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Everyone knows about Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Grand Canyon, and I’m not dissing or dismissing those destinations by any means. They’re hot tourist attractions in the summer and year round, but if you want to get away from the crowds while still enjoying the wonders of nature, check out these great, completely underrated National Parks.
Viewed from the road, this desert park only hints at its vitality. Closer examination reveals a fascinating variety of plants and animals that make their home in this land shaped by strong winds, unpredictable torrents of rain, and climatic extremes. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the attraction of this place.
My best friend and I backpacked in Joshua Tree in 2012 in April when all the desert flowers were blooming and saw an endangered tortoise… and nearly died of heat exhaustion (that’s only half a joke), so don’t forget to pack in water!
This vast landscape does not contain any roads or trails. Visitors discover intact ecosystems where people have lived with the land for thousands of years. Wild rivers meander through glacier-carved valleys, caribou migrate along age-old trails, endless summer light fades into aurora-lit night skies of winter. It remains virtually unchanged except by the forces of nature.
The same best friend with whom I hiked in Joshua Tree now lives in Alaska, where the largest national parks reside, including Gates of the Arctic. No roads or trails. No roads or trails whaaaaaaaat.
Water. That’s what first attracted people, and they have been coming here ever since to use these soothing thermal waters to heal and relax. Rich and poor alike came for the baths, and a thriving city built up around the hot springs. Together nicknamed “The American Spa,” Hot Springs National Park today surrounds the north end of the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas.
At the other end of the spectrum, Hot Springs National Park is the smallest national park by area in the United States. Originally created as Hot Springs Reservation in 1832, it was named a national park in 1921.
Best known for globally significant Late Triassic fossils, the park attracts geologists, paleontologists, archeologists, historians, and biologists, just to name a few. The park is also haven for those searching for scenic vistas, wilderness, hiking, dark skies, and beautiful, vast landscapes.
Even if you don’t care about the dinosaurs and tree rocks: scenic vistas and dark skies and vast landscapes. What’s not to like? You can take your favorite person (or your favorite book, like I would) and just enjoy nature’s splendid awesomeness.
Swaying prairie grasses, forested hillsides, and an array of wildlife such as bison, elk, and prairie dogs welcome visitors to one of our country’s oldest national parks and one of its few remaining intact prairies. Secreted beneath is one of the world’s longest caves, Wind Cave. Named for barometric winds at its entrance, this complex labyrinth of passages contains a unique formation—boxwork.
Don’t get Hot Springs, a city in South Dakota near where Wind Cave is located, mixed up with Hot Springs in Arkansas! This cave is the six-largest in the world and about four miles of new cave is discovered every year. If you want to stay above ground, the mixed-grass prairie atop the caves is beautiful, too.