5 Lesser-Known National Parks
Escape the crowds this summer and visit these stunning destinations in the United States.
America’s top 10 national parks get more visitors each year than the other 49 put together — and who wants to fight stressed-out crowds for a glimpse at a glacier, a hundred-mile summit view or a splash into a crystal-clear watering hole? Your summer vacation strategy is to seek out the dozens of parks where you can enjoy the best the country has to offer in peace.
Congaree National Park
You only have to drive 45 minutes from Columbia, South Carolina, or just under two hours from Charleston, to get to Congaree National Park, an oasis of old-growth forest set aside in 2003. Some of the largest hardwoods in the eastern United States, including towering bald cypresses that once fueled a logging industry, loom over the Congaree and its tributaries. Reserve a campsite, rent a canoe or strap on a backpack, and see what the South looked like before it was clear-cut.
Isle Royale National Park
Far to the north, Isle Royale National Park is closer to Ontario, Canada, than to Minnesota or Michigan — where you’ll need to catch a multi-hour ferry ride or hail a seaplane to get to the quiet outpost on Lake Superior.
The island rewards the effort, with more than a hundred miles of hiking trails that erupt with wild berries during the summer, tranquil, uncrowded campgrounds, dark skies occasionally lit by aurora borealis, and a coastline lapped by clean, cool water, where you might catch a moose taking a drink if you go for a stroll first thing in the morning. That’s why, although it’s the least visited park in the lower 48, it’s also the most revisited.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
At Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, you can hike 30 square miles of sand dunes as tall as skyscrapers — rising hundreds of feet from the floor of the San Luis Valley. If you rent a sandboard or a sand sled at the entrance to the park, you can fly down them.
You won’t find any marked trails in the dunes, which are constantly in flux anyway. Ask the rangers where to go. High Dune, at 699 feet, is a popular two-hour hike from the visitors center, and the 755-foot Star Dune, the tallest dune in the park, is about five hours away. You can stick around to watch the sunset if you plan ahead. The park offers 10 dune camping permits per night.
North Cascades National Park
Half a million acres of glaciers, towering peaks and pristine mountain lakes make up the astonishingly beautiful North Cascades National Park — which, in fact, has more glaciers than any park in the lower 48, at 312. Plus, it’s less than three hours from Seattle. Still, it was the fifth least visited park in the United States in 2017. (Glacier, the 10th most visited park in the country, has only 25 glaciers.)
Channel Islands National Park
Off the coast of California, Channel Islands National Park includes five of the eight islands in the chain sometimes called America’s Galapagos for their diversity of flora and fauna: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Barbara.
The islands are an easy trip from Los Angeles, via ferries that depart from Ventura and Oxnard — but a world away, harking back to a time when southern California was an untarnished landscape of rugged peaks and pristine beaches. The views alone are worth the trip, but the activities justify an overnight stay: kayaking through sea caves, scuba diving with sea lions and hiking to breathtaking overlooks where you might spot whales in the ocean below. You’ll have to pack in your own food and water. Here, on the rocky edge of the Pacific, you won’t have much company.
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