There are 58 national parks in America, their landscapes ranging dramatically from canyons and mountains to sand dunes and islands. Conversations regarding these majestic wonders are often dominated by big names such as Zion, Yosemite, and Yellowstone, but there are other phenomenal parks where the mountains might be smaller, but where the crowds are, too. Here are 10 of the coolest national parks you’ve (probably) never heard of — excuse the hipsterism.
Not many national parks have their own mountain range, but one of the coolest does: the Chisos Mountain range falls entirely within Big Bend’s boundaries. Located in southern Texas, bordering the state and the country of Mexico, these mountains offer countless stunning viewpoints, the best at the range’s tallest point, Emory Peak. The park is also home to bike trails and river excursions, making the area a hit in the action-sport community. But don’t forget, the area is prominent in the archeological world too, as fossils and artifacts dating back 10,000 years have been discovered in the area, making it a place with attractions for everyone.
Though it was formed by a volcanic eruption over 7,000 years ago, Crater Lake National Park has only been welcoming visitors since 1902. Located in southwestern Oregon, the park — despite receiving the most snow of any inhabited place in the country — is open year-round and offers something different every season. During the warmer months, explore the lake by boat or surrounding forests by foot, and when the weather turns, snap into a pair of snowshoes or skis and enjoy a golden winter sunset.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a four-season oasis nestled between the Ohio cities of Akron and Cleveland. Comprised of over 30,000 acres, visitors are able to explore the park’s extensive forests, riverbanks, and waterfalls by hiking, biking, and even snowshoeing. Also running through Ohio’s lone national park is the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, which adds some historical context to all the outdoor fun.
Though you can only access Dry Tortugas National Park by boat or seaplane, the cluster of islands off the coast of southern Florida sure know how to draw visitors in. The 100-square mile area is picturesque and highlighted by Fort Jefferson, a majestic brick structure built shortly after the U.S. acquired the islands from Spain in 1882. While visiting, you’ll quickly notice that land comprises only a tiny portion of the park. Much of the fun to be had at Dry Tortugas occurs (ironically, due to its name) in or on the water, where there are opportunities to swim, snorkel, and sail around the radiant reefs and pristine coastlines.
Great Sand Dunes
In southern Colorado, along the eastern edge of San Luis Valley, sits Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The park boasts the tallest sand dunes on the continent at 750 feet high (230 meters), as well as forests, lakes, and even tundra. Combining the various landscapes allows a diverse ecosystem to flourish, and inhabitants of Great Sand Dunes range from lizards to black bears. Whether you enjoy hiking, camping, or stargazing, these grounds are waiting to be explored.
Found in the beautifully barren lands of Alaska, Lake Clark is astonishing in many ways. From the stunning array of wildlife and snow-capped mountains, to its turquoise lake and rugged tundra, Lake Clark is a place where nature thrives in its purest forms. Because of its isolation, those visiting the park can get up close and personal with its stunning wilderness, either by river rafting, camping, fishing, or spending a weekend in a remote log cabin to soak in the beauty of the Alaskan landscapes — volcanoes and all.
The Mammoth-Flint Ridge Cave System is the largest cave system on Earth and was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1981. In the realm of national parks, it’s easily one of the coolest, unlike anywhere else in the United States. The system moves for hundreds of miles underground, the walls carved sharply from lime and sandstone by the Green River. The park offers a number of tours that range in length, difficulty, and price, so be sure to call ahead and find one that best suits your interests. And note that exploring the caves is accessible for all!
Best known for the famous Cliff Palace — a remarkably old structure constructed from sandstone, mortar, and wood — Mesa Verde National Park protects thousands of sites that were the original dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people. The canyons and valleys of southwestern Colorado allow visitors an outstanding encounter with history, as the archaeological sites here are abundant. These sites can be enjoyed via car parks, look-offs, and — for the most intimate interaction — ranger-guided tours. Checking the park’s services ahead of time is recommended, as some of the offerings are seasonal.
National Park of the American Samoa
The National Park of the American Samoa is a three-in-one deal, as the park — located in the South Pacific Ocean — stretches across three islands. Graced by a tropical Polynesian climate, these islands are home to beautiful beaches, rainforests, mountains, and thriving coral reefs. As the U.S.’s only national park in the Southern Hemisphere, the beautiful and remote setting allows for rare species such as sea turtles and humpback whales to survive, adding to an already-unique adventure.
Just south of the Canadian border is Voyageurs National Park — a place for lake lovers. The fact that the park is 40 percent water shouldn’t surprise you, as Minnesota is often referred to as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” But what may surprise you is the serene beauty of the untouched waterways and boreal forests. The natural environment can be enjoyed for a single afternoon, a weekend, or even longer, as trails and campsites connect the park in impressive style, allowing explorers to swim, hike, and paddle their way through the wilderness.