunes, shimmering shores and more biodiversity than Yellowstone
For those who prefer the company of wolves and moose over humans
A high-desert Dr. Seuss fever dream in southeastern Utah
No frills. Or roads. Or amenities of any kind.
Hike the Chisos Mountains or float the mighty Rio Grande
170,000 acres, including the largest coral reef in North America
Crazy hikes and wild views in Colorado
An ancient landscape that’s the newest National Park
Everyone else goes to Glacier or Yosemite. You go here.
Home of 600 ancient Native American cliff dwellings
So majestic you’ll understand why he became a staunch defender of public lands
The first cave system to be named a national park
A tiny but mighty park that has the mystical look and feel of a mildly haunted forest
If a National Park could be considered “exclusive,” this is the one
A far cry from the neon glitz of the Strip, featuring some of the darkest night skies in North America
Explore an unforgettable desert landscape on empty trails
Leave it to Minnesota to have a National Park with 30 lakes in it
Featuring a gypsum dune field so vast it’s visible from space
Hello sequoias, valleys and waterfalls. Goodbye crowds
Nothing says extreme vacation like visiting an active volcano
With Big Bend National Park in way-out-there West Texas, you know exactly what you’re getting: it’s big, and boy is it bendy. That’s thanks to its 1,200 square miles of vast desert terrain, craggy mountains, prickly fauna and the meandering Rio Grande carving its way along the Mexican border and forming a gigantic bend between the two countries. Visitation to this remote park has slightly increased of late, to a modest 400,000, but it’s still 4.5 hours from the nearest major airport and big city (El Paso), and those numbers pale in comparison to the millions who flock to the Great Smoky Mountains and Yosemite every year. It’s worth the 300-mile voyage, though, for the opportunity to hike the Chisos Mountains, float the mighty river, watch for roadrunners and see the night sky aglow under an endless canopy of stars.
Explore the Chisos Mountains, which is the only mountain range contained entirely within the borders of a national park. And considering that park is Big Bend, that might explain why you’ve never heard of them. Altogether, the expansive desert park is a hiker’s haven, with more than 150 miles of designated trails through mountains and limestone canyons. A good starter course is the Chisos Basin Loop Trail, a moderate — and mercifully tree-shaded — two-mile round-trip route from the Chisos Basin Trailhead that provides stunning mountain panoramas without a ton of elevation gain. For something more strenuous, hoof it up the Lost Mine Trail, a five-mile jaunt through juniper and pine forest to the top of an expansive ridge, which rewards hikers with staggering vistas of the canyon below.
Float the Rio Grande. A star attraction in the park, the wide river offers a unique vantage point from which to experience its canyons. Kayaks, canoes and rafts are all available from area outfitters, or you’re welcome to bring your own. Just keep in mind that the middle of the river is the international border, and while it’s perfectly fine to dip back and forth between the two countries, landing on is technically illegal and could turn your leisurely float trip into an arrest. The most popular aquatic outing is Santa Elena Canyon, home to the tallest canyon wall in the park. Depending on the water levels, rapids may or may not exist, but regardless of the adrenaline, it’s a majestic sight to paddle from Lajitas down river through the canyon, with day trips and overnight excursions both optional.
Stay at the Big Bend Holiday Hotel in the nearby Terlingua ghost town just outside the park. The independent property has got all the creepy-cool dusty goodness of a real-deal ghost town, although the furnishings are refreshingly up to date and quite cozy. Lodging options include rustic-chic casitas, the fireplace-equipped Cinnabar Suite and the Perry Mansion, a former estate that once overlooked the Chisos Mining Company and has since been restored to a bougie abode for groups and families.
Eat at the Starlight Theatre, a jovial saloon and restaurant in the ghost town. An adorably raucous watering hole, the lofty oasis also far exceeds culinary expectations in a part of West Texas where javelinas far outnumber the grocery stores. Margaritas are the main tipple, available in a slew of flavors and spice levels, while the impressive food menu runs the gamut from chicken-fried Texas antelope and tequila-marinated quail to mesquite-smoked brisket with green chile mac & cheese.
If Floridian national parks were characters from the Brady Bunch, Everglades would be the Marcia Marcia Marcia to Biscayne’s Jan. Compared to the much larger — and much more visited — Everglades next door, Biscayne National Park is the sleeper hit of south Florida’s national parks, offering a vast array of nautical solitude and serenity within an easy drive of South Beach. And although you can spot the Miami skyline looming in the distance, Biscayne feels worlds away. Of it’s 170,000 acres, 95% of it is water, including the largest coral reef in North America and a kaleidoscope of marine life that spans the spectrum from adorable (e.g. manatees and fish that look straight out of Finding Nemo) to the unnerving (e.g. this is one of the only places in the U.S. to contain crocodiles).
Stay in Miami. Despite the fact that Biscayne is wildly underrated and not all that known, even to Miami residents, the city is less than an hour away, which makes it exceedingly easy to snag a hotel room or an Airbnb if you’d rather not spend the night roughing it on Boca Chita Key. Plus, it’s always nice to unwind after a long day of adventure with a glam cocktail at the Freehand Miami’s Broken Shaker.
Picnic on Boca Chita Key, the most visited and most iconic key in the park, home to a 65-foot-tall lighthouse, a few tree-lined trails, plenty of grassy green space, and sandy beaches for splishing and splashing. As with all keys and parts of the park, visitors are welcome to take their own private boats to Boca Chita, and there’s a small campground for primitive overnight stays.
Make a splash in the open ocean on a guided tour with the Biscayne National Park Institute, which takes visitors out onto — and into — the water for a fully immersive experience. Considering that almost the entire park is water, save for a few keys and a strip of mainland where the visitor center resides, this is one park where you really need to take the plunge to experience and appreciate. And from snorkeling at shipwrecks to paddle boarding through a mangrove maze at Jones Lagoon, aquatic options abound. Regardless of your outing, visitors depart the marina on speed boats to reach the park’s keys and embark on adventure.
Slurp a guava milkshake or guanabana smoothie at Robert is Here, the “Disney World of fruit stands” on the edge of Everglades National Park, and an easy stopover from Biscayne. Here, the lively market features a dizzying abundance of fresh, tropical fruits to peruse, and there’s an especially popular milkshake counter where customers can customize with up to three fruits. These include familiar favorites like banana and cherries, as well as esoteric options like canistel, black sapote and mamey.
Flanked by some of North America’s most quintessential peaks, Colorado is a wonderland of nature and national parks. And it’s not all confined to Rocky Mountain National Park, either. In a far quieter western part of the state, outside the town of Montrose, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park contains one of the low-key coolest canyons in the nation — a narrow and jagged chasm so deep that the bottom only sees sunlight for a sliver of the day. The canyon has been a long time coming, as the raging Gunnison River chiseled its way through some of the oldest rock on the continent over the course of millions of years. While said river is far too surly for a float trip, the park offers breathtaking vistas, scenic drives, and for the fearless daredevil, the opportunity to hike down to the canyon floor. Especially compared to the Grand Canyon, this is one rocky park that feels utterly untouched and undiscovered.
Masochists who don’t fear heights or death can hike certain routes down to the canyon floor, but if that sounds like a nightmare, there are plenty of scenic trails and outlooks along the south rim, each offering unique vantage points of a chasm so jagged and slim it looks like planet Earth got a giant paper cut. The north rim is even quieter, hardly getting any visitors since it takes a few hours’ drive all the way around the canyon to access it. The solitude, though, is well worth the cost of gas.
Drive along the south rim. The main entry point for the park, and the most accessible for visitors (thanks to its proximity to Montrose), South Rim Road zigs and zags for seven miles along the canyon edge, dotted with numerous scenic overlooks and show-stopping views. Stop at Painted Wall for a particularly awe-inspiring look at Black Canyon’s singular geology. The park earns its ominous name from its jet-black metamorphic rock, striated with color from minerals that formed igneous rock as a result of magma radiating through layers of schist and gneiss. Towards the entrance of the park, there’s also a route that goes down to the canyon floor along East Portal Road. But be warned, with hairpin turns and a 16% grade, it’s not suitable for most RVs or larger vehicles — or folks prone to carsickness.
Hike on the north rim. Although the north side of the park takes a lot longer to reach, due to the fact that there are no bridges or shortcuts over the canyon, it’s well worth it for the utter solitude and spectacular vantage points. The ultimate is the North Vista Trail, a seven-mile out-and-back jaunt from the North Rim Ranger Station to the top of Green Mountain, where a unique aerial view of the canyon rewards your long day’s journey.
Drink at Phelanies, a surprisingly legit speakeasy tucked down an alley in Montrose. For a town of just 20,000, the clandestine candle-lit bar is quite metropolitan, offering a mix of masterful classics (your Sazeracs, your Lemon Drops), along with originals like the 12-Mile Limit, a mix of pomegranate grenadine, lemon juice, brandy, rum and rye that sounds like just the ticket after a 12-mile hike.
Stay in a Montrose hotel. The town has all the requisite affordable chains, along with RV parks, vacation rentals and bed & breakfasts. For something more rustic, the national park has one campground on each rim.
With five national parks and some of the most majestic ski resorts in the nation, Utah has a reputation for nature. However, at least a few of those national parks are notoriously swarming with tour buses and so crowded that they hold public meetings to address closure concerns. But unlike Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches, Canyonlands National Park is a singular beauty that offers just as much wow, without any of the woe. Essentially neighbors with the much more popular Arches, Canyonlands is a high-desert dreamscape in southeastern Utah, marked by river-carved canyons, twinkling starlight and 337,598 acres of rusty red rock mesas, buttes, arches and spires that look more like a Dr. Seuss fever dream than real life.
Hike the Island in the Sky district. The most accessible of the park’s districts (the others being The Needles, The Maze and Horseshoe Canyon), and home to the main Island in the Sky Visitor Center open year round, it’s an otherworldly realm of sandstone cliffs rising, some 1,000 feet over the surrounding canyons. Driving out along the road offers endless overlooks, but be sure and get out to explore on your own two feet for a closer look at this jaw-dropping terrain. Mesa Arch is a must-see — the enormous rocky arch is at the end of a 1/2-mile trail, acting as a colossal frame for the deep canyons behind it. For something a tad more hardcore, hike 1,400 down to the White Rim along the Gooseberry Canyon trail, a 5.5-mile trek along cliffs and slopes, with views for days.
Climb the sandstone towers at Island in the Sky. Considering this is the place that inspired 127 Hours, the James Franco movie about a rock-climber who resorts to extreme measures to escape a narrow canyon, it’s no wonder Canyonlands is a climbing mecca. Just be a little more careful, please. Island in the Sky is also the most popular place in the park for rock-climbing, especially along the district’s towering sandstone walls. Permits are not required, but climbers must bring their own gear, abide by a slew of rules and regulations, and most importantly, be prepared.
Stay at Element Moab. The funky little town of Moab is the nearest “urban” area, about 35 minutes from the park, is filled with hotels both boutique and chain-y, but Element Moab is ideal for its optimal location as the closest resort to the park. A Marriott property, it’s a cozy retreat with luxe comforts, a super-sized jacuzzi, and an architectural motif designed to blend it into the surrounding high-desert topography.
Eat in downtown Moab, where the tiny town is surprisingly teeming with an assortment of cuisines and high-quality eats. Like real-deal barbecue at Spitfire Smokehouse and maki rolls named after Canyonland features — the White Rim roll with tempura shrimp, cucumber, avocado, tuna and eel, for instane — at Sabaku Sushi.
An optimal example of quality over quantity, Congaree National Park — smack dab in the middle of South Carolina’s murkiest floodplains — is proof that you don’t need Alaskan acreage to dazzle and delight. At just 26,000 acres, it’s a tiny but mighty park that has the mystical look and feel of a mildly haunted forest, with some of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi thrown in for good measure. It may look like a giant swamp, but Congaree is actually a huge floodplain of its namesake Congaree River, where the constant ebb and flow of water levels is a healthy part of the natural ecosystem, filtering nutrients down into the roots of loblolly pines and tupelos so colossal and towering that they block out the sun.
Though it may look like a big ol’ swamp, it’s actually a massive floodplain; the river routinely floods, carrying vital nutrients down into the roots of skyscraping giants like loblolly pines, laurel oaks, and swamp tupelos. This being flat-as-a-flapjack South Carolina, the trails are all easy (albeit occasionally muddy). An absolute must is the mud-free elevated Boardwalk Loop Trail, which winds through high-canopy forests so dense it gives the park an eerie, Blair Witch Project kind of vibe. But don’t worry—the only wildlife you’re likely to see are owls, armadillos, and otters.
Paddle Cedar Creek. South Carolina is infamously flat, and considering the watery focal point here, paddling is the main draw. Guests can book a guided kayak or canoe trip with an area outfitter (or bring your own) on Cedar Creek, a moody waterway that meanders through the thick of the forest like a wooded labyrinth. The slow-moving creek is also gentle as can be, which means you won’t have to work too hard to paddle in either direction — rather, sit back and enjoy the peaceful journey through an ominous forest so quiet that the only sounds are distant woodpeckers and hooting owls. The longest journey is a 15-mile float from Bannister’s Bridge to the far-mightier Congaree River.
Hike the Boardwalk Trail. Although the park is flat, and “hiking” is really more like scenic strolling, the Boardwalk Trail is a beauty to behold, getting visitors up close and personal to the park’s most epic plant life. The easy — and dog-friendly! — trail traverses a 2.5-mile boardwalk loop, starting at the visitor center and passing through trees, over creeks, and alongside rivers. The boardwalk is raised several feet off the forest floor, so it’s accessible — even during heavy rain — and it’s a lot less muddy than some of the other trails through the woods.
Eat in downtown Columbia. South Carolina’s state capital is only 22 miles down the road, home to myriad restaurants, bars and cafes. This is no Charleston, but the city is still home to some impressive eats, like a locally sourced feast of shrimp remoulade, okra masala and seared wreckfish at Terra, a French-flavored spread of tinned seafood, escargots and salmon Wellington at Black Rooster, and a stiff drink with a side of black-eyed pea hummus at Bourbon.
Stay at the Graduate Columbus. This funky boutique brand is known for setting up shop in college towns, and this locale follows suit with an artsy-cool abode near the University of South Carolina. Decorated with adorable Southern-style furnishings and bright pops of color, the playful property also has a lobby restaurant called Trophy Room, offering all-day American food and brews.
Located 70 miles west of Key West, and only accessible by a two-hour ferry ride (or private seaplane if you’re that kind of park-goer), Dry Tortugas National Park is a faraway realm that you really need to want to get to. Ferry reservations aren’t cheap (day trips for adults are $200, which is more expensive than admission to Disney World), seats book up way in advance, and the journey can be taxing for those prone to seasickness, but the saga is well worth the extra hoops for the opportunity to explore a fort in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico and embark on an underwater snorkel trail.
Swim around Garden Key. For a 100-square mile park comprised almost entirely of water, aside from seven small islands, Dry Tortugas is really the farthest thing from dry. Getting in the water, thus, is the best way to experience it, especially via an underwater snorkel tour that goes around Garden Key, the park’s main stopover and the island where the Yankee Freedom ferry docks for the day. Here, you’ll get to swim around the third largest coral reef in the world, reading underwater signs to learn about the nautical ecosystem. For those looking to keep things more leisurely, swimming beaches are located on the north, south and east sides of the island.
Explore Fort Jefferson. Garden Key is home to to colossal 19th-century brick-clad fort, created to protect U.S. harbors from enemy ships and help the Union impede Confederate shipping during the Civil War. Most notably, the fort also temporarily served as an Alcatraz-like prison that held Dr. Samuel Mudd, the guy who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after assassinating President Lincoln. Visitors to the park nowadays are free to explore the entirety of the fort, including the visitor center, Dr. Mudd’s cell, and the expansive roof, where you won’t find a better 360-degree view of the Gulf of Mexico.
Drink in Key West. As the only way to access Dry Tortugas, the funky Floridian town is an apt gateway for wining and dining pre- or post-Tortugas. Duval Street is the main drag, a veritable free-for-all of boozing, shopping, dancing, and dining. Chief among them is 801 Bourbon Bar, a pink-tinted bar and club where dancing goes until 4 a.m., drag queens preside over boisterous bingo, and drinks include craft beer and whiskey. For something more subdued, Isabel’s is a chic pool bar at the Kimpton Lighthouse Hotel, where you can combine lounge-y mimosas with swanky confines.
Here’s the good news: there’s a 0% chance of encountering crocodiles in Gates of the Arctic National Park, the northernmost park in the country and the only one located above the Arctic Circle. The bad news? You also won’t encounter any roads, any amenities, any designated trails or any frills whatsoever. A park so vast, primitive, and faraway it makes Into the Wild look like glamping, to call this place underrated would be a serious understatement. Out here, in a landscape undeveloped by man, it’s nothing but glacier-carved valleys, granite peaks towering 7,000 feet and wild rivers weaving their way between Arctic tundra and the Arctic Ocean. And in this mammoth 13,000-square-mile landscape, it’s the only park that contains both polar bears and grizzly bears. But don’t worry: during the winter months when grizzlies hibernate, temps can hit -50ºF, so you’ll have other things to worry about.
Get lost. With zero trails, roads, or visitor services to speak of, Gates of the Arctic is the definitional example of Alaska’s final frontier. Most access here is pure backcountry, which requires substantial planning and preparation — namely, you’ll need to coordinate in advance with an air taxi service to plan a drop-off and pick-up location, or you can enter the park on a float trip down a river. As long as you’re not looking for a pampered experience, Gates of the Arctic is the ultimate place to unplug and disappear for a while, far from the clutches of WiFi or the siren song of your inbox.
Hike into the wild. While there are no designated trails, hikers and backpackers are free to explore as far as their hearts desire. As long as you have a proper plan in place, with proper maps and directions secured, this is a park that’s entirely yours to explore. The National Park Service recommends hiking above the tree line, in stream beds or along game trails for ease of travel and minimizing impact on vegetation.
Stay in your own tent that you surely brought in your backpack out of necessity. Pack accordingly for drastic weather changes and extremes, too. This means a hearty, insulated sleeping bag and bedding materials that aren’t water-absorbent, in case of rain — or falling in a stream.
From the 13,000-foot summit of Wheeler Peak to the gnarly subterranean passageways of Legman Caves, Great Basin National Park is a place of drastic extremes and utter solitude. Located in east-central Nevada, about 4.5 hours north of Las Vegas, this is a side of Nevada you’ve never seen. A far cry from the neon glitz of the Strip, Great Basin is the polar opposite — an undiscovered park located along a barren stretch of U.S. Route 50 so desolate it’s nicknamed the “Loneliest Road in America.” Out here, in one of the least visited parks in the nation, you likely won’t find many people, but you will find the oldest trees on Earth, cave formations unlike anyplace on the planet, and some of the darkest night skies in North America.
Go underground into Lehman Caves, the longest cave in the state. Only accessible via pre-booked ranger-led tours from the visitor center, tours are offered daily to take visitors into a subterranean realm of mystery and awe, where rare geologic formations like cave shields are on full display. Parachute Formation is the most famed shield in the park, a huge wall of rock thought to be formed as extensions of cracks in the cave walls.
Stay at Stargazer Inn. Although the gateway town of Baker is so teeny that the year round population is about 36, it does actually have a cool boutique inn. Owned by a couple of New York City expats who traded big-city life for the complete opposite, the funky 10-room motel has charming and cozy rooms, a cute general store that looks like real-life Rose Apothecary, complete with sundries, coffee, outdoor gear, books and vittles.
Hike through bristlecone groves. Twisted and dead-looking (no offense), these enduring specimens are actually the oldest non-clonal trees on Earth, and there’s something humbling about hiking through groves surrounded by species that have been around since the Bronze Age. These striking trees have been recorded up to 5,000 years, found in abundance here in groves below the main tree line. See for yourself on the Bristlecone Grove trail, a nearly 3-mile interpretive trail lined with informative signs explaining their astonishing history. In the visitor center, you can count the infinite rings on a slab of wood from Prometheus, a bristlecone pine erroneously cut down in 1964 by geographer Donald R. Currey, who found it to be 4,847 years old. For something more strenuous, lace up your hiking boots and start early on the Wheeler Peak trail. The tallest point in the park, it’s an 8.6-mile journey from the Summit Trail parking area up to the ridge that winds its way to the summit.
Like Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is another underrated gem of a park in far West Texas. A stone’s throw from the New Mexico border, the park is home to the tallest peaks in the state, the sandiest dunes this side of Death Valley, 80 miles of lung-crushing hiking trails and perfectly preserved geography that reveals an entirely different epoch in history. At 135 square miles, the park isn’t huge, but it packs a wallop within its boundaries, from foliage-lined canyons and fossilized Permian reef to 360-degree views from atop Guadalupe Peak, the veritable roof of Texas.
Hike to the highest point in Texas. The park’s namesake mountain, Guadalupe Peak is the tallest in the state, ascending to nearly 9,000 feet over the Chihuahuan Desert. That may not sound like much compared to some heftier pinnacles in Colorado or California, but by Texas standards, that’s a behemoth. And you’ll definitely feel the burn as you hike 8-plus miles and gain 3,000 feet of elevation en route to the summit, past endless switchbacks and along rocky ridges before reaching the top and signing your name in the hiker’s book. For something less strenuous, check out McKittrick Canyon, a flatter stroll through dry creek beds and forest that sees a surprising amount of vibrant foliage in the fall. Then there’s the salt basin dunes, a portion of the park where sugar-white wind-swept sand looks more like the Caribbean than Texas.
Go back in time on the Permian Reef Trail. Starting at the same trail head as McKittrick Canyon, this comparatively strenuous hike is a geologist’s dream. Not only are the canyon views astounding, but the entire trail hugs walls of fossilized permian reef, indicative of when this region was once a tropical sea. Nowadays, as you hike along cliff walls and ridges, you can spot ancient shells and sea sponges preserved in the mountain walls. Down in the canyon, experience a different kind of time warp at the Pratt Cabin. Located about two miles into the canyon, the stone house was once a vacation home for Wallace Pratt, a presumably anti-social oil geologist who had the house built in the 1930s. Today, it’s a nice place for a picnic.
Stay in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Guadalupe Mountains has three campgrounds for tents and RVs (Pine Springs Campground, Dog Canyon Campground, and Frijole Horse Corral Campground), but for something a bit more comfortable, the closest city is Carlsbad, just over the New Mexico border about 50 miles north. Once a bank from 1892, the best boutique spot in town is The Trinity Hotel, home to nine swanky suites and an all-day fine-dining restaurant.
Eat downstairs at The Trinity restaurant. Dinner is the snazziest affair in town, with New Mexico wines and hearty portions of lobster ravioli, bacon-wrapped filet mignon and chicken lasagna spiced up with Hatch green chilies.
Bookended by awkward smokestacks, in a state more known for burnt rubber speedways than bucolic nature, Indiana Dunes National Park is a breath of fresh air — literally. Nestled along 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, so close to Chicago you can see the skyline through the distant smog, it’s a park that’s full of surprises. It’s a haven of mountainous dunes, shimmering shores, a unique patchwork of topography and terrain, and more biodiversity than Yellowstone. While the park is primarily used as a summertime reprieve for Chicagoans looking to swim someplace cleaner than North Avenue Beach, there’s much more to explore here, including 50 miles of trails and diverse landscape that goes from wetlands and marshes to prairies and forests.
Climb the dunes. The idea of hiking in the Midwest, especially in a park just 30 minutes outside of Chicago, sounds like sarcasm, but the dunes here are no joke. Just check out the Mount Baldy Beach Trail, which is only .75 miles to reach Mount Baldy Beach, but entails a rugged and intense ascent up a steep dune comprised of shifting sand and uneven terrain. If you’re looking to lengthen your hike, explore the network of Glenwood Dunes Trails, with several miles of routes that range from sand to foliage-filled forest. It’s also equestrian-friendly, and in the winter, this is a popular area for cross-country skiers.
Get your feet wet at the beach. With 15 miles of pristine shorefront at Lake Michigan’s southern terminus, there’s no shortage of beachfront beauty to behold. In the summer, places like West Beach, Porter Beach and Lake View Beach are fixtures for swimming and sunbathing, while fall and winter bring their own forms of serenity. In autumn, particularly, you’re likely to have vast swaths of beachfront to yourself, ideal for a serene shoe-free stroll.
Stay at an Indiana bed & breakfast. In addition to campgrounds in the park, and ample chain hotels in the area (not to mention the endless options in Chicago), one unique way to stay is at Riley’s Railhouse, a B&B in a former freight train station in nearby Chesteron. Leaning into the aesthetic, rooms (some of which overlook active train tracks) are decorated with vintage train knickknacks, and there’s a cozy lounge equipped with a wood-burning fireplace and deck.
Drink at 3 Floyds Brewing. As many Chicagoans can attest, one of the main draws of crossing the Indiana border is to stop at 3 Floyds Brewing, a prized brewery known for its hip motif, barrel-aged brews, and Imperial stouts so coveted and rare that they’re sold one day a year, to Black Friday-level lines.
If you prefer the company of moose and wolves over humans (and at this point in society, who could blame you), then boy do we have the park for you. Isle Royale National Park, a smattering of some 400 islands in the northern nether regions of Lake Superior, is a place so isolated that hardly any people make the trek to visit. It’s a park so preserved and faraway, only accessible by a three-hour boat ride from Michigan or Minnesota, that it sees about as many visitors in an entire year as the Grand Canyon sees in an average day. Due to its rugged, undeveloped terrain and the notoriously merciless winters of the northern Midwest, Isle Royale is closed in the winter, but before the park goes into hibernation, autumn is a gorgeous time to bask in the Great Lakes glory of this pristine place, where wildlife is more common than people. The crux of the park is a 45-mile island (the largest in Lake Superior), where most of the trails, campgrounds, lodging and activities are, with surprises lurking at every turn.
Dive in on a Scuba trip. It might seem like an unexpected activity, up in this far-flung stretch of Lake Superior near Canada, but diving is a prominent activity at Isle Royale. Indicative of the Great Lakes’ maritime lore, there are 10 major shipwrecks surrounding the park, making this the National Park Service’s most intact collection of sunken ships. For experienced divers who register at one of Isle Royale’s visitor centers in advance, Scuba is an epic way to experience them. Be mindful of the lake’s extreme conditions, though — full wetsuits are required, since water temperatures rarely rise above 55° at the surface and sink as low as 34° further down where most of the wrecks are. Fishing is another popular aquatic activity, keeping in mind that Michigan Fishing Licenses are required for fishing in Lake Superior (no licenses are required for inland lakes on the island, though), as is canoeing and kayaking. Due to the vast and unpredictable expanse of Lake Superior, paddlers are encouraged to stick to the bays or inland waterways.
Learn about the ultimate example of predation in nature. For decades, Isle Royale has been home to populations of moose and wolves, both of whom accessed the island in the 1900s via an ice bridge from Canada. Over the years, their populations fluctuated, and the National Park Service has documented their behaviors and their lives. In fact, the ongoing research project is the longest continuous study of the predator-prey relationship in the world. As one species dips in population, due to factors like winter severity, so too does the other. In 2018, the National Park Service restored the wolf population (much to the chagrin of the moose, surely), and the pack has grown to a steady 14. Moose, meanwhile, continue to fluctuate anywhere between 500 and 2,400. If you’re lucky enough to spot one, which are most commonly seen by inland waterways like Washington Creek and Ojibway Lake, keep a safe distance and stay steady. Wolves, for better or worse, are much rarer to see, but keep your eyes peeled near lake shores and open meadows.
Camp at Rock Harbor Lodge. Located on the east end of the island, this is the only full-service lodge on Isle Royale, and directly accessible via ferries from Michigan (like the Ranger III and Queen IV) and Minnesota (Voyageur II). It’s not bougie, but its 60 rooms are comfy, all of them offer Lake Superior views, and the on-site restaurant serves up local staples like lake trout.
Often lumped in with — and overlooked by — its bordering sister park, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park is one of the more underrated of California’s parks, which include heavy-hitters like Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Redwood. But here in the Sierra Nevadas, this is a park that’s well worth the extra mileage, to gawk at soaring sequoias, sweeping valleys, and cascading waterfalls. It’s truly a landscape fit for a king.
Marvel at the largest living organisms on Earth. Although not quite as tall as coastal redwoods, nor as wide as baobab trees, the giant sequoia has a combined height and circumference that makes it the largest living thing on the planet, surpassing even blue whales. Along with Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon is one of the only places in the world where these gentle giants grow, at an elevation of 6,000 feet on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. Since the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia is technically the largest tree on Earth, that park tends to get the hordes. But don’t scoff at the General Grant Tree — located in Kings Canyon, and clocking in at 267-feet tall and 29-feet wide, it’s the second largest tree in existence. In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge declared it the “Nation’s Christmas Tree,” and President Dwight D. Eisenhower doubled down by declaring it a “National Shrine” in 1956, the only living thing to be enshrined as a war memorial.
Hike along the Kings River in the Cedar Grove area of the park. Lined with bucolic meadows, granite cliffs and roaring waterfalls, this peaceful section of the park is only accessible via Highway 180, open seasonally from April through November. Aside from more rugged treks that climb up into the wilderness, most trails here are docile and leisurely, like the 0.8-mile Zumwalt Meadow trail, which crosses the Kings River on an expansion bridge, and the Roaring River Falls trail, an easy shaded stroll to a robust waterfall through a granite chute. For extraordinary views, ascent the Cedar Grove Overlook, a five-mile roundtrip excursion that reaches a tree-lined ridge to offer wide-open views of the majestic Kings Canyon.
Stay at John Muir Lodge. Located in the Grant Grove Village area of Kings Canyon National Park, the stone-and-timber hotel has 36 rooms and a restaurant, with trails linking it directly to the General Grant Tree. The cozy lobby features a stone fireplace and homey amenities like books and games.
Even more underrated than Kings Canyon is Lassen Volcanic National Park, the least visited national park in California. With its thermal features, soaring peaks, volcanic history and shimmering lakes, it feels like a mini-Yellowstone, with a fraction of the crowds. Nestled in a quiet section of central northern California, it’s a place where rugged extremes and intensity, like the fuming mud pots in Bumpass Hell, are juxtaposed by the peaceful bliss of Manzanita Lake. Like Yellowstone, too, Lassen Peak is also an active volcano that could blow at a moment’s notice. The key difference here, though, is that unlike the global catastrophe that would ensue from a Yellowstone eruption, Lassen is far tamer. When it last erupted in 1917, shattering a lava dome, spewing a fine layer of ash, and triggering avalanches and floods, it certainly caused damage and disarray, but it wasn’t the end of humanity. Rather, nowadays the 10,457-foot mountain is a requisite hike for park-goers, and the sleeping giant forms an almost cinematic-like backdrop from many prized vantage points in this explosive, fiery, and gorgeous park.
Hike to the top of Lassen Peak. It’s a five-mile round-trip journey to the cratered summit, where panoramic views of the Cascade Range (including Mount Shasta in the distance) await. The trail gets quite steep at points, and much of it is in the direct sun, so plan accordingly. Even in the height of summer, traces of snow can be found at the top, so proper hiking boots and layers are especially recommended for fall. Another iconic area to explore is Bumpass Hell, a moderate three-mile trek through the largest hydrothermal area in the park, home to vibrant hot springs, bubbling mud pots and acidic boiling water. Due to its high elevations, it’s an area prone to lots of snow, which means it’s closed in the winter and into spring.
Stay at Drakesbad Guest Ranch. In addition to hotels and vacation rentals in surrounding communities like Redding, Red Bluff, Susanville and Burney, Lassen Volcanic features one place for hotel-caliber lodging within its confines. Optimal for seclusion in nature, the former homestead-turned-guest ranch is in Warner Valley and boasts a main lodge, a dining hall, and bungalow-style rooms. Operating like an B&B, all meals are prepared by an on-site chef, which are available to the general public with reservations. On the go? Grab a sack lunch to take with you on your hike.
Paddle Manzanita Lake. In the shadows of Lassen Peak, this regal-blue lake offers the ultimate in tranquility. Rental equipment for paddle boards and kayaks are available at the Manzanita Lake Camper Store, and the utter stillness of the water makes it a lovely place for a leisurely float in the sun. Fishing for trout is another popular pastime here, as is strolling the flat trail that surrounds the lake, and picnicking in the area.
Nestled in the fertile landscape of verdant southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is in a league of its own. The seventh national park to be designated in the U.S., and the first in Colorado, it also became the first national park created to protect a place for man-made cultural significance. Declared by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the culture and history here in indeed significant — as far back as the year 600 AD, this region was home to Ancestral Puebloan peoples, who built and lived in extensive cliff dwellings, leaving behind thousands of archeological sites — and some 600 cliff dwellings, specifically — since their exodus. Here in this 50,000-acre park, archeology, history and nature collide.
Tour the cliff dwellings. The star attraction at Mesa Verde, and something that sets this park entirely apart from anything else in the National Park Service, most cliff dwellings are only accessible on pre-booked ranger-guided tours. And for good reason, because these places of immense archeological and cultural significance are delicate and vital to Puebloan history. A simple step in the wrong spot can leave lingering damage. The cream of the crop is Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Built mainly of sandstone bricks and mortar between the years 1190 and 1280, its Puebloan population once surpassed 100, and 30-minute tours of this veritable cliff city showcase the stunning ingenuity, effort and engineering that went into the steady construction of its various rooms and structures. Whether here or at other cliff dwellings, like Long House or Balcony House, visitors learn about daily life for the ancient peoples who dwelled, hunted and thrived here for centuries.
Traverse the Chapin Mesa. With a name that translates in Spanish to “green table,” Mesa Verde is indeed a lush and beautiful place for a hike, and the Chapin Mesa area does not disappoint. For a route that combines more Puebloan history with immense nature, try the Petroglyph Point Trail. It’s a 2.5-mile round trip hike that starts at the Spruce Tree House Overlook before navigating stone staircases, boulder-clad passageways, and cliffs to reach the mesa top. Along the way, you’ll see a huge wall of petroglyphs, further illustrious indication of ancient human activity here.
Eat at Absolute Bakery & Cafe. A community cornerstone in the charming, artsy gateway town of Mancos, this bustling breakfast and lunch spot is an ideal place to fuel up for a day on the cliffs. Scratch-made and locally sourced, good eats include granola, breakfast sandwiches, chorizo-filled omelets and huevos rancheros, while lunch amps things up with sandwiches, pasta, and a surprisingly killer orange chicken lo mein. And don’t be shy about snagging a pastry or two for a trail snack — the Congo Bars with coconut, walnuts and chocolate chunks are basically trail mix masquerading as blondies.
Stay at Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde National Park. Located in the middle of the park, the snug resort has a full slate of cozy amenities with stunning views from all of its balcony-equipped rooms. In the evening, take a seat at Far View Lounge, and drink in the mesa sights as you drink in your cocktail.
Despite the fact that New River Gorge National Park & Preserve is the newest national park in the country, upgraded from a national river in 2020, there’s nothing youthful about this ancient landscape. Flowing northward through mountainous Appalachia in West Virginia, this mighty waterway is among the oldest rivers in the world, carving and splashing its way through a 53-mile canyon of trees, hills, and cliffs. Famed as a mecca for white-water rafting and rock-climbing, along with ample activities both on land and on water, this sleeper hit of a park puts the “gorge” in gorgeous.
Marvel at the third highest bridge in the U.S. The New River Gorge Bridge is to West Virginia as the Space Needle is to Seattle — a feat of architectural prowess and innovation ascending to staggering heights. A centerpiece attraction in the park, it’s the longest steel span bridge in the western hemisphere, designed to significantly reduce travel time for drivers on roads. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s an essential sight in New River Gorge, best seen from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center north of the bridge.
Get wet in one of the oldest rivers on the planet. For a waterway that might be as old as 360 millions years, the New River is certainly still spry and lively. Adrenaline junkies come from far and wide to suit up and float the river, navigating white water that can reach as high as Class V rapids. Altogether, the park protects 53 miles worth of river, from Bluestone Sam to Hawks Nest Lake, with the more intense rapids accumulating in the lower gorge. Experienced rafters are able to hit the river themselves, or licensed outfitters in the area provided guided trips.
Eat in Fayetteville. The main cluster of high-quality restaurants can be found in this nearby town, home to offbeat spots like Cathedral Cafe, a former church-turned-eatery serving wholesome bites like hummus, whole-grain pancakes, tofu scrambles and spinach-mushroom frittatas. Wood Iron Eatery is another daytime fixture, offering Spanish lattes with sweetened condensed milk, waffles with honeycomb butter, smashburgers and crispy rockfish sandwiches.
Stay at Adventures on the Gorge. While the park itself does not have any lodging, this 350-acre resort in Lansing fits the bill nicely with its chic confines, dining and adventure activities, including white water rafting and ziplining. Lodging is mainly cabins, along with glamping tents and RV sites, and the property features several on-site restaurants, cafes, and bars, including barbecue-focused Smokey’s on the Gorge, Sweet Java Falls, and Chetty’s Pub.
In a state widely known for its natural beauty, where Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier National Park reign as bucket-list dreamscapes for any outdoor enthusiast, it takes a lot to stand out. But tucked amidst a sea of conifers and turquoise-blue glacial lakes near the Canadian border, North Cascades National Park does just that. Washington’s least visited national park shares a lot of the main draws that make places like Glacier National Park and Yosemite such sensations, including mighty snow-capped peaks and larger-than-life wildlife like grizzly bears and wolves, but compared to those heavy-hitters, North Cascades flies quietly under the radar. That changes now.
Hike in the American Alps. Any place to earn such a nickname is clearly a heaven for hikers. With no manmade development as far as the eye can see, it’s nothing but emerald-green forests, jagged mountaintops, and ancient forces — like glacial ice caves and towering waterfalls — as far as the eye can see. With more than 400 miles worth of hiking trails to explore, there’s something for everyone here, at every skill level. Options range from easy jaunts, like the .03-mile boardwalk mosey along the Happy Creek Forest Walk, or the 1.5-mile roundtrip on the Ross Dam Trail. Longer half-day outings get even more scenic, like the 7.6-mile Diablo Lake Trail through thick forests overlooking the teal-tinted waters of the lake. Or the Easy Pass Trail, an ironically named route that entails a strenuous 7.4-mile scurry up 3,000 feet of elevation gain to a mountain pass with expansive valley views.
Stay at the North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin. The main lodge within the park, and the primary source for dining, it doesn’t get more picturesque — or remote — than this. Located on the shores of Lake Chelan, the third deepest in the country, the resort is only accessible via The Lady of the Lake ferry from Chelan, or on long hiking trails. It’s totally worth it though, for the luxe isolation of the accommodations, which include cabins, guest rooms, and a lake house perched directly on the shore of Lake Chelan. There’s also a quaint general store and a full-service restaurant open all day long, serving hearty grub like grilled cheese, black bean burgers and fish & chips.
Boat on Ross Lake. While paddling is feasible on numerous lakes in the park, Ross Lake Resort is an ideal launching point for its equipment and boat rentals, including motorboats, canoes and kayaks. There’s also a water taxi here, for added convenience. Hitting the pristine water here provides a serene opportunity to float amidst mountains and forests on every side.
A bit of a misnomer, don’t come to Petrified Forest National Park expecting a forest. Rather, hidden away in a quiet nook of northeastern Arizona, along a sleepy stretch of Route 66 that looks like prime territory for a nefarious hitchhiker, this nondescript park is a barren desert landscape where the only trees have been fossilized for millions of years. A far cry from Arizona’s other national parks, especially the attention-hogging Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest is comparatively unvisited and untapped, a place where what brief trails exist are likely to be empty. But it’s a worthwhile stopover for its low-key staggering scenic drives, its Jurassic-level lore and its boulder-sized petrified logs, the latter of which are in greater abundance here than almost anywhere on Earth, ancient remnants of a time — 200 million years ago — when this area was once a tropical forest filled with sequoia-sized trees. Long since fallen, buried under sediment and slowly crystallized into solid quartz, what remains are majestic logs shimmering with tints of green and purple.
Drive the entire length of the park. Considering that Petrified Forest is the only national park bisected by Route 66, America’s most iconic thoroughfare, this park feels particularly apt for a scenic drove. In fact, driving the entire 28-mile length of the park from end to end is one of its chief attractions. At the north entrance, the Painted Desert Visitor Center has an introductory film that provides some historical and geological context, before moseying towards the southern end of the park, home to the largest concentration of petrified wood and the Rainbow Forest Museum & Visitor Center. Along the way, look for scenic overlooks for views of the Painted Desert, colorful badlands, ancient petroglyphs and luminous logs shimmering from the side of the road.
Stroll the Blue Mesa Trail. A short-but-sweet one-mile loop trail that combines two of the park’s primary draws, petrified wood and badlands, this easy paved trail is located at the end of Blue Mesa Scenic Road, atop a mesa that steadily descends into a desert canyon strewn with petrified wood. On all sides, craggy badlands sparkle with tints of deep blue and purple, a color scheme echoed by the colossal logs twinkling in the Arizona sun. In general, there are only a handful of hiking trails in the park, and all of them are short and easy, but they really pack a punch. Another biggie is the Giant Logs trail, a half-mile loop behind the Rainbow Forest Museum, home to the largest specimens of petrified wood in the park, including the 10-foot-wide Old Faithful.
Journey back in time at the Rainbow Forest Museum. Ancient history is on full display at Petrified Forest National Park, from petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock to the adobe-style Painted Desert Inn, now a national historic landmark and museum. But the Rainbow Forest Museum harkens to a more ferocious epoch in history, with exhibits, films, and displays detailing the prehistoric animals that once dwelled in these former tropics. Fortunately for park-goers today, they no longer need to worry about giant crocodilians or Rauisuchians, the top apex predator of the Late Triassic, growing up to 20-feet in length, and enough three-inch serrated teeth to make Jurassic World look like the Muppets.
Stay in Holbrook. The park itself has no campgrounds whatsoever, and the only way to sleep over is by backpacking into designated wilderness area. It also has designated hours — daily from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. — and gates at either end of the park road. The area doesn’t have a ton to offer, but the nearby town of Holbrook meets muster with plenty of affordable chain hotels and motels.
It’s no surprise that the most underrated Dakota is also home to a national park so underrated that most folks — even diehard nature enthusiasts — don’t even know it exists. But Theodore Roosevelt National Park stands in stunningly stark contrast to preconceived notions about a state assumed to be grassy, flat monotony. It’s a park in western North Dakota that seems to erupt out of a sea of prairie; where rolling badlands and winding rivers carve their way through a landscape teeming with bison and prairie dogs. In this region of the country, where the Great Plains collide with badlands and the more mountainous west, you’ll find a landscape so mesmerizingly wild, complete with wild horses and petrified forests, it’ll become instantly clear why North Dakota inspired Teddy Roosevelt to become a conservationist and advocate for national parks.
Go wild with immense wildlife. While you won’t find grizzly bears, wolves or mountain goats here (for better or worse), you will find an impressive amount of larger-than-life fauna. Bison are the most prominent giants here, easily seen on scenic drives and hikes, along with black-tailed prairie dogs, whose chirping noises are like an adorable chorus. Big-horn sheep and elk can also be found here, albeit more rare, and longhorn cattle are known to mosey through the park’s north unit. Wild horses, meanwhile, are popular denizens in the south unit of the park (the two main units of the park are about an hour apart). Although not native to the region, the horses are indicative of Roosevelt’s history as a rancher, and they’re one of only a few national parks where wild equines roam free. Usually seen in small groups, they can commonly be seen along I-94 and from trails at Painted Canyon Overlook and Buck Hill, the tallest point in the park.
Hike the Petrified Forest Loop, an epic 10-mile loop in the northwest corner of the south unit. Not only are you likely to see wild horses out in the prairies, but this wildly diverse trek contains a variety of different features and terrains, including fossilized logs, badlands, canyons, cliffs and wide-open plains. Start at Peaceful Valley Ranch and bring plenty of sunscreen and water, no matter the season — much of the route is exposed to sun. The Wind Canyon Trail, an easy .4-mile trip through a wind-blown canyon, is a south unit sensation for its unparalleled views of the Little Missouri River. In the north unit, expect to find even more badass badlands, as at the 1.5-mile Caprock Coulee Nature Trail. This same trailhead can be used to access the Buckhorn Trail for a quick detour to a prairie dog town.
Stay at the Rough Riders Hotel. Located in the charming town of Medora by the south unit entrance, this frontier-chic boutique is an ornate homage to Teddy Roosevelt, complete with the largest private library of books on the President. The soaring lobby is impossibly cozy and rustic, with a huge hearth, tin-tiled ceiling, and comfy lounge chairs by the wall of books. Rooms are comfy and handsomely appointed, including some with Teddy bears. Some of the particularly historic suites, like the Rough Riders Suite and 501 Historic Suite, amp up the luxury. Then feast on buffalo osso bucco, walleye fritters and wild rice porridge at Theodore’s Dining Room.
Eat in Dickinson, North Dakota. About 30 minutes directly east of the south unit of the park, the area’s largest city abounds with good eats. In the morning, fuel up with blackberry pancake lattes and jumbo caramel rolls at The Brew, a former church-turned-coffee shop. Post-park, savor a well-earned beer — made with North Dakota malt — at Phat Fish Brewing, like the S’mores Porter, Pronghorn Peach Wheat, or the Jalapeño Honey Blonde. Then pair it with some of their specialty pizzas, available as thin-crust or Detroit-style. Options include he Jalapeño Popper pizza, with a cream cheese popper base, pepper Jack cheese, chicken, bacon, onions and jalapeños.
Lake-lovers, get in formation. In the far northern fringes of Minnesota, on the edge of the Canadian border, Voyageurs National Park is the quintessential water world in a state nicknamed the Land of 10,000 Lakes. A far-flung mecca for paddlers, boaters and anglers, this 218,000-acre park is about 40% water, including 30 lakes, 655 miles of shoreline, and more than 500 islands. This bucolic gem is so named for the early French-Canadian voyageurs who transported furs and other vittles to and from cities like Montreal, using the area’s labyrinthine waterways like aquatic highways. In addition to endless miles of water to kayak and canoe through, the park also contains 27 miles of hiking trails, the Ellsworth Rock Gardens, more than 400 archeological sites and a sea of bright stars to gaze upon at night, best viewed from the Voyageurs Forest Overlook, Beaver Pond Overlook and the Kettle Falls Dam area. Even the Northern Lights can occasionally be seen, making this place feel more like Iceland than Minnesota.
Set sail on a houseboat. One of the many ways visitors can hit the water at Voyageurs, houseboat rentals are available from numerous companies just outside the park and come fully loaded with beds, cooking facilities and, in some cases, roof decks with slides plunging into the water. All houseboats require permits, and reservations open for the next year on November 15. Fishing is another mainstay activity here, in any of the park’s four large lakes and 26 smaller lakes, where species like walleye, northern pike, yellow perch and smallmouth bass flourish (keep in mind that fishing in the park requires a State of Minnesota fishing license). Of course, kayaking and canoeing are the primary activities here, with infinite rental options in and around the park. For rentals within the park, the National Park Service provides codes for accessing combination locks on canoes at the ends of trails on certain lakes.
Stay at the Cantilever Hotel. In addition to seasonal lodging and camping in the park, many of which can be downright hostile in the harsh winter conditions, nearby towns like Ranier offer more amenities year round. Inspired by Prohibition, the handsome hotel has an on-site distillery and suave cocktail bar highlighting spirits made on-property and throughout the state. There’s also a rooftop sauna, offering a place to zen out and drink in the views of Rainy Lake and Canada.
Frolic in a winter wonderland. If you thought summer and autumn were desolate, just wait until you have the park to yourself in the winter. With an average high of 14 in January, it gets pretty frigid up here, so dressing in warm layers is essential. But it’s worth it for the opportunity to snowshoe, cross-country ski and ride snowmobiles through nature at its most pristine. There’s even a sledding hill on Sphunge Island.
Eat at The Rocky Ledge, a cozy cottage-like nook on the forested shores of Kabetogama Lake. Look for local specialties and indigenous recipes, like wild rice casserole, crispy walleye sandwiches, and fry bread fish tacos. Nearby-ish, on the eastern side of the Kabetogama Peninsula, the seasonal Kettle Falls Hotel is the only place to get a full-service restaurant experiences in the park, and it’s only accessible by water.
A gypsum dune field so vast that it’s visible from space, White Sands National Park truly looks out of this world. This New Mexico park, located in a southwestern region of the state once awash in a prehistoric sea, is now home to the largest gypsum desert on Earth, with dunes 30-feet deep and 60-feet tall, stretching for 275 square miles. Soft and silken, the dunes look more like Splenda than sand, and the fact that they’re made of gypsum means they don’t absorb heat from the sun — so you can walk barefoot without burning your soles. With mountains looming in the distance and rockets roaring in the background from the nearby missile range, it doesn’t get much more otherworldly than this.
Slide on a sand sled. Considering the fact that the dunes are snow-white, it feels appropriate that sledding is one of White Sands’ premier activities. But unlike snow, sand is not naturally slick, which is why waxed plastic saucers are recommended — and available for rent or purchase from the gift shop at the entrance visitor center. The entire park is accessible for sledding and exploring, but sledders are reminded not to slide down dunes that lead towards roads, or ones that end in a hard surface (spoiler alert: the area at the base of the dunes is not as soft as it may look).
Explore the dunes via the Alkali Flat Trail. The longest of the park’s five designated trails, this is a five-mile loop at the end of the scenic Dunes Drive, with mesmerizing desert views that extend to the horizon. Clip-on shoe-covers are a wise choice, since you’ll 100% be shimmying up and down a plethora of tall dunes, through shifting sands and unstable surfaces as you follow the red diamond trail markers. Sun hats, sunglasses and ample sunscreen are also advised, along with plenty of water. A bit easier, the Dune Life Nature Trail is a one-mile loop through the grassier portion of the park, where you might see tracks in the sand of critters like kit foxes, badgers and lizards. For something truly unique, embark on a guided full moon hike, offered once a month by reservation.
Stay in Las Cruces. The closest large(ish) city is about 50 miles away, and an apt resting point between sand sleds and hikes. The Hotel Encanto is a particularly striking property with a motif inspired by Mexican Colonial history and Southwestern architecture, including vibrant tiled floors, arched doorways and authentic New Mexican fare at Cantina. When in Rome, do as the Romans do and start your day with a smothered breakfast burrito.
From the Black Hills to Badlands National Park, western South Dakota is revered as an Americana road trip rite of passage, but oft overlooked among the fray is the comparatively quieter Wind Cave National Park. Located just south of the much-more-visited Custer State Park, this is the sixth oldest national park in the country (designated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903), and the first cave system to be named a national park. And rightfully so, as Wind Cave contains a dense concentration of boxwork, a rare formation comprised of intricate grid-like patterns in the rock, formed over the course of hundreds of millions of years, as seas shifted and acidic fresh water began reacting with gypsum to form calcite and create sulfurous acid that steadily dissolved the malleable limestone. Nowadays, after about 300 million years of acidic erosion, Wind Cave is one of the largest cave systems on the planet, with some 150 miles of mapped passageways — and counting.
Go underground on a cave tour. To fully experience the park, you need to get below the surface on a ranger-led tour. The cave is only accessible on tours, which are capped at a max of 40 people and entail careful scurrying though narrow passageways, under low ceilings, and up and down steep staircases — so this might be challenging for folks prone to claustrophobia. Of the tours, the Garden of Eden is a popular one — and the easiest — with an array of boxwork, frostwork and cave popcorn, aka rock formations resembling popcorn. The Natural Entrance Tour takes visitors to the diminutive natural entrance of the cave, a small opening in the Earth where a subtle breeze earned the cave its name. Far too tiny for humans to squeeze through, tours enter the cave through man-made stairs nearby.
Hike on the surface. Even more underrated than the cave itself, the park’s surface trails are expansive, beautiful, and inspiring. Altogether, there are 30 miles worth of trails through the Black Hills, where prairie dogs and bison are likely to be spotted. An apt starter is the one-mile Prairie Vista loop near the visitor center, while Rankin Ridge takes trekkers up a half-mile hill to the tallest point in the park, for panoramic views of the prairie below. If you’ve got extra time, Highland Creek is the longest outing in Wind Cave, with a nearly nine-mile trail that traverses prairies, ponderosa pine forests and riparian wilderness along creeks and canyons.
Stay in Custer. About 20 minutes north of Wind Cave, this charming touristy town meets muster with an array of affordable chain hotels and indie properties, like the Euro-chic Bavarian Inn, the adorable Chalet Motel or the majestic Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer State Park. The latter puts you up close and personal with the gorgeous Sylvan Lake, a bustling destination in the Black Hills for kayaking, swimming, picnicking, and hiking up nearby Black Elk Peak, the tallest point in South Dakota.
Eat at Skogen Kitchen. This pint-sized eatery in Custer feels like a cozy Norse diner, with some of the best cuisine in the region. Owned by California expats Joseph and Eliza Raney, this locally sourced spot serves a dazzling variety of fine dining-quality dishes, like rabbit leg with Dijon miso jus, king salmon with chanterelle mushrooms and yuzu truffle emulsion, and Dimock butter cake with popcorn ice cream. The owners also operate a three-story cabin, The Skogen House, located on nine picturesque acres in the Black Hills.