Yellowstone. The Grand Canyon. Yosemite. These grande dames of the National Park system are amazing places to visit, but there are so many other gorgeous parks in the United States that don't get nearly the same level of attention. During the summer months those blockbuster parks will be overflowing with crowds and high prices, but here are a few vacation-worthy National Parks that are often overlooked, but seriously worth a visit.
Mesa Verde is far better known for its pre-Colombian cliff palaces, but Chaco Canyon is actually more impressive in scope and size. The Pueblans who resided in the canyon for four centuries, from 850-1250 AD, built an enormous commercial and cultural center that was once the capital of this ancient world.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a little bit off the beaten path but well worth the trek. The Canyon Loop Drive will take you through six major historical ruins, the most important of which is Pueblo Bonito. This enormous and mysterious former city has over 600 rooms and may have housed over 1000 people in its heyday.
The North Cascades are less than three hours outside of Seattle, but don't get nearly the number of visitors that the flashier Olympic National Park does. This is a shame because the area’s alpine scenery is beyond beautiful and the mountains have ample opportunities for hikers, backpackers and mountain climbers. The North Cascades also has the most glaciers of any National Park outside of Alaska and a third of all glaciers in the United States.
It's kind of amazing that the Great Sand Dunes National Park isn't more popular. Nowhere else can you see the tallest sand dunes in North America against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. It's surreal, and beautiful, not to mention super fun! Kids and adults can enjoy sand boarding or sand sledding down the dunes. Sledding is permitted anywhere without vegetation, and boards can be rented in the nearby San Luis Valley. This, plus great hiking, sand biking and a popular swimming creek, make the Great Sand Dunes a terrific family vacation spot.
Think Yellowstone is the only place in the lower 48 to get your geothermal fix? Think again. Lassen's centerpiece is Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world. Although it hasn't erupted since 1921, it’s still considered to be an active volcano and hydrothermal features like fumaroles, mud pots and bubbling lakes dot the landscape. Most of the geothermal areas can be toured via car and short hikes.
There are also ample opportunities for camping, bird watching and boating. Lassen receives more snow than anywhere else in California and during the winter months skiing and snowshoeing are popular.
Far up on the northern border of Michigan, Isle Royale gets fewer visitors each year than Yellowstone sometimes gets in a single day. Other people's loss can be your gain, because the largest island on Lake Superior is tranquil, isolated and truly remote. The park is only reachable by boat, and once you arrive there are ample opportunities for backcountry camping, hiking and fishing. You may even spot an elusive moose in the woods. Underneath the waves, scuba divers will find the largest collection of shipwrecks in any National Park.
What’s your favorite National Park?
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Stephanie Yoder is a girl who can't sit still! Since graduating college in 2007 she has either been traveling or planning to travel. She's lived on four continents and visited everywhere from the Great Wall of China to the Great Barrier Reef. She now writes and travels full time, blogging about her adventures on Why Wait To See The World? (formerly Twenty-Something Travel). Follow Stephanie on Twitter or visit her on Facebook.
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