Escape the Crowds: 6 Underrated Parks That Rival America’s Most Popular

Post originally Published November 30, 2023 || Last Updated December 1, 2023

See how everyone can now afford to fly Business Class and book 5 Star Hotels with Mighty Travels Premium! Get started for free.

Escape the Crowds: 6 Underrated Parks That Rival America’s Most Popular

With its rugged cliffs, rocky beaches, and crashing ocean waves, Acadia National Park's craggy coastline is the crown jewel of Maine's natural treasures. Spanning nearly 50,000 acres along the state's mid-coast region, Acadia protects some of the most stunning scenery on the Eastern Seaboard. From sandstone-colored cliffs and lichen-speckled boulders to evergreen forests and historic lighthouses, Acadia's diverse ecosystems show off the best of Downeast Maine.

One of the top attractions is Acadia's 45 miles of carriage roads that weave throughout the park. Originally financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the early 1900s, these roads were designed for horse-drawn carriages rather than automobiles. Today, they make excellent hiking and biking paths with gorgeous coastal vistas around every bend. Don't miss the impressive stone gatehouses and bridges that dot the carriage roads, each an engineering marvel in its own right.
For a closer look at Acadia's granite shoreline, take the Park Loop Road or hike along Ocean Path. This scenic route runs alongside sheer cliff faces, weather-beaten boulders, and foaming seawater. Stop at Thunder Hole to see waves crashing into a narrow inlet, sending plumes of saltwater 40 feet into the air. The best time to visit is two hours before or after high tide when the tide is rising or falling. Listen for the "thunderous" roar as waves smash against the cliffs.
No trip to Acadia is complete without a visit to Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the U.S. Atlantic Coast at 1,530 feet. Drive the winding 3.5-mile road to the summit, then hike the short Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail for postcard-perfect views of Frenchman Bay and the Porcupine Islands. Arrive early to catch the first sunrise in the United States from October 7 through March 6.

What else is in this post?

  1. Escape the Crowds: 6 Underrated Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Acadia's Craggy Coastline Beckons in Main
  2. Escape the Crowds: 6 Underrated Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Paddle With Manatees in Florida's Dry Tortugas
  3. Escape the Crowds: 6 Underrated Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Cuyahoga Valley's Waterfalls & History in Ohio
  4. Escape the Crowds: 6 Underrated Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Guadalupe's Rugged Beauty in Texas
  5. Escape the Crowds: 6 Underrated Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Congaree's Lush Floodplain Forest in South Carolina
  6. Escape the Crowds: 6 Underrated Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Hot Springs' Geothermal Wonders in Arkansas
  7. Escape the Crowds: 6 Underrated Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Kenai Fjords' Glaciers & Wildlife in Alaska
  8. Escape the Crowds: 6 Underrated Parks That Rival America's Most Popular - Black Canyon's Deep Gorge in Colorado

Escape the Crowds: 6 Underrated Parks That Rival America’s Most Popular

Of Florida's many natural wonders, few experiences compare to paddling alongside the state's famously gentle giants—the West Indian manatee. While spotting these mellow, curious creatures is possible throughout Florida's intracoastal waterways, one of the most remarkable places for an up-close manatee encounter is Dry Tortugas National Park, a remote cluster of islands 70 miles off Key West.

Paddling a kayak or stand-up paddleboard through the park's shallow reefs and seagrass beds during manatee season from November to March provides a unique opportunity to share the water with these massive yet peaceful mammals. Often reaching 10 feet long and weighing over 1,000 pounds, manatees glide slowly through the clear shallows, surfacing to breathe through their snouts every few minutes. Though massive in stature, manatees are completely harmless to humans. In fact, many are eager to approach paddlers out of curiosity. Yet despite their gentle nature, powerboats pose the greatest threat to manatees due to the risk of collision. That makes kayaking and paddleboarding the best way to respectfully enjoy their company.
The most vivid place to spot manatees is off Garden Key in the heart of Dry Tortugas National Park. As you paddle across the shallow bay dotted with coral heads and swaying seagrass, keep watch for the manatees' large rounded tails breaking the surface or their bulbous snouts rising for air. While federal regulations prohibit touching or disturbing them, it's perfectly legal (and unforgettable) to quietly float alongside these gentle beasts. Gliding silently by or drifting in place while giving them plenty of space to pass close by allows for a thrilling yet low-impact encounter.

Nestled between Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga Valley National Park protects a critical slice of American history along the Ohio & Erie Canal. Winding river gorges, abundant waterfalls, and historic structures transport visitors back to the bygone canal era that shaped Ohio’s early development.

While most national parks safeguard natural landscapes, Cuyahoga Valley preserves the handiwork of America’s early engineers. Starting in 1825, workers carved the Ohio & Erie Canal to link Lake Erie with the Ohio River system, enabling trade and commerce through the heart of Ohio. At the park, you can hike or bike along the historic canal towpath while imagining mule-drawn boats drifting slowly by.

Yet the park’s natural splendor also amazes. With its deep river gorges, Cuyahoga Valley shelters over 140 waterfalls hidden in forested nooks and crannies. Some cascade gently over mossy sandstone while others pound with pound with thunderous force after heavy rains. Brandywine Falls astounds with its 65-foot horseshoe plunge into a forested gorge. Smaller falls like Blue Hen offer a more intimate experience, tumbling gently into a shaded alcove where you can picnic beside the falling waters.

For a dose of history, stop by Canal Exploration Center to envision canal life through interactive exhibits and short films. Costumed interpreters demonstrate blacksmithing, quilting, and tinsmithing, 1820s-style. Hop aboard the canal boat St. Helena III for a horse-drawn ride down a restored segment of the historic canal. Or spend a night in one of the park’s historic structures, including an 18th century inn and settler homes that transport you back in time.

The park’s ample trail network also provides opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Native Americans who first inhabited the Cuyahoga River valley centuries before European settlement. Overlooks like Haskell Run Wetlands Boardwalk Trail deliver sweeping vistas over the Cuyahoga River gorge once traversed by indigenous tribes as well as early white explorers.

Escape the Crowds: 6 Underrated Parks That Rival America’s Most Popular

With its sheer cliffs, hidden canyons, and miles of backcountry trails, Texas' Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a haven for hikers, backpackers and nature lovers seeking rugged wilderness and breathtaking views. Tucked away in the farthest west corner of the Lone Star State, Guadalupe Mountains offers miles of high country to explore, from forested canyons to windswept ridgelines over 8,000 feet high.

For many Texans, backpacking into the Guadalupe high country is a rite of passage thanks to the park's challenging yet rewarding trails. The park contains over 80 miles of hiking trails, including a segment of the legendary Pinery Trail, once used by Apache and Comanche Indians. One of the most popular routes is the 8.5 mile Guadalupe Peak Trail, which winds over 3,000 feet in elevation gain to the summit of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas at 8,751 feet. Hikers are rewarded with awe-inspiring 360 degree views of four different states from the rocky peak.
Another favorite is the McKittrick Canyon Trail, following a wooded canyon through the high country before culminating at the historic stone Pratt Cabin and the breathtaking Grotto waterfall. For backpackers, connecting McKittrick Canyon with the Dog Canyon trail creates a rewarding two-day, 18.6 mile point-to-point hike through the heart of the Guadalupe backcountry. With its strenuous climbs and big views, it's no wonder this epic route is considered one of Texas' premier backpacking trails.

Beyond hiking, Guadalupe Mountains also offers opportunities for horseback riding, mountain biking, birdwatching and more. Each fall, vibrant maple and walnut trees in McKittrick Canyon create a spectacular display that draws leaf peepers from around the region. But its the rugged beauty and challenging trails that make Guadalupe Mountains a special destination for Texans looking to test their backcountry skills and experience the untamed landscapes of west Texas.
As Texans are quick to point out, everything is bigger in Texas - and that includes some of the steepest, most dramatic trails around. Conquering a tough trail through the high Guadalupes satisfies that pioneering spirit of exploration that many Texans still carry. Just be sure to come prepared with plenty of water, sun protection and backcountry navigation skills. While the trails are immensely rewarding, the desert environment can also be harsh and unforgiving. Checking the weather forecast ahead of time is a must.

With its swampy backwaters and vine-draped hardwoods, South Carolina's Congaree National Park shelters one of the nation's last remaining old-growth floodplain forests. This 22,000 acre sanctuary of towering trees, languid lagoons, and teeming wildlife lies just southeast of Columbia, making it surprisingly accessible for such a wild, untamed landscape.

As soon as you step foot on the elevated boardwalk trails meandering through Congaree's soggy floodplain, you'll feel transported back to a primeval South Carolina, long before European settlement and industrial logging depleted such robust forests. Massive loblolly pines, sweetgum, and oak trees soar over 150 feet tall in this rich alluvial soil, forming a cathedral-like canopy bursting with biodiversity. Mournful calls of the Pileated Woodpecker echo through the stillness, while Barred owls peer out from the swampy shadows.

Venturing deep into Congaree by canoe or kayak provides an even more immersive gateway into this lush riparian habitat. As you paddle across tea-colored bayous and through tunnels of overhanging bald cypress, keep eyes peeled for river otters, alligators, and even endangered wood storks nesting in the treetops overhead. While paddling deeper into Congaree's remote backcountry channels requires some skill, traversing the open lagoons surrounding Cedar Creek is easily accessible for beginners. Either way, you'll feel worlds away from civilization while surrounded by sweet birdsong and the primeval splendor of Congaree’s towering old-growth giants.

Yet beyond its natural beauty, Congaree also provides a living link to traditional Gullah culture. Descendants of enslaved West Africans brought to South Carolina's rice plantations, the Gullah people developed a rich culture that drew heavily on their African roots. At Congaree's Bluff House exhibit, visitors can glimpse what life was like at a 19th-century farmhouse along the Congaree River. Costumed interpreters bring heritage crafts like sweetgrass basket weaving to life while sharing cultural history passed down through generations of Gullah families who still inhabit the park's outskirts today.

Soaking in thermal mineral waters amid forested hillsides, it’s easy to see why Arkansas' Hot Springs National Park has drawn weary travelers seeking restorative respite for centuries. From Native Americans and early settlers to turn-of-the-century tourists, these geothermal waters have been treasured as a mystical place of healing ever since the valley's first human inhabitants.

Even now, walking down Bathhouse Row beside stately neoclassical spas and ornate facades adorned with mythological motifs, you can vividly imagine the fashionable elite who once flocked here. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, everyone from Al Capone to Babe Ruth journeyed to Hot Springs to partake in the purportedly therapeutic waters. For decades, this was the place to see and be seen.

Yet beyond its history as a luxurious resort town, the main attraction remains the geothermal spring waters themselves. Hot Springs National Park protects the area’s 47 natural hot springs that have been flowing for thousands of years from the western slopes of Hot Springs Mountain. As rainwater slowly percolates deep underground into faults and fissures in the earth’s crust, it’s naturally heated by the earth’s geothermal energy. The hot water then rises back up to the surface through the Springs, emerging at a steaming 143°F.

For many, the highlight is soaking in the traditional thermal baths along Bathhouse Row. At the Buckstaff Bathhouse, visitors unwind in European-style soaks and thermal showers. Or indulge in a relaxing bath at the Quapaw Baths & Spa, where private thermal pools incorporate the park's natural spring water into signature treatments.

Beyond the bathhouses, Hot Springs' geothermal waters can also be freely accessed on Bathhouse Row. Decorative fountains and water stations provide the chance to fill your water bottle straight from a thermal spring, a quirky souvenir. Hiking the Sunset Trail delivers stunning vistas overlooking the valley along with the chance to sip from warm springs trickling down the mountainside.

Escape the Crowds: 6 Underrated Parks That Rival America’s Most Popular

Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park safeguards one of the most spectacular glacier and wildlife habitats on the planet. Located along the southeastern Kenai Peninsula overlooking the Gulf of Alaska, this expansive park protects nearly 700,000 acres of rugged fjords, tidewater glaciers, and coastal rainforest teeming with life. From breaching whales to massive icefalls plunging into the sea, Kenai Fjords offers a front-row seat to Alaska's raw, untamed wilderness.

One of the park's top attractions is its namesake fjords - U-shaped ocean inlets carved out by glacial movement. Kenai Fjords contains over 30 active tidewater glaciers flowing directly into the ocean. Watching these colossal frozen giants crack, grind, and calve makes for an unforgettable spectacle. Glacier-viewing cruises provide the best vantage point for witnessing tidewater glaciers in action. As the boat pulls up alongside icy walls over 300 feet tall, you'll hear thunderous crashes as house-sized chunks of ice sheer off the glacier's face and splash into the sea below. Top cruising destinations include Holgate Glacier and Aialik Glacier, where passengers are nearly guaranteed dramatic glacier calving displays.
Beyond tidewater glaciers, Kenai Fjords offers a wealth of incredible wildlife viewing opportunities. Its nutrient-rich waters support an abundance of marine mammals, while its rugged peninsulas and islands provide prime habitat for coastal brown bears, mountain goats, and nesting seabirds. Orcas are frequently sighted patrolling the park's chilly waters for prey. Other commonly seen species include humpback whales, harbor seals, Steller sea lions, and puffins. Wildlife cruises and kayaking excursions provide the chance to search Kenai Fjords' secluded bays and coves for these remarkable species going about their daily business. Watching bears amble along a rocky shore or a pod of orcas suddenly surface alongside your kayak makes for truly unforgettable moments.

On land, hiking trails like the Harding Icefield Trail wind through coastal rainforest before reaching the park's crowning attraction - the 300-square-mile Harding Icefield. This vast frozen plateau feeds over 30 glaciers that spill down the mountainsides toward the sea. Standing atop this massive icefield seeing intricate crevasses and icy peaks extending to the horizon is a moment you're unlikely to forget.

Escape the Crowds: 6 Underrated Parks That Rival America’s Most Popular

With its plunging cliffs, remote wilderness, and stunning rock formations, few places in Colorado can compete with the raw natural spectacle of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Unlike the crowded roads and congested viewpoints at parks like Rocky Mountain, the deep gorge and rugged backcountry of Black Canyon offer a uniquely untamed and solitary wilderness experience.

Dropping an astounding 2,722 feet from rim to river, the sheer walls of Black Canyon form the deepest and steepest gorge in North America. Gazing down from an overlook like Gunnison Point or Chasm View, one can only marvel at the sheer enormity of this colossal gorge. The narrow chasm between the walls measures just 40 feet across at the canyon's narrowest point, though it broadens as the canyon descends toward the Gunnison River below. Oddly shaped rock pinnacles and off-kilter spires formed over the millennia by erosion dot the steep canyon walls.

Yet the canyon's inaccessibility is also part of its intrigue. The vast majority of overlooks only allow views from the rim down into its shadowy depths. Reaching the inner gorge requires a rigorous hike on steep and strenuous trails considered unsuitable for most visitors. But for hardy backpackers, the chance to spend days exploring the canyon's isolated inner depths provides an adventure found nowhere else in the Centennial State.
Trails like the Gunnison Route or S.O.B Draw lead from rim to river, descending precarious switchbacks cut right out of the canyon walls. As you descend mile after mile into the canyon, it feels as if you're passing through different worlds. Lush high-country forests eventually give way to drier life zones filled with piñon pine and sagebrush, and finally sparse desert vegetation down by the river.

Here at the bottom, the roar of the Gunnison River drowns out all other sounds as the mighty flow thunders downstream, carving rock with its ancient power. After the strenuous hike required to reach the inner gorge, soaking tired feet in the rushing Gunnison seems like paradise found. But beware of letting its calmer eddies fool you- the Gunnison's currents are shockingly swift and frigid straight from the snowmelt.

See how everyone can now afford to fly Business Class and book 5 Star Hotels with Mighty Travels Premium! Get started for free.