Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds
Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds - Escape the Masses at Dry Tortugas National Park
Located 70 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, Dry Tortugas National Park feels a world away from the bustling crowds of the mainland. Accessible only by boat or seaplane, the 100-square mile park preserves Fort Jefferson, water that boasts some of the region’s best coral reefs and shipwrecks, and seven small islands that are mostly uninhabited. With its remote location and lack of roads, hotels, and other amenities, Dry Tortugas sees only around 60,000 visitors per year – a fraction of the more popular parks.
So if you want to experience nature without the masses, Dry Tortugas is a fantastic option. The atolls and surrounding waters have an otherworldly serenity. You’ll find beaches with nary a soul, historic fort walls to explore in peace and quiet, and exceptional snorkeling and diving with thriving coral reefs and diverse marine life like sea turtles, nurse sharks, and tropical fish. The birdwatching is also superb, with populations of sooty terns, brown noddies, magnificent frigatebirds and other species.
To fully immerse yourself in the solitude, consider camping on Garden Key. The small island has 10 walk-in campsites that can be reserved up to six months in advance. Wake up to golden sunrises over the Gulf waters, have a picnic lunch on a secluded beach, and fall asleep under a blanket of stars free from light pollution. Reviewers say the camping is amazing and you’ll have the place practically to yourself at night after the ferries depart.
If camping isn’t your style, you can still soak up the peace of Dry Tortugas on a day trip. Plan in advance so you have tickets on the ferry that will give you the most time to explore once arriving. Wander the old fort walls, go snorkeling to discover the vibrant reefs, and find a corner of the beach to sit back and take in the lovely views. While you’ll be sharing the island with other visitors on day trips, it will still feel uncrowded.
What else is in this post?
- Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds - Escape the Masses at Dry Tortugas National Park
- Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds - Immerse Yourself in History at Congaree National Park
- Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds - See the Night Skies Shine at Great Basin National Park
- Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds - Be One with Nature at North Cascades National Park
- Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds - Marvel at the Colors of White Sands National Park
- Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds - Discover Diverse Ecosystems at Virgin Islands National Park
- Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds - Journey Through the Red Rocks of Canyonlands National Park
Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds - Immerse Yourself in History at Congaree National Park
Transport yourself back in time with a visit to Congaree National Park, a nearly 27,000 acre oasis of ancient old-growth bottomland forest along the Congaree River in South Carolina. Known for its towering trees and diverse plant and animal life, Congaree offers a doorway into the past that few other places can match.
One of the main allures is the sheer size and maturity of the trees. Chestnut oaks, loblolly pines, sweetgum, and bald cypress grow to staggering heights, some well over 100 feet tall with trunks 15 feet around. The champion loblolly pine measures an incredible 169 feet tall! As you walk the raised boardwalk through the floodplain forest, you’ll be awestruck wandering under the canopy of these ancient giants. It’s simply magical.
Not only are the trees impressive, but the biodiversity throughout the park is remarkable. Ornithologists have documented over 175 species of birds, and the floodplains provide habitat for diverse wildlife like bobcats, river otters, white-tailed deer and more. An abundance of ferns, mosses and vines cloaks the understory. During the right season you may even spot rare orchids or carnivorous plants like the Venus flytrap.
Adding to the allure is Congaree’s rich human history. Evidence has been found of habitation in the region stretching back over 10,000 years. In more recent centuries, traders used the river system for transportation of goods like fur, timber and tar. During the colonial era, many of those goods were shipped downriver to the port in Charleston.
For a first-hand look at this history, take an easy 1.7 mile hike on the Boardwalk Loop Trail. Interpretive panels will teach you about everything from flood cycles that affect the forest to how snags and nurse logs play a pivotal role in the ecosystem. As you learn about topics like fire ecology and old growth forest structures, Congaree’s fascinating past comes alive.
To complement the boardwalk hike, consider paddling Cedar Creek. This tranquil tributary gives you a chance to admire the towering trees from the water. Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy along the creek’s sandy banks. Reviewers highly recommend hiring a guide for the paddle, as they’ll provide commentary about the forest ecology and history.
Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds - See the Night Skies Shine at Great Basin National Park
Awash in twinkling stars and far from city lights, Great Basin National Park offers some of the darkest night skies in the country. This high desert oasis in eastern Nevada boasts exceptional stargazing, with heavenly views of the Milky Way, meteor showers, planets, and more. Gaze in wonder at the glittering blanket of stars and you’ll quickly see why Great Basin is an International Dark Sky Park.
One of the most popular activities is stargazing at the Astronomy Amphitheater on summer evenings. Local astronomers put on free interpretive programs using the powerful telescopes to provide close-up views of planets, nebulas, star clusters and whatever else is visible that night. Even with the naked eye, you can often spot planets like Jupiter, Mars and Saturn along with noteworthy constellations. Reviewers rave about the insightful astronomers and say you’ll be awestruck by what the telescopes reveal in the dark Nevada sky.
For more flexibility exploring the stars, consider a nighttime photography tour. Led by knowledgeable local guides, you’ll head to the best spots in and around the park to capture incredible astrophotography images. The remote Snake Creek Road area and the Bristlecone Pine groves usually offer fantastic backdrops of starry skies. Your guide will offer photography tips and interesting commentary about the area’s astronomy and history. Just make sure to dress warmly!
Of course, you can also do self-guided stargazing by heading to the park’s darkest zones. Baker Overlook is a popular spot, located at nearly 9,000 feet elevation. For more solitude, try the remote Baker Creek Campground. Wherever you go, plan to arrive when it's completely dark out for the most vivid star viewing. Dress in layers and bring a flashlight with a red cover to protect your night vision. A star map app can also help you identify what you’re seeing.
To maximize chances of clear skies, visit between May and October when Great Basin receives the least precipitation. Be aware that weather at these elevations is unpredictable though. If clouds roll in, don’t despair! The Milky Way is still visible on many nights even if not crystal clear.
Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds - Be One with Nature at North Cascades National Park
Tucked into the northern reaches of Washington, North Cascades National Park allows you to immerse yourself in the wild beauty of the Cascades. From jagged mountain peaks to glacial valleys, old growth forests to alpine meadows, the diversity of landscapes here make you feel a world away from everything.
One of the best ways to become one with nature in the park is backpacking. As you trek along trails like Horseshoe Basin, Easy Pass or Thunder Creek, you’ll be enveloped by the grandeur of the mountains. Reviewers say these moderate backpacking routes take you through breathtaking scenery without requiring technical skills. Camp in the backcountry and wake to golden alpenglow on Mount Shuksan. Stop frequently to take in the vistas, breathe deeply of the clean mountain air, and listen to the solitude.
For those with more limited time, day hikes also provide an excellent taste of the magic. Head up to Cascade Pass on a trail that gains over 1,500 feet in 3.7 miles through wildflower meadows and impressive views. Or opt for the quiet forest walk through old growth cedars and firs on the Thunder Knob Trail, keeping an eye out for black bears along the way. Panoramas at Diablo Lake, Ross Lake and many other spots will rejuvenate your spirit.
Getting out on the water provides yet another perspective on the park’s beauty. Rent a kayak to paddle on Diablo Lake, gazing up at the surrounding snow-capped peaks reflected on the calm waters. Or opt for a fishing charter on Ross Lake, letting the vistas wash over you as you cast for trout and char. Ruth Creek offers a mellow float if you have your own raft or inner tube.
Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds - Marvel at the Colors of White Sands National Park
With its windswept dunes of gypsum sand that seem to go on forever, White Sands National Park looks like it belongs in the Sahara Desert instead of New Mexico. This sparkling white wonderland covers 275 square miles, making it the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The hypnotic ripples of white sand contrast beautifully against the cobalt blue sky and surrounding mountain backdrop. It’s a magical place where you can lose yourself wandering the sweeping dunes and marveling at their ever-changing nature.
One of the most stunning times to visit is right at sunrise or sunset when the low angle light creates dazzling displays. The dunes shine brilliantly white in the morning rays, while at dusk they glow with intense oranges, pinks and purples. Photography enthusiasts flock here for a chance to capture these remarkable light shows. Just be prepared to catch the magic fast as the sun moves quickly.
The shifting winds continuously reshape the dunes, meaning the landscape looks different every time you visit. After a windstorm you may find completely changed ridges and valleys. Winter snows melt and create little pockets of moisture that sprout up tiny blades of beach grass. You never know what patterns or textures you’ll discover wandering the dunes. Sometimes the ripples take on wavelike curves, other times sharp peaks, and yet other times smooth curves. Seeing how the winds have molded the previous day's surface is part of the adventure.
For a unique perspective, take a guided sunset horseback tour. Riding along the crest of the dunes as the fading light dances across the sand is spectacular. The surefooted horses are used to navigating the shifting sands - just be prepared for a sandy behind once you dismount! Sunset sledding tours are another popular option. You’ll climb aboard a specially designed wooden sled and an experienced guide drives you across the ethereal dunes as dusk settles.
The most common way to explore is simply by foot. Hiking trails of varying length criss-cross through the dunes, leading you over steep ridges and down into sandy bowls. Go as far as you like, taking time to soak up the striking beauty. The park also offers moonlight hikes during full moons that let you experience the dunes in a whole new light. Just follow the leader's footsteps in the sand!
Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds - Discover Diverse Ecosystems at Virgin Islands National Park
A tropical paradise awaits in the protected bays and pristine beaches of Virgin Islands National Park. Settled into the eastern end of St. John, this 13,779-acre park preserves a wondrous mix of natural habitats that shelter a fascinating array of plants and animals both on land and below the waves. The diversity of life here amazes.
Be wowed by giant leatherback sea turtles swimming just offshore. Listen for the guttural call of a whistling duck in the mangroves. Spot elegant flamingo tongues skimming the salt ponds. Over 135 bird species make their home in the park along with many reptiles and amphibians like the tiny grass frog. As many as 700 plant species thrive in habitats ranging from scrub forest to coastal strand to salt ponds. The bountiful coral reef ecosystems draw angelfish, parrotfish, octopus and more. This is a nature lover’s paradise.
One of the best ways to discover the diversity is by snorkeling or diving the rich coral reefs and underwater habitats. Trunk Bay offers an excellent snorkel route that identifies many vibrant fish and invertebrates, including brain corals and sea fans. Experienced divers can explore deeper sites like Haulover Bay and explore remnants of shipwrecks.
Low key beach hikes also showcase the rewarding nature encounters. Leinster Bay has a postcard-worthy palm-dotted sand beach leading to the Annaberg Sugar Mill ruins. Keep watch for iguanas along the trail. At Francis Bay, the casual loop returns past mahogany forests and rocky cliffs where you may glimpse nesting brown pelicans.
Mangroves offer a unique habitat to explore by paddling kayaks or paddleboards along the shoreline. Try Lameshur Bay for a meandering route through a maze of red mangrove roots providing shelter for crabs, shrimp, fish and birds. The salt ponds at Jerk Finger Bay and Little Lameshur Bay also attract many wetland birds worth observing.
Off the Beaten Path: 6 Underrated National Parks to Visit Without the Crowds - Journey Through the Red Rocks of Canyonlands National Park
With its maze of deep canyons, towering rock formations, and stark but beautiful high desert landscapes, Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah invites you to journey into the heart of red rock country. This immense park encompasses 527 square miles divided into four districts: the Island in the Sky mesa, The Needles district, The Maze, and the rivers themselves that have carved these magical landscapes over millions of years.
Each district offers a chance to immerse yourself in the incredible geology and scenery. At Island in the Sky you’ll stand atop sandstone cliffs rising over 1,000 feet to reveal breathtaking views of the surrounding canyons. Heading into The Needles district, you’ll discover a wonderland of brick-red spires, pinnacles, and rock fins that look like they belong on another planet. The remote Maze shelters labyrinthine canyons reaching depths of 4,000 feet – a true refuge for intrepid adventurers.
One of the most spectacular ways to journey through the park is on a multi-day rafting expedition down the mighty Colorado or Green Rivers. Gliding between the sheer red cliffs rising hundreds of feet on either side of you is an almost surreal experience. Camping under the billions of stars in the night sky and waking to golden light hitting the canyon walls is majestic beyond words. While white-water rafting can be an adrenaline rush during spring runoff, many excursions focus more on the peaceful floating and scenery. Reviewers say multi-day rafting trips allow you to see parts of Canyonlands that most visitors never experience. It’s an incredible way to connect deeply with the essence of the park.
For a less rugged experience, scenic drives like the Island in the Sky park road provide plenty of wow moments. Stops at viewpoints like Grand View Point and Upheaval Dome showcase the colorful canyons and geological formations that make the park famous. The Needles district drive brings you by rock fins like the Angel Arch and parks at trailheads to access backcountry sites. Just be aware that roads are unpaved and can be impassable when wet.