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Sand Dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Color
CheriAlguire | Adobe Stock

5 Most Underrated National Parks

SmarterTravel

Everyone talks about Yellowstone and Yosemite, but there are 423 national park sites in the U.S., 63 of which include “National Park” in their proper names. Plan your next nature-focused trip to skip crowded hiking trails and daunting lines at park entrances, and discover some hidden gems in the process. These five national parks have low visitation numbers but plenty of activities and views to offer. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
Sean Xu | Adobe Stock

Recreational visitors in 2020: 461,532

Taking up only 0.19% of the national parks visitation total in 2020, it’s clear that this southern Colorado gem isn’t getting the attention it deserves. 

Stunning mountain views create a breathtaking backdrop for 30 square miles of dunes, which contain over 5 billion cubic meters of sand. The dunes rise over 750 feet tall, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains peek out from behind them in gorgeous contrast. There’s no sandbox bigger than this. 

The park is open year-round, with southern Colorado temperatures fluctuating dramatically each season. Visit in summer, and you might find sand surface temperatures as hot as 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Come in the winter, and the dunes will likely be covered in snow. With appropriate layers and preparation, every season offers a new perspective on the beauty of the dramatic dunes. 

Things to Do

You can’t leave Great Sand Dunes National Park without sledding down the dunes! Well, you can, but you shouldn’t. 

The park is also full of opportunities to view wildlife, tour the dunes, and camp. With two campgrounds within the park and eight within thirty miles, there are plenty of places to set up camp. Whether you prefer your own two feet, a four-wheeler, or horseback, there’s a ranger-led park tour ready to welcome you. Catch a glimpse of notable birds, reptiles and amphibians during your visit, such as peregrine falcons, tiger salamanders, and exotic frogs. 

Dry Tortugas National Park (FL)

Dry Tortugas National Park
Varina Patel | Adobe Stock

Recreational visitors in 2020: 48,543

This park’s remoteness undoubtedly contributes to its low visitation numbers. You can only access Dry Tortugas National Park by boat or seaplane, but the oasis is worth the trek. Home to seven small islands and tons of bird and marine life, the park’s surreal blue waters make an ideal locale for a Florida adventure. Most of the park is made up of water, making it a perfect escape on a hot summer day. 

Things to do

Make a half-day trip to this water-centric park, or plan a camping trip on Garden Key. While you’re there, the best way to see the abundance of the park is to get underwater. Swim, snorkel, or dive among the park’s coral reefs to get up close to five different sea turtle species as well as sharks, lobsters, and hundreds of other marine species. 

On land, enjoy observing 300 bird species such as sooty terns, frigate birds, and even the elusive White-tailed Tropicbird. History buffs can take in the magnificent Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the US, and learn about the long-spanning background of the islands as a crucial shipping channel.

Isle Royale National Park (MI)

Isle Royale National Park
cyrezhd | Adobe Stock

Recreational visitors in 2020: 6,493

Regardless of your outdoor adventure style, Isle Royale National Park provides ample opportunities in a pleasantly remote setting. Located in Lake Superior, Michigan’s isolated treasure is accessible by ferry, seaplane or private boat. If you’re looking to get away from it all and immerse yourself in nature, this is your spot. 

Things to Do

Unplug with a backpacking trip through Isle Royale with stops at any of the park’s 36 campgrounds, which are free to use for groups of fewer than six people. For a shorter getaway, take a day hike through the spruce and fir trees in Rock Harbor, or explore the area’s history in the Windigo area of the park. 

Those who prefer water-bound adventures can keep to the island’s coasts and get busy fishing, kayaking, canoeing or even scuba diving. Divers can view ten major shipwreck sites underwater. Throughout your stay on the island, be on the lookout for wildlife like moose, beavers, red fox and even wolves. The diversity of the land and water in this park will leave every traveler satisfied. 

Gates of the Arctic National Park (AK)

Gates of the Arctic National Park
Patrick | Adobe Stock

Recreational visitors in 2020: 2,872

The least-visited national park also happens to be one of the most breathtaking. While a trip to Alaska is a long trek for most US residents, the views and the biodiversity of this park are more than worth it. Largely unchanged by humans and free of any formal roads or trails, Gates of the Arctic contains 8.4 million acres of arctic and mountain ecosystems. To reach the park, most visitors take an air taxi, but hiking into the park is possible as well. There are no roads leading to the park. 

If you’re into adventuring with cell phone service or a full-service guide, this park is not for you. The remote nature of the wilderness park requires visitors to be self-sufficient and adaptable. For centuries, humans have lived off the land in this area. Those looking for an arctic mountain adventure, authentic experiences with the earth, and true wilderness immersion will reap the benefits of this stunning landscape.

Things to Do

Visitors to Gates of the Arctic are mountaineers, campers, hunters, fisherpeople, and wildlife enthusiasts. You’ll find otherworldly mountain lake scenes at Walker Lake, a National Natural Landmark. Climbers can explore technical routes in the Arrigetch Peaks. Trek through the dense vegetation and mountain passes, relying on your maps and compass in the trail-free wilderness, or travel by river on a canoe, raft, or collapsible boat. All six wild rivers in the park have various access and take-out points. 

While there are no designated campsites, backpackers and river adventurers find their own campgrounds throughout multi-day trips. In the winter, travelers can view the Aurora Borealis, and in the spring visitors can travel using skis or dogsled. Wildlife in Gates of the Arctic includes brown bears, caribou, beavers, lynx, muskox and various bird and reptile species. For a truly wild experience, the likes of which you won’t find elsewhere, plan a visit to this little-known park. 

Great Basin (NV)

Great Basin, Nevada
Joseph | Adobe Stock

Recreational visitors in 2020: 120,248

Ranking 50th out of 63 in national parks visitation numbers, Nevada’s Great Basin National Park is often overlooked by those who picture Nevada as one big desert. On the contrary, this park offers enchanting views and diverse terrain. From caves and pine groves to mountains and wildflowers, Great Basin contains a multitude of ecosystems and natural phenomena. Whether you need a quick day trip full of unique scenery or a multi-day adventure, Great Basin will keep you busy. 

Things to Do

Not many national parks offer cave tours, so take advantage of this one. Tours through Lehman Caves take you back in time through 600 million years of the cave’s formation. Walk through multiple underground chambers while observing the limestone formations within the rock and learning about the land’s early history. 

Campers find space to enjoy the park at five different campgrounds as well as various primitive campsites throughout the park. Hiking trails offer a wide range of difficulty and the chance to view beautiful seasonal wildflowers. In the fall, visitors can gather pine nuts while hiking through the park. Wildlife enthusiasts can hope to encounter wildlife like beavers, voles, porcupines, and bighorn sheep. Stargazers visit from far and wide to enjoy the park’s dark skies and catch a glimpse of the Milky Way and bright planets from viewpoints like Mather Overlook. 

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