You’ve heard of Yellowstone and Zion, but with more than 400 National Parks in the system, there’s a good chance you’re unfamiliar with many of them.
Are you wondering what are the most underrated, or unknown, National Parks in the U.S.?
1. Black Canyon National Park, CO
- Location : Gunnison, Colorado
- Yearly visitors : 308,000
Colorado is best known for Rocky Mountain National Park, but a park in southwestern Colorado isn’t too shabby, either.
Black Canyon National Park is named after its stunning black cliffs that drop 2,000 feet to a river below. From up above, the landscapes are Grand Canyon-esque and a perfect opportunity for photography. Make sure you’re wearing appropriate hiking clothes and bring hiking poles if your knees aren’t as strong as they used to be.
Black Canyon is best known for its fishing, especially if you want to catch some lake trout. But Colorado natives will tell you it’s their favorite place to camp because of the smaller crowds. We recommend checking out East Portal campground. It’s near a river and is accessible to dozens of great hiking trails.
If you’re feeling adventurous, obtain a backcountry permit to go on an overnight hiking-camping trip. Make sure to hydrate in the summertime, as the black cliffs can become quite hot.
2. Isle Royale National Park, MI
- Location : Northern Michigan
- Yearly visitors : 18,000
It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of nature in the entire country, not just Michigan. But at 18,000 visitors per year, it’s one of the least-visited National Parks in the system.
The biggest issue, as you can guess, is access to this park. It’s located north of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which is practically Canada. To make it to Houghton, located at the tip of the U.P., it’s a 10 hour drive from Detroit.
From there, you need to arrange a boat ride or a seaplane. Unlike the convenience of traveling to Mackinac Island for the day, there are no commercial ferries running loops to Isle Royale. And thanks to Michigan’s cold winters, the park closes October 31 through April 16.
But if the stars align for you and you want to scratch this National Park off your list, you’re in for a treat.
There’s 165 miles of hiking trails and a bit of history scattered along the way. You can find remnants of old summer cottages that people would stay in before it became a National Park in 1940. And if you’re into scuba diving, there are tours you can book to check out sunken ships in Lake Superior.
3. Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA
- Location : Northern California
- Yearly visitors : 500,000
But there is plenty to take in at Lassen.
Winter is our favorite because it’s typically mild enough to go cross country skiing or sledding in jeans and a fleece pullover. As long as the sun is out, it’s going to be mild.
In the summer and fall, rent a campsite at one of seven campgrounds and rent a boat for a weekend to explore the four most popular lakes, Manzanita, Butte, Juniper, and Summit.
4. National Park of American Samoa, AS
- Location : American Samoa
- Yearly visitors : 5,000
Distributed across three islands, Tutuila, Ofu, and Ta’ū, the National Park of American Samoa features some of the best snorkeling opportunities in the entire national park system, but only 5,000 people, on average, visit this park each year.
The biggest reason for that low amount is access to the park. Hawaiian Airlines is the only carrier to American Samoa, providing two flights per week from Honolulu. The islands are located 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii, which takes about 5.5 hours by plane.
Local Samoans manage the park. Instead of guest facilities, the locals run a unique homestay program that could turn out to be one of the most memorable parts of your trip.
While you’re outside, though, you need to go snorkeling and explore the rainforest, where you can take in tropical birds and, if you’re lucky, the endangered flying fox, which is a fruit bat with the wingspan of a barn owl.
5. North Cascades National Park, WA
- Location : Washington
- Yearly visitors : 30,000
This remote park in Northern Washington, known for its 300 glaciers and 300 lakes, is a backpackers paradise.
Take your lightweight, backpacking camping gear with you to Picket Range, a collection of mountains that each eclipse the 8,000-foot mark. Don’t be intimidated by the mountain names: Mount Terror, Phantom Peak, Mount Fury and Ghost Peak.
While camping, be on the lookout for potentially dangerous wildlife, including black ber and bobcats. Grizzlies are rare, but can be nearby. For beginners, hike Sterling Munro Trail for great photo opportunities of Picket Range.
6. Congaree National Park, SC
- Location : Hopkins, South Carolina
- Yearly visitors : 145,000
Head to South Carolina with your kayak or canoe, because Congaree National Park has one of the best paddling trails in the entire park system. For some reason, only 145,000 people visit it each year.
There are plenty of hiking and light paddling opportunities, but the real canoe and kayak enthusiasts will want to paddle the Congaree River Blue Trail. This is a 50-mile designated trail that starts in urban Columbia and ends inside the National Park.
The average kayaker can travel at about 3 mph, which puts this 50-miler at around 16 hours with no breaks. You’ll likely want to camp overnight and finish it over the course of two days.
Inside the park, there are two designated campgrounds; Longleaf and Bluff.
7. Great Basin National Park, NV
- Location : Nevada
- Yearly visitors : 90,000
Camping at 8,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. The opportunity to climb a 13,000-foot mountain. And some of the best fishing lakes in the National Park system.
Great Basin National Park, located in Nevada, is one of the most underrated parks, only attracting 90,000 visitors per year.
Those who are familiar with the park, though, appreciate the lighter crowds and more peaceful scenery.
When you’re not camping, climbing or fishing, you can hike around some sites that were once home to the Fremont American Indians, where you can take in their pictographs and arborglyphs.
You can’t enter the caves where they’re located, but you can see the work from the entrance.
8. Mesa Verde National Park, CO
- Location : Mesa Verde, Colorado
- Yearly visitors : 556,000
While more than a half-million people visit Mesa Verde National Park each year, it doesn’t get the same respect that Rocky Mountain National Park garners in Colorado. It’s also packed with a great history.
If you head to Mesa Verde, you need to tour a cliff dwelling that was once inhabited by Ancestral Puebloans. It’s recommended you reserve a tour ahead of time. There’s also a museum nearby with artifacts on display.
The Morefield Amphitheatre is home to a ranger-led campfire program, where you can learn even more about the rich history of Mesa Verde and its earliest residents.
Of course, you can hike around the park and there are designated camping spots for a more traditional National Park experience.
9. Canyonlands National Park, UT
- Location : Utah
- Yearly visitors : 776,000
Located near Moab, Canyonlands is a great park for camping, although the limited number of sites can fill up quickly.
Make sure to bring a good pair of hiking shoes to take in the following :
- Mesa Arch. This iconic geological phenomenon can easily be accessed via a half-mile trail.
- Shafer Canyon Overlook offers one of the best views in the entire park. Make sure to check out the road that travels next to the viewpoint down to the canyon floor. You can take a vehicle down it, but it’s going to be pretty scary!
- Elephant Hill, located in the Needles District is about 40 miles south of Moab. The rock formations here are the perfect backdrop for an afternoon hike.
10. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND
- Location : Medora, North Dakota
- Yearly visitors : 600,000
Any National Park named after the father of this system, Theodore Roosevelt, has to be worth visiting. But for some reason, this park, located in North Dakota, is as popular as parks, like Yellowstone.
But that’s why visitors to this park love it. There aren’t traffic jams (despite 600,000 visitors each year!) and it’s quite peaceful.
Start with the ultra-scenic, 36-mile loop drive to see the main features of this park. You’ll see plenty of prairie dogs and buffalo.
We recommend booking a horseback tour with a guide, to take you around parts of this 70,000-acre park. It can get colder here, which is why you may consider bringing heated socks or a heated vest with you.
At the end of a day of exploring outside, head to the historic town of Medora for some small-town charm and dinner at Theodore’s Dining Room.
Andrew Dodson is an avid camper who enjoys the great outdoors with his wife and two-year-old son. He resides in Colorado, where you can often find him enjoying hikes with a toddler strapped to his back and mini goldendoodle Percy nearby.