The voting period for our 2022 Best of Travel Awards has come and gone. Congratulations to those who picked these hidden gem national parks; I’m a retired NPS ranger, and you’ve picked some of my personal favorites, and the favorites of many of my friends and co-workers. Well done.
Let’s take a look at your picks.
1. Badlands National Park
Interior, South Dakota
Badlands National Park is a hidden gem in that it’s the type of geographic wonderland you’d expect in Utah or Arizona, except it’s hiding out in South Dakota.
When I was a ranger at Bryce Canyon, I’d ask groups, “Have you ever seen any place else on Earth like this?”
I’d regularly hear the same reply: “Sure. Badlands.”
If Badlands were part of the Southwestern circle of parks, it would have the same crowding problems that plague that neck of the woods. It’s not that the park isn’t busy during peak season, it’s just that it’s not ludicrously busy.
For those who are looking for an easy park to visit, at least once you’re there, Badlands has the good fortune of not only being a bit less crowded, but also being well served by scenic drives that make seeing the park a snap. If you have to pick just one, the Badlands Loop Road is the must-drive highway.
2. White Sands National Park
Alamogordo, New Mexico
Perhaps White Sands National Park is a hidden gem because people may assume that there’s nothing to see there besides the obvious — and how much sand do you need to see, anyway?
But this park isn’t just sand — it’s a humungous 275 square miles of the white gypsum sand stacked in incredible dunes you can surf down. So much sand that the park service has to occasionally plow the roads as if it was snow.
So much sand that the government thought the area was a perfect place to test missiles and set off the first atomic bomb — just the most recent chapter of a 10,000-year human history of the area.
In addition to the cultural history, there’s the geological story of how the sand got there in the first place, and a fascinating story of life in and on the dunes — plants and animals adapting to a very harsh, always changing landscape.
The entire package, of the sand and the other-world environment it creates, make White Sands a great experience.
3. Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs, Arkansas
Little did you know that this hidden gem has a fierce rivalry in NPS circles with Yellowstone National Park.
Yes, both are known for hot water coming from the ground, but that’s not the source of the rivalry. Hot Springs was set aside for federal protection way back in 1832, 40 years before Yellowstone. So Hot Springs claims to be the first national park. Yellowstone claims to be the first national park in that it was the first place to be federally protected bearing the title of “National Park.” Yes, that’s the kind of nerdy rivalry that parks are willing to get into in order to be number one.
Hot Springs definitely surpasses Yellowstone when it comes to making therapeutic use of its thermal resources. Bathhouses date back to the late 19th century, with most from the 1920s and 30s, when the park was the ultimate health and fitness vacation spot.
You don’t need to bathe in order to take in the architecture and the history, but you’ll truly appreciate the experience if you do. Especially if you first take a hike on some of the 26 miles of hiking trails within the park.
4. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad, New Mexico
You’ll notice that “Carlsbad Caverns” is plural. It’s not just one cavern. Or two. There are actually 119-plus caves in the park, and 300 in the region.
However, you’re going to want to see at least one of them: Carlsbad Cavern, singular. It’s most striking feature is named the Big Room. That’s an understatement on steroids.
Hiking to the Big Room is surprisingly easy on the mile-and-a-quarter trial or the even-shorter shortcut trail (a bit more than half a mile.) If you’re looking for an aerobic workout, take the Natural Entrance trail, nature’s StairMaster machine — a 750-foot decent in a mile and a quarter. Then reverse that to climb back out. Pant, gasp, pant.
While you can explore the cavern on your own, to capture all the nuances I strongly recommend a ranger-guided walk.
5. Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is the home of some of the happiest rangers in the National Park Service I’ve ever met — those who have had the good fortune to live at Fort Jefferson. They have an island to themselves, perfect weather, perfect water, perfect diving and snorkeling, a spectacular historic fort — a tropical dreamland. Go pay them a visit.
Dry Tortugas is a bit of a misnomer – the park is mostly water, and includes islands west of Key West. “Dry” indicates the lack of natural fresh water on the island.
To get there, you’re going to take a high-speed catamaran from Key West, or a seaplane.
Yes, you can tour the fort and stay completely dry. But don’t miss the opportunity to explore the waters to the best of your ability to see what puts the perma-smiles on the rangers faces.
6. Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Medora, North Dakota
Theodore Roosevelt is a national park without extremes.
There’s hiking, but not the grueling hiking of a trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back. Just plentiful trails with moderate changes in elevation. There’s a river, but not the treacherous rapids of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. You can wade across the Little Missouri. There are badlands, but not the really bad, inhospitable type of badlands; more like big-hill-here, big-hill-there, mixed-in-with-prairie not-so-bad lands.
It’s a very visit-able, welcoming park. It’s where Theodore Roosevelt developed and nurtured his love for the great outdoors, which led to his efforts to preserve and protect it by doubling the size of the National Park System during his administration.
And it’s where you’ll enjoy a soul-nourishing outdoor adventure — in moderation.
Pro Tip: OK, there’s one extreme. Winter in North Dakota. If you’re not seriously prepared, visit another time of the year.)
7. Saguaro National Park
As a young seasonal ranger, Saguaro was my park-next-door during my winter off-seasons spent in Tucson — a perfect time of year to explore the park.
Saguaro is divided into two parts: eastern and western, with Tucson sandwiched in between. It’s a wonderful park for a driving visit, thanks to roadways that are scenic loops. It also offers a number of great day-hiking trails that aren’t too difficult.
One of the favorite activities of the locals is to visit the park by bicycle, so if you’re one of those who travel with a bike, this is a great park for you. If you’d rather relax while you roll, try an affordable e-bike. (Bikes are allowed on select roads and trails only — see the park website for details.)
Saguaro also does an excellent job in providing a learning experience about the Sonoran desert through well-planned exhibits, educational trails, and visitor centers.
8. North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park experiences the same perma-drizzle weather that made Seattle famous. Although it’s just 3 hours from the Emerald City, it seems like a different planet.
It’s a rugged alpine park, with peaks and glaciers. It rains quite a bit, so there are lots and lots and lots of trees, until they stop at timberline. There’s lots of water, and rivers. There’s lots of hiking. There’s lots of wildlife. There’s simply a lot to love about North Cascades.
It’s one of those parks that the locals love, and at least some of them don’t really want the world to know about it all that much.
The key to a good visit is to plan for the weather, and the weather is rarely ever warm, dry, or sunny.
9. Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison protects a wild river that has carved a spectacularly deep canyon through rocks that are over 1 billion years old.
The park can be visited by driving and hiking along either rim of the canyon, with numerous hikes to canyon vistas. Wildlife is abundant, so bring binoculars on the trails.
Very few will visit the park on the river. They are called “expert kayakers,” because the Class V waters of the Gunnison are nothing to mess with. There are no raft tours on the river because the river is seriously wild — as in unboatable in certain areas.
If you’d like to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison but are concerned by the lack of access to the water, don’t fret. Just downstream is Curecanti National Recreation Area. The river has been dammed (there are even sailboats on it), the fishing’s great, and the treacherous terrain of the canyon is long gone.
Together, these parks have something for everyone, from mild to wild.
10. Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef is a hidden gem in that it’s a bit farther off the beaten path than its well-visited neighbors, Bryce Canyon and Zion. That doesn’t mean it’s not busy in season, it just doesn’t have quite the same level of peak season pandemonium. Yet.
It’s an excellent complement to the Bryce/Zion/Cedar Breaks tour of southwest Utah, but in addition to having colorful rock formations, the park has a special treat many aren’t aware of.
The true Capitol Reef aficionado plans their visit around the orchards. Yes, orchards. The park maintains historic orchards from its early settlement days, and posts both the flowering season and fruit harvest season on its website.
You can pick cherries, apricots, apples, peaches, and pears at various times through the summer and early fall, for a relatively minor fee.
11. Great Sand Dunes National Park And Preserve
If you’re a sand fanatic and thought White Sands was an awesome addition to this list, just wait till you get your hands on the sand of Great Sand Dunes. What Great Sand Dunes has over White Sands is this: higher dunes. Really high dunes. Dunes so high there are multiple places to rent sand sleds and sandboards in surrounding communities. Like a snow report from your favorite ski area, the park website offers recommendations for weather conditions that affect riding down the dunes.
In addition to sand, stacked really high, Great Sand Dunes offers a number of other experiences you wouldn’t expect, such as a great 4-wheel-drive primitive road and a lazy, shallow creek — perfect for kids of all ages to play in.
Plus, if you spend the night on a moonless night, you’re really going to be in for a treat, as the night sky at Great Sand Dunes is truly spectacular.
12. Katmai National Park And Preserve
King Salmon, Alaska
Katmai is a park mostly visited on the internet. The park’s webcam of brown bears feasting on salmon at Brooks Falls is a YouTube favorite. So much so that visitors come to the park to see the camera site and replicate its view with their own cameras.
The park has further boosted its fame on social media with Fat Bear Week, an annual tradition where people vote for their favorite fat bear. You see, a bear’s job over the summer is basically to get as fat as possible to prepare for a long winter’s nap. Fat Bear Week helps recognize the bear’s hard work in this endeavor.
Bears have become the park’s major attraction, but it didn’t start out that way. The park was set aside to preserve the site of the largest volcanic event on the planet in the 20th century, the 1912 eruption of Mount Katmai. Things have cooled down since then, with the valley of Ten Thousand Smokes not being very smoky at all anymore.
This is truly a hidden gem — a remote park in Alaska, with only a few miles of trails and no road access. That means you’re going to need to fly in. Information is on the park’s website. If you like bears, and like what you’ve seen online, head up for a visit.
13. Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Tie)
Cuyahoga Valley is a park founded amid controversy. How dare one establish a national park in such proximity to an urban environment?
It was more than audacious to turn Cleveland’s famous burning river into a national park, but the park service and neighboring communities have done amazing work to improve water quality. This has made a park that offers abundant wildlife viewing, recreational opportunities, scenic trails, and a scenic railroad, all while telling the story of how people have used, abused, and worked to save the waterway over the centuries.
The park’s proximity to Cleveland and Akron means there’s an abundance of resources that make the park extremely easy to access.
The park has been a model for urban park development, and it shows how an environmental challenge can be confronted — turning a burning river into a serene outdoor getaway.
13. Lassen Volcanic National Park (Tie)
If Lassen were a few hours closer to major cities, it would be much more crowded. But it isn’t, so it isn’t.
Lassen has everything park visitors would want. Mountains, trees, trails, boating, swimming, fishing, views, wildlife, camping, a historic lodge, winter activities — even volcanism. You can’t get more of a traditional national park experience.
Lassen isn’t so much of a hidden gem, it’s hidden in plain sight. It’s just a bit farther out of reach than others. It’s a great escape, well worth the extra travel time.
15. Voyageurs National Park
International Falls, Minnesota
One thing that keeps Voyageurs National Park off the radar for many is that transportation around the park is based on water.
During the summer, that means getting out of your car and into a boat or canoe. Don’t worry, there are plenty of options, from water taxis and shuttles to tours by boat or canoe. You can get to a campsite via canoe, or you can rent a houseboat and camp in relative luxury. You can go with a guide, you can go solo.
The perception of getting on the water is what makes the park a hidden gem. It seems a bit daunting, so use that as your advantage to get away from the crowd.
Yes, there are hiking trails — over 50 miles of them — but many of them are accessed by water.
If you’re looking to access the park by vehicle, well, vehicle access comes at a price. That price is winter. When the water freezes, the park has ice roads, so if driving’s your thing, have it your way. Of course, there are other means of winter travel — from snowmobile rentals to cross country skiing to snowshoeing.
Winter or summer, the park requires a bit of an adventurous spirit, but it rewards those willing to take a minor step outside the conventional vacation with a thoroughly memorable experience.
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