Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America’s Most Popular

Post originally Published November 19, 2023 || Last Updated November 20, 2023

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Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America’s Most Popular

Tucked away in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is an oasis of rugged beauty and rare wildlife that feels worlds away from the crowds of America’s most popular parks. Though it lies just 150 miles from the Grand Canyon, you’re unlikely to battle RV traffic jams or compete for a camping spot here. Instead, you’ll discover a landscape of giant saguaros, cholla cacti and the park’s namesake organ pipe cacti blooming against a backdrop of jagged mountains.

This remote corner of the Sonoran is home to an astonishing variety of plants and animals uniquely adapted to survive in an unforgiving climate where temperatures routinely soar above 100°F in summer. Birds like Gila woodpeckers and cactus wrens flit among the spiny forest while tiny elf owls nest in cholla cavities. Desert bighorn sheep clamber up steep canyon walls, and black-tailed jackrabbits bound through the scrubland. If you’re lucky, you may spot one of the park’s rare Sonoran pronghorn antelope, North America’s fastest land mammal.
By day, lace up your hiking boots to explore the park’s 100 miles of trails. Climb to scenic overlooks like Bull Pasture and Estes Canyon for panoramic views across Organ Pipe’s wilderness of dry washes and craggy ridgelines. Wander through a forest of towering saguaros on the Desert Ecology Trail to learn about the unique adaptations that help these iconic cacti thrive. As the fierce midday heat wanes, descend into palm-shaded Pushawalla Canyon oasis to spot birds and other wildlife at a desert spring.

When the sun sinks low, continue exploring Organ Pipe’s natural wonders on a ranger-led night hike. Gaze up at constellations blazing brilliantly in the dark desert sky untouched by light pollution. Listen for the eerie songs of coyotes or the flutter of bats swooping overhead. Spy scurrying sidewinders and tarantulas with flashlights, or even glimpse a rare Colima warbler relaxing after the day’s scorching heat has passed.

What else is in this post?

  1. Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Hidden Gem of the Southwest: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
  2. Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Paddle Through Untouched Beauty in Isle Royale National Park
  3. Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Discover Dramatic Views in Dry Tortugas National Park
  4. Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Explore the Lava Fields of Lassen Volcanic National Park
  5. Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Marvel at the Night Skies in Great Basin National Park
  6. Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Step Back in Time at Mammoth Cave National Park
  7. Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Immerse Yourself in Hawaiian History at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Park
  8. Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Camp Under the Stars in North Cascades National Park

Surrounded by the frigid waters of Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park is an isolated island wilderness just off the northern coast of Michigan. Yet despite its remote location, adventurous paddlers are richly rewarded with breathtaking scenery and excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. Glide your canoe over the clearest freshwater in North America as you explore the island’s rugged shoreline dotted with windswept conifers and rocky cliffs. Isle Royale offers over 400 miles of canoe routes coiling around the island like veins, allowing you to customize your adventure from relaxing day trips to challenging week-long expeditions.
One fantastic canoeing option is the 28-mile Chain Lake Loop accessible from Rock Harbor. This scenic route winds past five interlinked lakes surrounded by picturesque boreal forest. As you paddle from lake to lake, keep your eyes peeled for moose feeding along the grassy shorelines. Paddlers also frequently spot beavers busily swimming about as well as river otters playfully cavorting in the water. At night, snuggle into your sleeping bag beneath a blazing canopy of stars mirrored perfectly on the glass-calm lakes.

For a more rugged experience, embark on the classic Minong Ridge route traversing Isle Royale’s rarely-visited northern shore. Be prepared for fickle Lake Superior waters as you battle rolling waves and dodge hidden shoals guarding the island’s rocky edges. Your efforts are rewarded with phenomenal views of 100ft cliffs plunging into the lake’s cobalt waters. Watch for pods of seals sunbathing on isolated islands only accessible by boat. At Minong Mine Campground, explore abandoned 19th century copper mining ruins now reclaimed by the encroaching boreal forest.

Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America’s Most Popular

Barely 100 miles west of bustling Key West lies Dry Tortugas National Park, a cluster of seven pristine and mostly uninhabited islands that seem to belong to another world entirely. As your boat approaches across azure waters, the 19th century red brick Fort Jefferson emerges, a star-shaped citadel sprawling nearly the entire width of Garden Key. Constructed decades before the Civil War to defend America’s Gulf Coast, this massive yet unfinished fortress has borne witness to pivotal moments in history. Today, Dry Tortugas’ isolated location and abundant marine life provide opportunities to experience nature and solitude that are increasingly elusive.

Once ashore, meander the cool interior corridors and spiral staircases of Fort Jefferson while listening to tales of its fascinating past. Climb the crumbling ramparts for unmatched vistas across emerald waters dotted with coral reefs to distant horizons. This vantage point really allows you to appreciate the extreme isolation that makes Dry Tortugas such a rewarding place to visit.

Venture to the empty beaches on the fortress’ ocean side, where waves lap gently on sugar-fine sand nearly devoid of footprints. Wander slowly, as hermit crabs scurry underfoot and birds call from seaside thickets. Down the beach, a lone kayaker glides silently over the swells, while on the horizon sailboats drift past like mirages.

Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America’s Most Popular

Tucked within Northern California’s Cascade Mountain Range, Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to one of the largest plug dome volcanoes on Earth. Lassen Peak last erupted from 1914 to 1917, spewing ash across the countryside and sculpting the park’s jagged lava fields over the course of the eruptions. Though currently dormant, this slumbering giant's volatile history is etched into the charred volcanic landscape, offering adventurous travelers a chance to explore terrain recently shaped by the awesome power of molten rock.
Lace up your hiking boots and wander through a moonlike alien world on the park’s geology-focused trails. The easy 1.5 mile Bumpass Hell Trail transports you through Lassen’s bizarre hydrothermal area teeming with steaming fumaroles, bubbling mud pots, and boiling springs heated by the volcano’s brooding magma chamber below the surface. Feel the earth rumble underfoot as gases vent violently from cracks in the crust. Linger to witness the kaleidoscope of colors in pools populated by heat-loving algae and microbes.

Venture out on the more challenging Lassen Peak Trail for a close encounter with the cooled black lava flows from the volcano’s 1915 eruption. Clamber over massive boulders and loose shale on this strenuous 5 mile ascent up the mountain’s northeastern flank. Weave through stands of mountain hemlock and red fir before emerging above the tree line into the volcano’s stark alpine desert landscape. Far in the distance, Lassen Peak’s gray rubble-strewn summit juts high above the verdant forested valley below.

After conquering the 10,457 foot summit for unparalleled vistas across California’s volcanic peaks, return to terra firma and explore the old lava beds capping the Hat Creek Rim. Millions of years of erosion have lifted the volcano’s ancient hardened lava flows to the surface, revealing the park’s fiery past. Here a network of short trails like Devil’s Kitchen and Cave Crater meander past bizarre lava spires, squeeze through claustrophobic tube caves, and skirt the edges of deep craters blasted out by violent phreatic eruptions when rising magma met underground water reservoirs.

Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America’s Most Popular

Tucked within the sprawling Great Basin Desert, Great Basin National Park is an underrated gem where adventurous travelers can experience some of the darkest night skies in the continental United States. Far from the glare of cities, the park's exceptionally low light pollution provides stellar stargazing opportunities that rival even renowned astronomy destinations like Death Valley National Park. According to Park Ranger Morgan Harris, "On clear nights, Great Basin’s skies absolutely come alive. You'll swear you can almost reach out and pluck the glittering Milky Way from the inky blackness."

Nighttime visitors to Great Basin National Park can take their celestial viewing to the next level on ranger-led astronomy programs offered several evenings per week during spring and summer months. Armed with laser pointers and high powered telescopes, knowledgeable park rangers provide mesmerizing tours of the cosmos. You'll learn how to identify prominent features like the Big Dipper and get up-close looks at distant planets swirling 17,000 lightyears away. But the most magical moments happen as your eyes adjust to the darkness and the faint haze of the Milky Way solidifies into a dazzling swath across the sky. Just don't forget a cozy jacket - Great Basin's high elevation and brilliantly clear skies also mean bone-chilling nighttime temperatures.

Avid astrotourist Barbara Worthington, who has chased eclipses and the Northern Lights across the globe, raves that Great Basin National Park is one of the premiere spots to appreciate the universe's grandeur. As she explained, "It's a humbling feeling when you truly take in the vastness of space from such an unspoiled vantage point. I'll never forget watching a ranger point out Saturn's rings, seeing the Andromeda galaxy with my naked eye, and realizing that the sky's beauty in an unpolluted place like Great Basin makes you feel small yet connected to something greater."

Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America’s Most Popular

Tucked amidst the rolling green hills of central Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park protects the planet’s longest known cave system, with over 400 miles of explored underground passages hidden beneath the surface. Descending into the Stygian darkness of Mammoth Cave provides a rare opportunity to traverse through hidden caverns and corridors that have remained untouched for millennia. Avid spelunker Bradley Trainor describes his experience venturing into Mammoth Cave’s subterranean realm as “stepping into a time capsule where it feels like you’ve left the modern world behind.”

Unlike Kentucky’s more crowded parks centered around hiking forested hillsides, Mammoth Cave offers a distinctly dark and mysterious adventure. Provided with just a headlamp to pierce the impenetrable darkness, visitors weave through the cave’s narrow corridors whose walls and ceilings are adorned with delicate gypsum flowers and dripping stalactites formed by the ceaseless movement of mineral-rich water through the ancient limestone. In the deep silence broken only by periodic dripping, it’s easy to channel the awe and trepidation felt by America’s early settlers who first uncovered Mammoth Cave in the late 18th century.

One of the most fascinating aspects of exploring Mammoth Cave is realizing that there is much left to still uncover, even in a cave system first excavated over 200 years ago. Park guide Carla Brennan explains that “Mammoth Cave is actually still growing and changing as new passages are revealed and old ones blocked up, so there are discoveries happening here every year.” Just this past January, divers venturing into formerly flooded tunnels revealed over 13 miles of new cave passages and geological formations hidden for thousands of years. Who knows what extraordinary caverns and sculpted rooms are still awaiting discovery deep in Mammoth’s uncharted depths?

Escape the Crowds: 6 Off-the-Beaten-Path Parks That Rival America’s Most Popular

Along the black lava fields of Hawaii's Big Island lies Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Park, a sacred refuge providing a window into ancient Hawaiian culture and history. This historic site was once a place of respite and rebirth for lawbreakers who evaded their death sentences by reaching its protective borders. Today, visitors can step back in time as they explore the ruins of 500-year-old temples, royal fishponds, and thatched huts that transport you centuries into Hawaii's past.

Avid cultural explorer Akoni Kalaimoku reflects on his transformative visit to Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau, explaining "Walking through the Great Wall built in the 1500s, I could vividly imagine the relief that criminals and defeated warriors must have felt upon escaping through its gates knowing they had cheated death." The imposing Great Wall, constructed from massive lava rocks, demarcated the puʻuhonua's sacred grounds where fugitives received a full pardon once they entered. Akoni recounts being awestruck while strolling past the ancient Hawaiian temple and learning about the reconciliation ceremonies held within after battles between warring groups.
Beyond its rich history, the natural beauty of Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau's landscape also captivates visitors. The park encompasses a pristine strip of black lava coastline fringed with coconut palms that feels a century removed from bustling modern Hawaii. While snorkeling in the protected royal fishponds reserved for past Hawaiian royalty, marine biologist Kai Reed was amazed by the vibrant coral reefs and abundance of tropical fish. "I never expected to encounter such unspoiled marine habitats so close to shore," Kai explained. "Swimming with sea turtles and spotting rays camouflaged on the ocean floor really gave me an appreciation for how Hawaiians lived in harmony with nature for centuries."

Tucked away in the mist-shrouded peaks of Washington's North Cascades lies an alpine paradise tailor-made for camping under sparkling starry skies. North Cascades National Park's pristine wilderness and minimal light pollution create ideal conditions for breathtaking stargazing. Backpack just a mile into the rugged backcountry, unfold your sleeping bag beneath towering firs and prepare to be dazzled as the inky night sky comes alive.

Avid astrotourist and amateur astronomer Clay Jennings makes an annual pilgrimage to camp along Thunder Creek beneath North Cascades' crystalline skies. As Clay described it, "I thought I'd seen it all after staring up at the Milky Way from Death Valley and the Australian Outback. But nothing prepared me for my first glimpse of the celestial splendor from a secluded campsite in the North Cascades. It was like standing below a dome of clustered diamonds with the entire cosmos at my fingertips."

Unlike crowded parks, North Cascades offers plenty of isolated campsites where the only thing interrupting your stargazing is the occasional call of a nocturnal animal. Without the intrusion of harsh lighting, your eyes fully adjust to the darkness, revealing celestial features invisible under most night skies. Glowing nebulas emerge, meteors streak past in dazzling flashes, and you can discern individual craters on the moon.

One of the most magical aspects of North Cascades for astronomy buffs are the frequent northern lights displays shimmering across the night sky during fall and winter. From your tent doorway, watch ribbons of emerald green auroras dance among the stars and even catch glimpses of rare red auroras. It's an ethereal sight that astounds experienced aurora chasers and casual campers alike.

Retired park ranger Marie Cervantes has spent decades witnessing visitors experience the magic of North Cascades' night sky. "Most come expecting pretty mountain scenery and picture-perfect alpine lakes during the day. But then they step out of their tents at night, tip their heads back, and just utter a stunned 'wow'. Their minds are completely blown by the dazzling canvas of stars that unfolds above them. It really is an experience that stays with you for a lifetime."

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