5 Under-the-Radar National Parks Worth Exploring
You already know Yosemite. But with parks reopened and ready for visitors, now's the time to explore America's less famous—but equally stunning—corridors of unspoiled nature. Try one of these beauties, or visit NPS.gov to find a park that's close to home.
This collection of remote islets and underwater coral habitats is actually part of the third-largest tropical barrier reef in the world—and it can all be reached by a two-hour ferry from Key West. The archipelago was once a hot spot for swashbuckling pirates and buried treasure, but today's Dry Tortugas National Park is a hidden gem unto itself. Come to lounge on sandy beaches, snorkel with loggerhead turtles, and camp under the stars at Fort Jefferson, a sprawling 19th-century compound on Garden Key.
North Cascades National Park comprises more than 1,000 square miles of untouched wilderness hugging the Canadian border. There are more glaciers here—312, to be exact—than at the vastly more popular Mt. Rainier National Park, as well as around 500 scenic lakes framed by rocky mountain peaks. The region's biodiversity is astonishing, with lush temperate rain forests in the west giving way to dry ponderosa pines in the east. Hikers can catch many of the park's best assets along the pulse-raising Cascade Pass and Pacific Crest trails. For those who prefer waterfront leisure, head straight to the Ross Lake Recreation Area, just three hours northeast of Seattle.
Surrounded by the chilly waters of Lake Superior, Isle Royale is so isolated that it's accessible only by boat or seaplane from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But the effort is well worth it. The rugged island is entirely free of cars, preserving its pristine landscape of dense forests and crystal-clear waterways. Along 166 miles of backcountry trails, you might even encounter the nature refuge's most famous four-legged residents: moose and wolves. Scuba diving is another popular activity, with remarkably preserved shipwreck sites scattered beneath the surface of Lake Superior.
Named after the native peoples that once inhabited the southern swamplands of South Carolina, Congaree lays claim to one of the largest old-growth forests on the continent. The trees that sprout from the park's floodplain soar higher than some of the world's tallest hardwoods, earning them the nickname Redwoods of the East. Since the grounds are flooded much of the year, paddling by canoe down the Congaree River Blue Trail is the best way to navigate the park and spot local wildlife like rare birds and river otters along the way. Alternatively, stay dry with a stroll on the elevated boardwalk that loops 2.4 miles from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.
Hiding in the shadow of Utah's iconic (and arguably overcrowded) Grand Circle of national parks, one of the Southwest's best-kept secrets sits over the Nevada state line. Great Basin teems with animal and plant life, thanks to diverse ecozones ranging from low-altitude deserts to alpine tundra. Hike up 13,065 dizzying feet to Wheeler Peak (the park's highest point) and you'll be greeted by some of the oldest trees in the country, like 4,000-year-old bristlecone pines. And with pitch-black skies and ultra-low humidity, there are few places better for stargazing into the cosmos. Don't pass up a visit to the Lehman Caves, formed over 2 million years ago.
This article originally appeared in our Harvest 2020 issue. Get the magazine here.