Off the Beaten Path
We are living in the age of Yellowstone.
Between Paramount Network’s hit tv drama starring a rugged Kevin Costner and the search for a cure to our collective cabin fever, national park tourism is at an all-time high. According to a report released by the National Park Service, 44 parks set visitor attendance records in 2021, and the outlook for 2022 is even greater.
This overall increase would tickle President Woodrow Wilson, who signed the act creating the National Park Service in 1916, but National Park Service staff and resources are feeling the strain of recent over-tourism, a classic example of too much of a good thing. So, unless you’re looking for a theme park-like experience (duking it out for a parking spot, endless restroom lines, trash, and very public family feuds), it might be wise to avoid the more popular destinations.
With that spirit in mind, we’ve rounded up a handful of lesser-known national parks that have just as much to offer you, your iPhone, and your Merrells as any top 25 park out there.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park / Salt Flat, Texas
About 115 miles east of El Paso and situated in the Chihuahuan Desert is Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The mountains are part of the Capitan Reef, an ancient fossil reef complex (spanning 400 miles) estimated to have formed 260 to 270 million years ago, and 12 miles of exposed reef are found inside the park. Formally established in 1972, GMNP includes almost 87,000 acres of impressive peaks and canyons. One such impressive peak is Guadalupe Peak, which sits 8,751 miles above sea level and is the highest point in all of Texas. GMNP is also famous for another peak, El Capitan, the 1,000-foot-high limestone cliff that has become the public face of this protected area. This park, rich with geologic and cultural history, is less visited than its nearby sister national park, Big Bend, giving you more room to appreciate this big little slice of the desert.
The entrance fee is $10 per person (ages 16 years and older).
Carlsbad Caverns National Park / Carlsbad, New Mexico
Yet another underrated destination in the Chihuahuan Desert and just a stone’s throw away from Guadalupe Mountains National Park (double feature, anyone?), Carlsbad Caverns takes you underground to more than 100 limestone caves which are part of the very same Capitan fossil reef complex dating back to the Permian period. It is one of the most well-preserved fossil reefs in the world. Those who visit between late May and September will witness a mass exodus of Brazilian free-tailed bats, the park’s most famous mammal, leaving every evening in search of dinner. The park also offers numerous hiking trails for those who prefer to stay aboveground. The 100-mile Guadalupe Ridge Trail, which begins at Guadalupe Peak (the highest point in Texas, remember?) ends in this national park, so you can tell people you made it to the end of the GRT.
Reservations are required to enter Carlsbad Cavern.
The entrance fee is $15 per person (ages 16 years and older), which is valid for 3 days.
Channel Islands National Park / Ventura, California
There are only 7 national parks that are partially or entirely on islands, and this is one of them. Five islands off the coast of Southern California make up Channel Islands National Park, all of which provide something totally unique. Anacapa Island offers trails to a lighthouse that’s been around since 1932. Santa Cruz Island is famous for its sea caves. Windblown groves of the rare Torrey Pine populate Santa Rosa Island. Various species of sea lions and seals call San Miguel Island home. Santa Barbara Island is a breeding and nesting ground for land, shore, and seabirds (keep an eye out for bald eagles!). But explorers be warned: there are no food stores or gear shops on these islands so prepare accordingly. In addition to standard park activities such as hiking, camping, and birdwatching, experienced visitors can take to the water and kayak or snorkel. Landlubbers can walk along the white sand beaches of Santa Rosa Island. While the mainland is accessible by car, island hoppers will require transportation via park concessionaire boats, so advanced planning is highly encouraged.
No entrance fee is required.
North Cascades National Park / Sedro Woolley, Washington
If your ideal nature experience involves snowcapped mountains, cascading waterfalls, and Gatorade-blue lakes, look no further than North Cascades National Park. Trailing in popularity to Washington State’s other two national parks, Mount Rainier and Olympic, you will be one of the mere 30,000 people who visit annually, giving you a sense of ownership of this 500,000 acre-wonderland located three hours northeast of Seattle. The North Cascades Range is part of a vast mountain chain that is considered by many to be the most stunning and complex in the U.S. This area is also an ice sheet playground boasting more than 300 glaciers, the largest glaciated area outside of Alaska. Enjoy a leisure cycle in the lower Stehekin Valley or challenge yourself to cycle out of the Skagit River gorge. Meanwhile, water lovers can take to the picturesque lakes (Diablo, Ross, Gorge, and Chelan) via kayak or canoe. It is recommended that parkgoers plan their trip between mid-June and late September for the best weather conditions.
No entrance fee is required.
Be sure to check nps.gov before adventuring to learn about alerts, permits, reservations, etc. Also, take note of the upcoming free entrance days at all national parks: April 16, Aug. 4, Sept. 24, and Nov. 11.
Happy trails, y’all!
Thanks for sharing!