The U.S. National Park Service has its fair share of iconic parks and formations, with the more popular locations seeing millions of visitors each and every year. You can read more about our readers’ picks for the Best U.S. National Parks, but here we focus on those lesser-known, hidden gems within the vast system of parks. While only 63 parks have the official designation of National Park, many other locations are preserved as national monuments, national lakeshores and river ways, and even as historical parks. Our readers recently shared their thoughts on their favorite hidden gems as part of our Best of Travel Awards. How many have you had the joy of exploring?
Hidden Gem Winner: Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
The Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s drew tens of thousands of gold-seeking hopefuls through Alaska on their way to the goldfields of the Yukon. This year’s Hidden Gem winner, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, preserves the region’s history, showcasing the harrowing journey many took. Now a popular cruise port, Skagway was once the launching point for many prospectors seeking to strike it rich.
There are four units of the park within the U.S. national park system: one in Seattle and three in or near Skagway. However, in 1998, the U.S. partnered with Canada (opens as PDF) to create the Klondike Gold Rush International Historic Park, adding three existing Canadian units to the fold. These include the Canadian portion of the Chilkoot Trail that carried hopefuls through the mountains, “The Thirty Mile” section of the Yukon River that ushered them downstream, and the Dawson Historical Complex honoring the boomtown that once housed the lucky few that arrived.
Saunter down the streets of Skagway to explore the historic buildings that housed and prepared gold-seekers prior to their journey further north. Hike the U.S. portion of the Chilkoot Trail and gaze upon the glaciers up close. Or, hop on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway for spectacular views of the infamous trail leading out of the city. Come for rich history; stay for breathtaking views.
Hidden Gem Finalist: Acadia National Park
For those in New England, seeing Acadia listed as a “hidden gem” may come as a shock. As the only official national park in the region, and the closest to the major population centers of Boston and New York City, this park actually draws quite a few visitors each year. In fact, pre-pandemic, the park was the seventh most visited in the system. But located in a remote area of coastal Maine, those in the rest of the country need to hear about — and visit — the rocky coasts of this hidden gem park.
Start your experience in Bar Harbor, sitting at the foot of Cadillac Mountain and serving as the gateway into a large portion of the park. After experiencing this charming seaside town, venture through the rest of the Mount Desert Island’s portion of the park where you will find hours of adventurous outdoor activities. Options of varying degrees of difficulty are available including hiking, fishing, and climbing among others. After a long day of fun in nature, cozy up at one of four campgrounds scattered across the islands of the park, or head back into town to find four walls and a solid door if that is more your cup of tea.
Hidden Gem Finalist: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Rounding out the top three vote-getters, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northern Wisconsin calls out to those seeking a remote beach experience. The national lakeshore encompasses 21 unique islands scattered along the Lake Superior coast of the Badger State. While certainly an ideal summer destination to enjoy the water and forested hikes, we would recommend a visit in the middle of winter as well. Why? you might ask. The enchanting feel and stellar views of the mainland ice caves draw many to the region each winter.
The preserved shore is made up of a stretch of coastline along the mainland — where you will find the glistening ice caves in the winter — as well as 21 of the 22 islands that make up the Apostle Island chain. This is not a park for RV goers, as only tent camping is allowed. However, if you are a fan of camping on a secluded coastal island, boat to one of the 18 with camping facilities for a relaxing retreat.
Congratulations to Klondike Gold Rush for earning the coveted Hidden Gem National Park crown this year, and to Acadia and Apostle Islands for rounding out the top finalists! However, you won’t want to scroll past these other 12 honorable mentions, as they are every bit as exciting as the winners.
Bandelier National Monument
You will find Bandelier National Monument less than an hour northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Over 33,000 acres of protected landscape, history, and culture are at your disposal in this rugged region. Explore the history of human interaction in the area dating back over 10 millennia including petroglyphs and the partial remains of various homes and dwellings that have stood the test of time. For nature lovers, enjoy one of many gorgeous hikes in and around the park’s canyons and then pitch a tent at Juniper Family Campground, named as one of three Best National Park Campground finalists in this year’s awards.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park is unique on this list in that it was also listed as a Best U.S. National Park honorable mention. Named for the unique bend in the Rio Grande that occurs in this remote region, you will find a truly isolated getaway. The desert landscape teems with unique plants and wildlife including cacti and migrating birds. Prepare for warm, dry weather by bringing plenty of water with you, and stay late into the evening to enjoy the picturesque views of the heavens within this internationally designated dark-sky park.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
One of eight U.S. national parks to be designated as recently as this century, Cuyahoga Valley National Park can be found just 30 minutes outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Despite its proximity to Cleveland, beautiful Cuyahoga Valley remains at one with nature. Hike the forested trails to catch sight of beautiful cascading waterfalls. If you prefer a less strenuous time, consider the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for a more leisurely excursion through all that the valley has to offer.
Dry Tortugas National Park
What would you say if I told you that Key West is not the westernmost Floridian Key? Would that shock you? In fact, that honor goes to the island chain known as the Dry Tortugas that form this hidden gem park. The aptly named island chain lacks access to fresh water — making it uninhabitable for all but the most resourceful — but it is abundant in turtles. The park can only be accessed via boat or seaplane, so careful planning is essential for a trip to this remote refuge. Be sure to explore the rugged outpost of Fort Jefferson on land, but save time for the true Dry Tortugas experience: the mostly undisturbed coral reefs that litter the remote archipelago. Spend your day snorkeling and diving, marveling at the underwater ecosystem.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Accessible via El Paso, which is just two hours to the west, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is an underrated beauty in the Guadalupe Mountains of west Texas and southern New Mexico. Prominently featured are the four highest Texan peaks, rising from the barren desert below. The namesake Guadalupe Peak and Texas’s own El Capitan — not to be confused with Yosemite’s iconic landmark — can be seen for miles, just as they could when they guided sojourners of the past through the desolate region. Enjoy sand dunes, a fossil reef, and gorgeous night skies during your time in the park.
Haleakalā National Park
Surrounding the dormant Haleakalā volcano, this national park is a treat reserved for those fortunate enough to make their way to the shores of Maui. The park has two main sections: the summit of Haleakalā itself and the coastal wilderness surrounding it. With breathtaking views of both the sunrise and sunset, in English, the aptly named volcano summit translates as house of the sun.
Indiana Dunes National Park
For a unique beach experience along the southern edge of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park lies just over 50 miles outside of Chicago. Enjoy the sandy dunes, fly a kite in the strong lake breeze, or explore the prairie and wetland features further inland. When combined with the adjacent state park of the same name, nearly 20 miles of coastline and 17,000 acres of land are protected in this otherwise highly urbanized region of the country.
Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve
Located near the Californian border with Oregon, this unique underground cavern was formed from marble rather than the more common limestone rock of most caves. This is one of only three units of the National Park Service with marble caves, making it a rare treat and certainly a hidden gem. There is more to this park than the cave itself, so make time to explore the hiking trails of the surface once you have had your fill under the Earth.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Named for the president with strong ties to the National Park Service through his dedication to the preservation of natural land, this sprawling park in North Dakota is well worth your time. Arrive via Medora, and you will know you are in the right place as they have thoroughly embraced their position as the gateway to the park. Explore the badlands of North Dakota while observing the native wildlife including the mighty bison, precarious prairie dogs, and soaring eagles.
White Sands National Park
Miles of ivory-colored gypsum sand cover a portion of southeastern New Mexico, with dunes reaching upwards of 60 feet in places. Sand sledding is a favorite pastime of White Sands National Park visitors, cruising down the dunes as if on snow. This unique experience alone is worth a visit, however, a trip down Dunes Drive is a must as well.
Wind Cave National Park
Tucked away in the southwest corner of South Dakota lies another fantastic cave: Wind Cave National Park. Located less than an hour south of Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave receives a fourth of the visitors that its northerly neighbor does. One of the longest caves in the world, Wind Cave features unique formations known as boxwork and frostwork to enjoy. Explore the caves as well as the land above during your time in this under-visited but gorgeous park.
Bonus: Fundy National Park — New Brunswick, Canada
Canada has its own system of national parks spanning the continent, many of which are more accessible than the most remote U.S. parks. One such park lies just four hours northeast of Acadia National Park in New Brunswick, Canada: Fundy National Park. Watch as the tides rise by nearly 40 feet in the Bay of Fundy either from shore or from the water in a kayak. The park includes more than just access to the world’s highest tides; venture inland to hike through forested trails while discovering beautiful waterfalls.