If someone asked the average American to name a few national parks, chances are they'd mention the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and maybe Yosemite or Grand Teton. Those are great places to visit, but there are also some lesser-known national parks that are just as spectacular in their own rights, if not as well known. From a petrified forest in Arizona to ancient, moss-covered cypress groves in South Carolina, here are 10 gorgeous parks in the USA that you might not have heard of, but should definitely explore if you get the chance.
Named after the voyageurs, the French-Canadian fur traders who were regular visitors through the area a couple of centuries ago, this national park is one of the most popular canoeing and kayaking locales in the country. The park’s main land mass is the Kabetogama Peninsula, which is only accessible by boat, or by snowmobile in wintertime.
People lived in the caves within these mountains for thousands of years, and their tools (such as arrowheads and bits of pottery) are still being discovered to this day. Located in western Texas and containing Guadalupe Peak, which is the highest point in the entire state, it also contains “El Capitan” as shown above; a landmark that settlers used while traveling the stagecoach line.
Groves of ancient bristle-cone pines are resplendent throughout this park, which is located in eastern Nevada, near the Utah border. This is one of the best backcountry camping locales around, as not only is the landscape breathtakingly beautiful, there are hundreds of animal species to enjoy. Campers are likely to come across mule deer, jackrabbits, mountain sheep, badgers, and foxes, as well as countless birds, and fortunately the mountain lions tend to keep to themselves.
This south-central Utah park is full of rainbow-like striated rock formations, caused by a warp in the Earth’s crust that happened about 65 million years ago. Full of ridges, canyons, and towering monoliths, it was home to several Native tribes for thousands of years, and was one of the first areas where Mormons settled in the 1800s. In fact, the fruit orchards that those pioneers planted are still growing strong, and can be harvested by park visitors.
The word “petrified” here refers to the true definition of something turning to stone, rather than being frozen in terror. The remains of fallen trees from the late Triassic period (about 225 million years ago) dot the landscape, which is also home to coyotes, bobcats, lizards, snakes, and over 200 bird species. The area is rich with archaeological sites: more than 600 have been found so far, and it’s believed that people started living in this park about 8,000 years ago.
Lying 68 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas is considered one of the Florida Keys, albeit the most isolated one. It’s a vital breeding ground for many tropical birds, and its colorful coral reefs are home to many species of marine life. Its main feature is Fort Jefferson, which is an unfinished coastal fortress built in the 1840s. There are many legends about shipwrecks and sunken treasure (from pirates!) around the island, and it’s certain to have many secrets lying beneath the waters nearby.
This western Colorado park boasts some of the steepest cliffs and spires on the continent. The Gunnison River has taken a couple of million years to carve a path through the stone, and the intimidating black walls are incredible to behold. Trees such as juniper, ash, and Ponderosa pine can be found throughout the park, and animals such as coyotes, elk, eagles, peregrine falcons, bears, and mule deer are abundant. It’s an ideal place for backcountry camping and rock climbing, but would-be adventurers are warned of the perils there and are expected to take care of themselves.
If you like ancient, moss-covered trees, you’ll love the bald cypresses in Congaree National Forest Park. This old-growth forest in South Carolina is the last bit of bottomland hardwood forest in the country, and as such is protected as an international biosphere reserve. It’s also a globally important bird area, and home to species ranging from wild turkeys and armadillos to deer and feral pigs. There are many hiking trails through the park, as well as campgrounds and scenic outlooks to enjoy.
This park in northeastern California was formed by numerous eruptions from Lassen Peak, which is the largest plug dome volcano in the world. Although Lassen hasn’t erupted since 1917, there is still volcanic activity in the area, ranging from bubbling hot springs to acidic mud pools and fumaroles.
No, this isn’t a photo from somewhere in the Middle East. Located in the San Luis Valley in eastern Colorado, this park is resplendent with sand dunes that shimmer and change daily as the wind moves sand from ancient dried lake and river flood plains. You’ll find the tallest sand dunes in North America here, but although the sandy area of the park is considered a “high desert” area, there are also regions of tundra and alpine lake, complete with ancient evergreen forest stands, as well as wetlands and grasslands. It’s a bastion for wildlife of all different species, and a truly spectacular, diverse place to explore.