Thousands of annual visitors flood through the gates of America’s best known national parks. From witnessing Old Faithful to breathing in the beauty of Yosemite, vehicles jam roadways leading in and out of these famous landmarks. Hiking trails are shared with other would be adventurers and their packs of unruly kids who often have no respect for the serenity and peaceful calm only provided by the stillness of nature.
If the thought of communing with nature in a more private setting where billboards aren’t directing vacationers to the proper highway exit is more along the lines of what you would prefer, put the travel brochures down. You need to be following the roads less traveled.
Here are some little known national parks as equal in beauty as the more well-known ones, but they are off the radar of most typical bumper sticker buying travelers.
Congaree National Park – South Carolina
Canoeing, kayaking, hiking, camping, and fishing are second to none at Congaree National Park. The park boasts the largest intact expanse of old-growth hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern US. Waters from the Congaree and the Wateree Rivers converge, carrying with them nutrients and sediments which continually feed the trees and vegetation.
The park sits in a flood plain so on average, ten times a year it’s underwater, but it is well worth planning a trip during the dry season. The park is home to many Barre Owls and at night visitors to the park can take a guided tour to hear their haunting sounds, and with a little luck, they may spot some of them as they come out to feed. You’ll also see the forest floor glowing from the accumulation of fungi.
A little further into the backcountry of the park will find bobcats, otters, deer, and a huge variety of birds nestled in cypress trees amid hanging Spanish moss. Photo opportunities abound.
Children visiting the park can receive a Junior Ranger Workbook. Once they have completed the activities in the book they will receive a Junior Ranger badge by bringing it to the main station.
It cost’s $10 dollars a night to camp in the campground, and only $5 dollars a night to camp on the bluff. If you are the outdoorsy type who lives for the thrill of adventure, you can hike into the backcountry and camp for free.
Big Bend National Park – Texas
Big Bend National Park runs along the Texas/Mexico border for 118 miles. There are many miles of paved road for taking leisurely scenic drives, but if you want to engage all four wheels and jump off of the pavement, there are also miles and miles of more difficult to navigate dirt roads. Don’t feel like driving? That’s okay. Grab a tube or a raft and float down the Rio Grande River in between the canyons instead.
You will never see more stars in the sky than you will here, and if you look long enough, you’re bound to see one or two them falling from the sky. Prepare to have your breath taken away when your eyes feast upon the Milky Way, bigger and brighter then it can be seen from anywhere else. This is because the park has the lowest light pollution than any other location in the lower 48 states.
The diversity of birds is the greatest in the country. They flock here to escape the desert heat and feed off of cactus blooms and smaller insects. With a valid passport, visitors can cross the border into Mexico either on foot or on the back of a burro to the town of Boquillas.
There are three campsites set up for RV’s, 24 of which offer full hook-ups. These are all located toward the front of the camp. There is also more primitive camping available and guests can stay for a total of 14 consecutive nights.
Great Basin National Park – Nevada
Great Basin National Park was carved by a glacier and it is truly a natural wonder to behold. Caves, mammoth trees, a 13,000 ft. summit and the low lying wilderness areas are such spectacular feats of nature you’ll feel small and insignificant as you take it all in.
You’ll need a guide to explore the Lehman Caves if you want to come back out the same way you went in, but these tours are far more adventurous than what you will find at places like Carlsbad Caverns. Portions of the cave are too dangerous to explore and unless you know where those spots are you could end up in some serious trouble.
This park is a popular place for stargazers and they offer an astronomy program for those interested. There is some of the best hiking and fishing to found anywhere, and if a person is really seeking solitude, it’s right around every corner.
A Junior Ranger program for the kiddos is similar to the one at Congaree National Park which allows children to become actively involved in nature programs, earning them a reward. This also allows their parents to do more exploring while their young uns’ are staying busy.
If you go climbing or camping in the backcountry, though not required, it’s a good idea to register before doing so just so the Rangers know you are out there. They’re highly trained in rescue techniques.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park – Alaska
Majestic is the only word which comes to mind. While this particular park may not be the ideal setting for a family-planned expedition, for those experienced in spending time in the backcountry, it’s a Mecca.
It’s the largest national park in America and there are no roads leading in and out and very few amenities. It’s six times the size of Yellowstone and makes up 60% of Alaska’s glaciers. It’s teeming with wildlife, Salmon fighting their way upstream, outrageously beautiful mountain passes, valleys, and lakes. Camping is allowed anywhere that appears to be a good spot, and you are guaranteed to not run into a family snapping photos of their kids building a snowman. If solitude is what you are seeking, look no further.
With 58 American national parks to choose from, you don’t have to go where everyone else does. These lesser-known parks offer natural beauty and exciting outdoor adventure without the overwhelming crowds.