While the names Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon have been iconic in the story of the US National Park System for good reasons; there are many other National Parks in the country that receive far less and acclaim and a fraction of the visitors but offer views just as spectacular as their more well-known brethren. Luckily, with the continued growth of the internet and social media, parks that had would have once been considered obscure, have risen to their prominence in the last few decades. Parks like Zion, Mt. Rainier, and Glacier National Park that had once received relatively few visitors have in recent years been forced to put into place quota systems for guest arrivals to combat the overflow of tourists from damaging the park’s ecosystems. Despite stunning Instagram photos bringing more visitors to a greater variety of parks, there remain hidden gems that travelers can visit where they could easily feel like they have the full park to themselves.
North Cascades National Park
There are three National Parks in Washington State: Olympic, Mt. Rainier, and North Cascades. While Olympic and Mt. Rainier attract many tourists throughout the year; North Cascades remains a hidden jewel despite being located less than 2 hours north of Seattle. Known as the American Alps; this nickname is well deserved. This park is full of towering mountains separated by deep valleys and a series of lakes that combine for a majestic vista. I had the pleasure of visiting this National Park in the spring one year. Despite spending hours in the park, I only encountered one other visitor on the trail with me. During most of my stay, I felt like I had the park entirely to myself. One of the most popular trails in the park is the Diablo Lake trail. This trailhead starts in the valley floor, on the outskirts of Diablo Lake before winding through a series of switchbacks that take hikers through dense forests and higher into the mountains. Along the way, there are scenic vistas overlooking the Cascade Mountains range. At the highest point of the hike, there are amazing panoramic views of the surrounding mountains circling Diablo Lake below. For those who prefer to explore parks by car, the highway running through the park also offers many marked scenic outlooks where drivers can park and take in the park’s scenery.
King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks
Located a few hours to the south of Yosemite, these two National Parks are connected and offer like Yosemite but with a fraction of the visitors. Like the Lower Yosemite Valley, Paradise Valley in King’s Canyon allows hikers to explore an out and back trail through the middle of a glacial valley with tunnel views of granite peaks rising to encompass the lush green valley in between. The difference in visitors is night and day. During my time exploring Northern California, I spent time at both Yosemite and Kings Canyon back-to-back. While Yosemite required fighting traffic and struggling to find a parking spot, Kings Canyon allowed me to spend the entire day on the trail while only seeing one other fellow hiker.
Sequoia National Park is connected to King’s Canyon and offers hikers the opportunity to hike through groves of west coast Sequoia trees. The sheer size of these trees needs to be seen in person to fully appreciated. Pictures can not do these trees justice since there is rarely anything in those photographs to highlight the trees size. There are trees in this park that visitors can walk through and live trees with tunnels that cars are able to drive through. I have seen over groups of over a dozen visitors linking hands trying to surround the tree but still not able to wrap themselves around the full diameter of the tree. The largest tree in the world, named the General Sherman, calls this park home. While the trees are the main highlight of this park, there are also several locations where the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountains can be taken in. One such example is Morro Rock, a hike that goes along a rock outcrop jutting out into an open vista. At the end of the rock, panoramic views of the surrounding mountains can be enjoyed.
Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park surrounds the town of Tucson, Arizona. While there are trails for visitors to enjoy within the park’s boundaries, the most popular activity to do in this National Park are two drives for the cactus forests that this park was named for. The saguaro cacti are the largest cactuses in the United States, reaching heights upwards of 40 feet and these parks have the largest concentration of these in the country. The two cactus loop roads allow park visitors who want to take their time, hours of views of sprawling giant cactuses that reach out towards the horizon. There are several spots along this drive that allow hikers to park their car and proceed through these forests on foot. This was my personal favorite experience in this park. While seeing the forests off the road from the comfort of a car is great, its hard to beat walking through the middle of these giant cactuses to take in their immense size. The desert landscape of the park also offers hikers a change to see many of the smaller plants that also call this national park home, as well as the park’s wildlife that ranges from road runners to gila monster lizards. A day or two in this park would be time well spent on a road trip through the American Southwest.
Also located in the southwest, Carlsbad Caverns is in New Mexico an hour away from Roswell. The highlight of this national park is the Carlsbad cave system that can be explored in 3 ways by most visitors: self-guided tours, ranger led tour, or a wild cave tour. Carlsbad Caverns are made up of 3 layers of caverns with most visitors only exploring the top layer of the system. This portion of the cave system is made up of interconnected large rooms that are filled with an abundance of cave formations. You can find everything here such as stalactites, stalagmites, columns, bacon strips, mounds, and many more everywhere you turn. The size of some of this formation is a treat as well, with columns with shining limestone spanning dozens of feet from the cave floor all the way to the ceiling. While doing a self-guided tour through these caverns is a fun option and excellent way to pass the day, signing onto the ranger led tours will allow you to see far more of this upper cave system since many of the cave’s rooms are only open to these guided tours. The wild cave tour takes visitors through crawl spaces in Carlsbad second cave system layer. Not an option for the claustrophobic, this is a fun way for visitors to explore caves in a non-traditional way from most visitors. While the sprawling rooms filled with cave formations won’t be found on the wild cave tour, the appeal of this tour is the journey itself as those brave enough to attempt it will often find themselves on hands and knees crawling through tight spaces as they explore this more untamed portion of the cave. The third layer of the cave system is not open to the public but is an incredible site to behold. Known as Lechuguilla, this portion of the cave is known for having giant gypsum crystal formations as opposed to the limestone formations prevalent in most other cave systems around the world. Some of these gypsum formations are large enough for people to walk in with ease and caverns made up 40-foot crystal obelisks can be found here. Due to the delicate nature of this system and the toxic environment that is filled with hydrogen-sulfide gas, this portion of the cave system is not open to the public but for those curious: it is featured in the cave episode of BBC’s Planet Earth documentary series.
I hope these hidden gems have sparked your interest in expanding your national park repertoire and attempt to see more of the parks within the US and elsewhere in the world. It is a personal goal of mine to explore each one of the country’s National Park and I hope to share my stories to inspire my readers to add this goal to their own bucket list; but those are stories for another day…