Quick, name five national parks in America not named the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or Yellowstone. What’d you come up with? Zion? Maybe Central Park? That last one was a test, as New York City’s Central Park isn’t exactly a national park. You passed. The fact is that while many people may be familiar with America’s iconic national parks, such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Zion, there are tons of national parks scattered around the U.S. that many people have never even heard of, let alone visited. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to many of these national parks as a teenager when my parents and I embarked on a three-week, 20+ state road trip around America. I’ve since re-visited many of those national parks, as well as many others. With National Park Week coming up this weekend, it only seemed natural to highlight a few of my favorite national parks that many of you may have never visited.
1. Glacier Bay. Nothing says a road trip like a visit to a national park, or multiple national parks. However, Glacier Bay is no national park that you’ll be able to just hop into a car to go visit. That’s because Glacier Bay National Park is only accessible by boat or airplane. Now if that doesn’t scream preserve and make you want to explore the great outdoors, will anything? Glacier National Park is located just west of Juneau on the Alaska panhandle, yet far removed from anything resembling human life. Many of the visitors navigate the narrow waterway of the bay via cruise ship. It’s not uncommon to see whales and if you’re lucky, you might see a bear fishing for lunch by the shore. Besides the obvious sights and large chunks of ice floating by, Glacier Bay is home to hundreds of different bird species and numerous other kinds of wildlife. For the real adventurer, rent a kayak to get a more up-close experience of the bay.
2. Hot Springs. Did you know that Hot Springs National Park in Central Arkansas is one of America’s most visited national parks. Part of this is due to portions of the national park including downtown Hot Springs. If you guessed that you can find hot springs here, then you’re right. The most popular and well-known part of the national park is Bathhouse Row, which as you may have also gathered, is a row of bathhouses, located in downtown Hot Springs. It’s the largest collection of bathhouses in the U.S., many of which feature post-Civil War architecture, given the fancy name of Gilded Age architecture. Only a couple of the bathhouses still operate as so. Oh, and did I mention that it’s in Hot Springs where you’ll find Bill Clinton’s boyhood home?
3. Great Smoky Mountains. I know, I know; this is one national park that most people have heard of, certainly aided by the success of The Hunger Games, which was shot in and around parts of the Great Smoky Mountains. However, having spent my college years in Western North Carolina near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I couldn’t leave it off this list. Covering over half a million acres, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. Of note is the fact that both of the main entrances are located in two of the more touristy towns in the Appalachian Mountains, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina. Some of my favorite highlights include a plethora of waterfalls and hiking trails, and Cades Cove, one of the most visited areas of the park and where you’re most likely to see wildlife, such as white-tailed dear, elk, black bears, and woodchucks.
4. Joshua Tree. Joshua Tree and the area surrounding it may be one of the most unusual parts of America. Come on, think about it. It’s a national park covering nearly one million acres, named for a tree. However, there is more to the park than just Joshua trees. There are unique, ominous rock formations that are millions of years old and the convergence of two deserts, the Colorado and the Mojave. Speaking of convergences, one of the best sweeping views comes from an overlook that looks out over the San Andreas Fault. For the common traveler, no more than a half-day’s visit is necessary, although rock climbers and star gazers may make it a weekend trip since Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best places in California for both.
5. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. On my recent trip to Hawaii, the Big Island, this was the one place that was recommended to me far more than anything else – and for good reason. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park is home to one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kīlauea, and the world’s most massive volcano, Mauna Loa. The most notable road in the park is the Chain of Craters Road, which is just that, a road winding around the park that drives by several craters that are the result of eruptions. While active lava can’t always be seen by visiting the park by car, it can often be seen by taking a trip with one of the island’s helicopter companies. I coupled this with a tour of Waipio Valley when I was hosted by Paradise Helicopters with Expedia, and it was one of the most scenic excursions I’ve ever done.
What’s your favorite national park?