We all know the big guns of the US National Park System – Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain collectively draw some 33 million visitors from around the world each year thanks to their stunning scenery. But the 63 National Parks all have something unique and precious to offer, and quite a few are somewhat underappreciated, or even unknown so we came up with a list of our favorite underrated National Parks that will blow your mind. A few of these parks are underrated simply because they’re harder to reach, but many simply get overlooked because they have more popular neighbors and are definitely worth a gander. These nine underrated National Parks feature alpine peaks, hydrothermal wonders, deep canyons and native American archeological sites, so dust off your hiking boots and get ready for some serious adventure.
1. North Cascades, Washington
North Cascades is less than a three-hour drive from Seattle, but still sees only around 30,000 visitors per year compared to nearby Olympic National Park’s hefty 2.5 million. With an alpine landscape rich in jagged peaks, glaciers, forests and, of course, cascades galore, North Cascades makes a fine – and crowd-free – alternative to busy Glacier National Park.
2. Lassen Volcanic, California
Most people seeking hydrothermal wonders head straight to Yellowstone National Park but you can find steaming fumaroles, volcanoes, boiling pools and bubbling mud pots in northern California near Redding. This little known National Park houses the largest lava dome volcano in the world, Lassen Peak, as well as fine examples of all four types of active volcanoes. A visit here delivers huge mountains formed by lava flows, steaming sulphur vents and crystal clear lakes to create an almost surreal and unexpected landscape.
3. Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado
The Grand Canyon certainly dwarfs this canyon in both geographic size and popularity, but don’t let that make you overlook this spectacular canyon. At 48 miles long and plunging over 2,000ft into the earth, this near-vertical canyon is easily big and deep enough to be vertigo-inducing. It so-named because it is so deep that parts of the river receive no more than 33 minutes of sunlight per day and gives visitors the chance to marvel at geological history like the 2,250ft Painted Wall, the tallest sheer cliff in Colorado as well as activities like hiking, rock climbing, kayaking and camping.
4. Wrangell St Elias, Alaska
Often overlooked by those heading for a cruise through the Kenai Fjords or to get a glimpse of the country’s tallest peak, Denali, Wrangell St Elias provides a vast wilderness that can be reached by road – making it unusually accessible for an Alaskan park. Approximately 4.5 hours drive from Anchorage, Wrangell St Elias spans over 13 million acres, making it the country’s largest National Park at six times the size of Yellowstone, and its landscape rises from the sea all the way up to 18,008ft offering boundless opportunities for adventure. Major peaks, glaciers, rivers, wildlife and coastline abound here, while there is even one active volcano, Mount Wrangell.
5. Big Bend, Texas
Because it is so remote (300 miles from Paso, the nearest city) Big Bend is well off most people’s radar, but this fabulous desert landscape has loads to offer those who love backpacking and a true backcountry experience. It stakes the claim to having the least light pollution of any of the National Parks in the lower 48 states, making it a prime spot for stargazing, as well as 450 species of birds – more than any other National Park, making it a no-brainer for wildlife sightings. Big Bend is home to the entire Chisos mountain range and much of the Chihuahuan Desert. Warmer temperatures also make this park one of the best National Parks to visit in winter.
6. Mesa Verde, Colorado
Despite being a UNESCO heritage site and the largest archaeological preserve in the United State, Mesa Verde down in southwest Colorado sees only about half a million visitors each year. Easily Colorado’s most unique National Park, Mesa Verde may be home to deep canyons and spectacular vistas but the main selling point is the more than 600 well-preserved cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloan Indians between 650 CE and the 12th century then abruptly abandoned for reasons unknown. Visitors can explore this abandoned civilization and learn about how these native cliff dwellers lived in sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls.
7. Great Basin, Nevada
Great Basin is in east central Nevada, near the border with Utah, and perhaps for this reason it tends to be overlooked as Vegas visitors head for the Grand Canyon (which is a similar distance) while others head for nearby Death Valley and Zion. However, Great Basin’s stunning scenery, including the 13,063ft tall Wheeler Peak, bristlecone pines, sage covered foothills, subterranean caves and exceptionally dark night skies make it a worthy destination for your next southwest adventure.
8. Channel Islands, California
Only 90 minutes off the coast of Los Angeles lie five virtually untouched islands surrounded by a remarkable diversity of rare wildlife. While California’s impressive list of National Parks such as Yosemite, Joshua Tree and Death Valley tend to draw most of the crowds, only here can you can kayak and snorkel among breaching whales and leaping dolphins, hike with soaring bald eagles overhead, and chill out with sea lions basking on the secluded beaches. A visit here provides a rare glimpse into what California’s coastline would have been like before people arrived in large numbers, as the islands have enjoyed almost total seclusion despite regular ferries from Ventura.
9. Isle Royale, Michigan
Isle Royale lies in the middle of giant Lake Superior and requires a three-hour ferry ride or small plane trip to reach, so only a tiny 25,000 people each year bother making the trek. However, this rugged island boasts pristine shoreline, swamps, boreal forests, glacial lakes, several small mountains and is chock full of wildlife including wolves and moose. The island is 45 miles long and 9 miles wide and surrounded by 400 smaller islands.
All the latest inspiration, tips and guides to help you plan your next Advnture!
Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.