It’s no surprise millions of people flock to America’s most celebrated national parks. But did you know about these 10 lesser-known sites nearby? Here are side trips where you can escape the crowds and enjoy a few underrated wonders of the park system, too.
10. Glacier National Park and Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, Montana
Glacier: 2,946,681 visits
Grant-Kohrs Ranch: 23,176 visits
With over one million acres of breathtaking alpine landscapes, glaciated mountains and deep blue lakes, Glacier is a place of natural wonders. Just a few hours south of this untamed landscape, visitors can experience a different side of Montana: its cowboy culture. The Grant-Kohrs Ranch was once the home of “Montana’s Cattle King,” Conrad Kohrs, who purchased the property from its original owner, Canadian Johnny Grant, and went on to graze some 50,000 cows there. The working ranch shares the history of the cattle industry, with demonstrations of traditional 19th century skills, such as blacksmithing and tending fields with teams of horses. Take a free guided tour and explore the walking trails to see the bunkhouses, barns and animals and take in the bucolic big-sky beauty.
9. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, and Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho
Grand Teton: 3,270,076 visits
Craters of the Moon: 255,436 visits
Grand Teton’s distinctive jagged granite pinnacles, scenic lakes, charismatic wildlife, and historic barns and homesteads make it a popular destination for travelers. A few hours west, in the heart of Idaho, visitors can experience an odder, less trodden landscape — one made up of curious fissures, cinder cones and craggy volcanic rock. Craters of the Moon encompasses parts of three lava fields along the length of the “Great Rift” — a 60-mile line of cracks in the earth, featuring the complex remains of thousands of years of eruptions. See a host of volcanic features, including lava flows in striking colors, one of the largest cinder cones made entirely of basalt, and kipukas, islands of vegetation surrounded by lava. The park is vast, wild and so otherworldly that Apollo 14 astronauts trained here in the 1960s to prepare for their voyage to the moon!
8. Acadia National Park and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine
Acadia: 3,303,393 visits
Katahdin Woods and Waters: No official statistics
Acadia is famous for its picturesque mountains, diverse woodlands, deep blue waters, carriage roads and historic lighthouses. Just two hours inland, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument complements Acadia’s coastal landscape with another quintessential Maine experience. This recent addition to the National Park System preserves the East Branch of the Penobscot River, first made famous by Henry David Thoreau in his 1864 series of essays, “The Maine Woods.” The monument also showcases the wild lands around this famed river, including boreal forests and native wildlife species that are characteristic of Maine’s interior. Visitors can see moose and lynx, whitewater falls, deep river valleys, dramatic flood plains, and “rock conglomerates” — formations made up of different types of Appalachian rock fragments dating back millions of years.
7. Olympic National Park and Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, Washington
Olympic: 3,390,221 visits
Ebey’s Landing: No official statistics
From its wild beaches with sea stacks to its lush, mossy rain-forest to its rugged, glacier-capped mountains, Olympic’s diverse habitats are ideal for travelers looking for a little bit of everything — and a lot of tranquility. Those who want to see the park’s namesake mountains from a different vantage point can also experience the charm of Ebey’s Landing, a rural landmark on a long, narrow island northeast of Olympic, with farms, historic structures, scenic overlooks, trailheads, beaches and a restored lighthouse. The reserve features dramatic bluffs overlooking Puget Sound, as well as woods, grassland prairies, military forts and historic Coupeville, one of the oldest towns in Washington state. On a clear day, visitors can see mountains in the Cascade Range and the Olympic Mountains from the shore. Lucky visitors might even catch sight of whales or a passing submarine!
6. Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Montana and Wyoming
Yellowstone: 4,257,177 visits
Bighorn Canyon: 259,485 visits
For many, a trip to Yellowstone is the essence of a national park vacation. Millions flock to the world’s first national park to enjoy its natural beauty, its high concentration of geothermal features and its plentiful wildlife. Even though Bighorn Canyon is just a few hours east of Old Faithful, relatively few people have heard of this rugged park, and its colorful landscape feels more like a part of the Southwest. This dramatically carved canyon sits between two mountain ranges and can be accessed from the Montana side or the Wyoming side. Since road access to the park is limited, boating is a popular way to experience the length of the canyon, and visitors can enjoy floating beneath the towering rock walls and spires. (Fishing is also permitted.) Travelers who prefer to explore by land can enjoy numerous hiking trails and scenic overlooks, including the popular Devil Canyon Overlook on the Wyoming side.
5. Zion and Capitol Reef National Parks, Utah
Zion: 4,295,127 visits
Capitol Reef: 1,064,904 visits
At Zion, visitors are wowed by the impressive sandstone formations, the mesas with pine and juniper, and the free-flowing Virgin River that carved the valley into being. A few hours northeast of Zion, on the other side of a scenic byway, Capitol Reef offers yet more dramatic rock formations and sweeping desert views. Even though these two parks are geographically close and have similar desert features, each is uniquely wondrous. At the heart of Capitol Reef is the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile “wrinkle” in the earth known as a monocline. Visitors can see this unusual geologic feature up-close and hike over slickrock among sandstone domes and cliffs. Those with high-clearance vehicles can drive along the Cathedral Valley Loop to see even more astounding rocks, including remarkable sandstone monoliths. The park is also famous for its orchards, planted by pioneers who settled here in the late 1800s; in season, visitors can sample fruit right from the trees.
4. Rocky Mountain National Park and Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado
Rocky Mountain: 4,517,585 visits
Florissant Fossil Beds: 73,564 visits
Rocky Mountain is one of the highest-elevation parks in the country, with 60 peaks over 12,000 feet tall — a wonderland for hikers and a refuge for hundreds of alpine and sub-alpine plant and animal species, some of which exist nowhere else. A few hours south of these gigantic mountains, travelers can learn about a number of much smaller wonders: insects. Though bugs may hardly seem like a rare attraction at most parks, the specimens at Florissant Fossil Beds aren’t ordinary gnats and blackflies — these 34-million-year-old fossils were discovered as part of the region’s rich trove of Eocene-Era remains. In addition to its well-preserved wasps, caddisflies, dragonflies and ants, the park also features petrified redwood stumps and detailed specimens of other kinds of plants and animals, including snails, birds and fish, all miraculously preserved between layers of shale.
3. Yosemite National Park and Devils Postpile National Monument, California
Yosemite: 5,028,868 visits
Devils Postpile: 135,404 visits
Millions of people visit Yosemite each year to explore its dramatic valley with towering granite rocks and rushing waterfalls so beautiful, the scene feels like something out of a fairy tale. Just south of the park’s east exit is a far less appreciated site with another rare and impressive geologic formation and another magnificent waterfall. The “postpile” at Devils Postpile began as a mass of lava that cooled into hexagonal pillars some 100,000 years ago, a type of rock known as columnar basalt. The park’s Rainbow Falls may take second billing to the postpile, but the plunging 101-foot cascades are worth the easy 2.5-mile round-trip hike to see them.
2. Grand Canyon National Park and Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
Grand Canyon: 5,969,811 visits
Canyon de Chelly: 821,406 visits
The Grand Canyon is one of the most widely revered wonders of the Southwest — a must-see destination with breathtaking views, spectacular hiking and world-class whitewater rafting. Three and a half hours east of this geologic marvel is a smaller, lesser-known canyon that offers a more solitary desert experience on lands entirely within the Navajo Nation. Canyon de Chelly is one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in North America, featuring a dramatic 800-foot monolith, Spider Rock, visible from an overlook on the canyon’s south rim. Visitors can hike the park’s one public trail on their own (2.5 miles round-trip) to see well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan ruins. For a fuller experience of the canyon, visitors can hire a Navajo guide to see more of the geology, petroglyphs and ancient dwellings up-close and to hear stories of the community that still calls this land home.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee, and Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains: 11,312,786 visits
Carl Sandburg Home: 80,696 visits
What makes the Great Smoky Mountains so overwhelmingly popular year after year? Perhaps no other place in America represents such an ideal mix of the convenient and the extraordinary, putting a region with postcard-perfect mountains and incredibly diverse wildlife within easy reach of the interstate. While this park continues to set visitation records and amaze travelers from around the globe, a fascinating site just about an hour and a half southeast of the park’s North Carolina entrance offers a much quieter experience. In fact, you could say that the sense of solitude at the Carl Sandburg Home is part of its charm — and its history. This is where the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer spent countless days alone, absorbed in words, and where he built his career as a voice for the common man and a “poet of the people.” See Sandburg’s office, the rock where he spent hours lost in thought and the picturesque farm with descendants of his original goats, among many other artifacts and curiosities.
Note that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is still recovering from the wildfires that claimed 14 lives, forced widespread evacuations and caused extensive property damage in late 2016. Fires burned more than 10,000 acres inside the park, and some trails remain closed as a result.
Note also that the Carl Sandburg Home is currently under renovation, and the furnishings are in storage while preservationists repair the structure. Free tours are still available during the renovations, which should be completed next year.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits, and moderates online content for NPCA.
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