The 10 Most Underrated National Parks

Published on 08/12/2022 · 9 min readLooking for a less crowded national park to visit this summer? Check out these ten parks that are often overlooked but still have a lot of beautiful scenery to offer!
Hannah K, Camping Expert
By Camping Expert Hannah K

Photo by Everett Mcintire

There are more than 60 national parks in the United States, and the list is growing. Many of us have crossed Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon off our lists, but there are so many beautiful and unexplored regions of the country to add to your bucket list with unique landscapes.

Just because they are not visited as frequently as other national parks does not mean that they aren’t filled with just as much magic and adventure. Skip the busy crowds in Utah, Colorado, Oregon, or Seattle in Washington State and choose the path less traveled. From deserts to islands, to mountain ranges, glaciers, and coral reefs, here is my list of the 10 most underrated national parks in the country and why you should visit them.

As a note: always thank the National Park Service team and rangers who work hard to protect these lands and make them accessible for all to enjoy.

10. Haleakalā National Park, Hawaii

1,450,000 visitors/year

Photo by Jelle de Gier

Haleakalā National Park in Hawaii sits on Maui Island and is home to the dormant volcano Haleakalā and a species of endangered geese. Enjoy steep hikes up ridges, bamboo forests that surround freshwater pools, and waterfalls. Keep in mind that you will need a reservation to enter the park for sunrise above the clouds between 3 A.M. and 7 A.M., but it will be worth the early morning!

This park is unique because of its culture that connects people to the land and holds great history of Hawaiian civilizations. There are three options for those wanting to stay overnight, and sites range from cabins to primitive tent sites. For backcountry camping, there are two campgrounds accessible only with reservations and a permit. You can learn more about backcountry camping in Haleakalā National Park here.

9. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

1,000,000 visitors/year

Photo by Gary Yost

Towering spires, geologically fascinating rock formations, and steep canyons, along with Bighorn Sheep, bison, and prairie dogs make up the majority of Badlands National Park. If you go in the summer, make sure to plan your trip around the Badlands Astronomy Festival to enjoy lectures, guided moon hikes, constellation viewings, and more.

There is a designated backcountry trail to hike with your dog off Cedar Pass where they can sniff for rabbits. Badlands National Park has an open-hike policy, meaning that you are allowed to hike off-trail, but be aware of potential dangers, and as always, leave no trace.

8. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

644,922 visitors/year

Photo by R.B.

Petrified Forest National Park in the northeastern section of Arizona has an abundance of culture and history dating back to prehistoric times. The southernmost section of the park is the Rainbow Forest, made completely of petrified wood. This houses the Rainbow Forest Museum, multiple trailheads, petroglyphs of Newspaper Rock, and the ruins of Puerco Pueblo.

This national park offers activities such as day-hiking trails, backpacking trails, bikepacking trails, horseback riding, geocaching, and guided tours. For your furry friends, make sure to ask about the Bark Ranger Program!

7. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

499,435 visitors/year

Hypothermal activity in Lassen Volcanic NP. Photo by Quentin Burgess

Located in Northern California near Shasta Trinity National Forest is the least-visited national park in California, Lassen Volcanic National Park. It is known for its hydrothermal sites, such as Bumpass Hell, and has acres of bubbling mud pots. Lots of trails connect to the Pacific Crest Trail and offer views of devastation from the last volcanic eruption.

In winter you can enjoy a myriad of snow activities, including snowshoeing, skiing, and snowboarding. In summer and fall, enjoy hundreds of trails, campsites, boating, and fishing. Bike the highway, visit Sulphur Works (the easiest access of the hypothermal sites), or walk around Manzanita Lake. This park has a complicated history that includes suffragettes and is an important site for the evolution of women’s role in society.

6. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

243,000 visitors/year

Succulent in front of mountain in Guadalupe Mountains NP. Photo by Brandon Frie

Known for its bright-white Salt Basin Dunes, Guadalupe Mountains National Park sits in the vast Chihuahuan Desert in western Texas. Fossilized reef mountains, wildlife-rich grassland, and the Guadalupe Peak Trail that weaves up through a conifer forest to the state’s highest summit are some of the perks of visiting this national park.

For epic fall foliage, visit the McKittrick Canyon Trail. Keep an eye out for mule deer, elk, cotton-tailed rabbits, coyotes, fox, ringtails, and more—but note that animal sightings are rare due to the harsh ecosystem. There are a series of roads that will give you access to the interior of the mountains and a wide range of campsites available ranging from backcountry and primitive sites to RV sites. This park is known for its stargazing and birding activities, so make sure to look up.

5. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

232,974 visitors/year

Early morning canoe trip in Voyageurs NP. Photo by Tim Umphreys

Situated in northern Minnesota near the Canadian border is another underrated national park: Voyageurs National Park. It holds forests, waterways, and Kabetogama and Namakan lakes, to name a few. This adventureland is open year-round with wetlands, cliffs, exposed rock ridges, and large aquatic ecosystems. If you are really lucky—extremely lucky—you will get to glance at the Aurora Borealis (a.k.a. the Northern Lights), which sometimes crosses the skies over the park.

For a unique way to explore the park, rent a houseboat (a house and a nifty transportation device that allows you to move around the lakes and islands of Voyageurs National Park). Hike to Health has been a program in the park since 2014 that encourages moving outside for better health.

Summer activities include water sports, hiking, and backpacking, while winter sports include snowshoeing, sledding, skiing, and ice fishing. Always obey all closure signs in winter and be sure to watch for pressure ridges that may indicate an unsafe ice crossing.

4. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

145,929 visitors/year

Pathway through forest in Congaree NP. Photo by Leslie Cross

Congaree National Park in South Carolina has more than 26,000 acres of the largest preserved bottomland hardwood forest in the United States to explore. This national park has some of the most biodiverse lands in South Carolina because it has both the Congaree and Wateree rivers running through it, which bring nutrients and sediments that nourish the land and support the growth of native species.

Fishing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and camping are only a few of the activities you can do within the park itself. You need to reserve campgrounds ahead of time or have a permit for backcountry camping. There are no drive-in campsites so be prepared to carry your gear from your car to the site you choose, however, the furthest site is about 100 yards from the parking lot. There are numerous trails available ranging from short boardwalk hikes to longer trails to backpack.

3. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

80,000 visitors/year

Photo by Bryan Goff

Does exploring a 19th-century fort or snorkeling with wildlife intrigue you? If not, skip to the next national park. If yes, add Dry Tortugas National Park to your bucket list. About 70 miles west of Key West is this 100-square mile national park and its seven islands. This park is only accessible by seaplane or boat so plan accordingly.

Birding, hiking, snorkeling, exploring, sunbathing, boating, camping, etc., are only a few of the things you will get to do here. The Junior Ranger program is great for young ones to explore and learn about protecting this natural environment. For small group camping, reservations are not accepted but is a first-come, first-serve basis so plan ahead in case campgrounds are not accessible.

2. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska

79,000 visitors/year

Fall colors in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska. Photo by Zetong Li

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the largest national park in the United States and has a beautiful landscape to explore. Its size equals about six Yellowstone National Parks with glaciers and peaks after peaks. There are multiple historic mining sites, numerous trails to explore, and peaks to climb. Float on the rivers, walk the trails, ski, or fly over the area to get a bird’s eye view and a condensed idea of the natural world that is Alaska.

The number of different species that call Wrangell-St. Elias National Park home is endless but ranges from moose to bears to caribou and more. There are hundreds of acres of backcountry to explore with more than 12 cabins you can stay in (some require reservations ahead of time).

For day hiking, check out the Nabesna Road Area with multiple hikes ranging in length and difficulty but all offering gorgeous views of the park. There are multiple safety hazards so always plan ahead of time, get your permits, and if you need help planning, head to these itinerary ideas.

1. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

18,216 visitors/year

Isle Royale NP waterfront. Photo by Max Bender

Isle Royale National Park is one of the least visited parks in the states, probably because it is a vehicle-free forest, waterways, and lakes. This is a remote cluster of small islands in Lake Superior near Michigan’s border with Canada. You will undoubtedly come across moose and wolves and perhaps hear them howl under the full moon.

There are dive sites for those wanting to go scuba diving or snorkeling around the lake where you can explore multiple shipwrecks and a museum at the Rock Harbor Lighthouse that was built in the 19th century. There are different permits for different activities so make sure to head to the NPS website to get all documents needed. There are several campsites available and two resorts for those wanting a different experience of the national park.

Make sure to add these destinations to your bucket list and check out the path less traveled. These places have magic to show you and will be far less crowded and far more quiet. However, fewer visitors means more privacy, solitude, and an opportunity to connect to nature without others interrupting. North America is a vast land, and I encourage you to pick a spot on a map you may have overlooked before. From Nevada and New Mexico to Arkansas and Georgia, there are hundreds of new places to explore.

Whatever you do, don’t forget some snacks, water, and sunscreen. Have you been to any of these national parks? Have any questions or need advice about your upcoming camping trip? Hit up a Camping and Hiking Expert on Curated, and we'd be stoked to chat about all things outdoors!

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