Discover 6 Hidden Gems as Alternatives to America’s Most Popular National Parks

Post originally Published February 22, 2024 || Last Updated February 22, 2024

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Discover 6 Hidden Gems as Alternatives to America’s Most Popular National Parks

Despite being less than 100 miles from Sacramento, Lassen Volcanic National Park often goes overlooked compared to other popular California destinations. However, for those seeking natural beauty away from the crowds, Lassen represents an underrated gem. Spanning over 106,000 acres, the park encompasses a truly unique landscape sculpted by recent volcanic activity. Numerous hydrothermal features, steaming fumaroles, and lava flows offer visual reminders that the park sits atop one of California's rumbling volcanic areas.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Lassen is the opportunity to witness ongoing geothermal change. Throughout the park, hot springs simmer and steam rises from fumaroles, proving the underlying magma is never fully dormant. Nowhere is this better observed than at Bumpass Hell, a highly thermal area with steaming pools in vibrant hues. However, this popular area can become busy during summer peak season. For those seeking solitude amidst volcanic scenery, lesser-trodden pathways lead to quirky hydrothermal wonders.

At boiling springs tucked along the side of Lassen Peak, milky pools surrounded by mineralized flats form one of the park's best-kept secrets. Wildflowers thrive amidst the fragile landscape, providing splashes of color against a steaming setting. Nearby, deep azure pools shimmer undisturbed at Diamond Valley Lake, tempting soakers yet remaining thankfully uncrowded. For the ambitious, challenging trails scale the flanks of lassen and connect scattered geothermal valleys, rewarding hikers with far-reaching views over the seemingly primeval landscape below.

What else is in this post?

  1. Discover 6 Hidden Gems as Alternatives to America's Most Popular National Parks - Get Off the Beaten Path in California's Lassen Volcanic National Park
  2. Discover 6 Hidden Gems as Alternatives to America's Most Popular National Parks - Immerse Yourself in History at Congaree National Park, South Carolina
  3. Discover 6 Hidden Gems as Alternatives to America's Most Popular National Parks - See Majestic Mountains and Glaciers at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
  4. Discover 6 Hidden Gems as Alternatives to America's Most Popular National Parks - Hike to Thundering Waterfalls in North Cascades National Park, Washington
  5. Discover 6 Hidden Gems as Alternatives to America's Most Popular National Parks - Explore the Lava Tubes and Craters of Craters of the Moon in Idaho
  6. Discover 6 Hidden Gems as Alternatives to America's Most Popular National Parks - Experience the Rugged Beauty of Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
  7. Discover 6 Hidden Gems as Alternatives to America's Most Popular National Parks - Discover the Untamed Wilderness of Gates of the Arctic in Alaska

Tucked amidst the lowcountry south of Columbia is Congaree National Park, protecting over 26,000 acres of old-growth floodplain forest along the Congaree River. Here, towering cypress and tupelo gum trees soar over 100 feet towards the sky, their tangled root systems and blank branches providing glimpses into historical ecosystems unchanged since prior to European settlement. Wonderfully raw and untamed, Congaree invites visitors to immerse themselves in nature and contemplate deeper stories hidden among the forest giants.

The park offers over 20 miles of trails, though few are well-trodden as the focus remains on protecting fragile swampland. Instead, raised boardwalks float through a watery world, observation platforms providing atmospheric vistas over a dark sea of swishing branches. Listen closely and tales emerge - from the rustling leaves comes the chatter of squirrels and flick of woodpeckers, as if relaying tales from centuries past. As sunlight flickers, impressions form of Indigenous peoples harvesting gum and cypress, their dugout canoes plying soft waters. Further back, mastodon and giant ground sloth likely roamed lands now submerged for eons.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska is a true testament to the awe-inspiring power of nature. Spanning over 13 million acres, it holds the title of the largest national park in the United States. This massive wilderness area is a paradise for adventure seekers and nature enthusiasts alike, offering a breathtaking landscape of majestic mountains and glaciers that will leave you speechless.
The park is named after its towering peaks, including Mount Wrangell and Mount Elias, both of which soar above 16,000 feet in elevation. These snow-capped giants dominate the horizon, casting a spellbinding presence over the rugged terrain. The beauty of Wrangell-St. Elias lies not only in its immense peaks but also in the glaciers that flow between them. Glaciers such as the Malaspina, Nabesna, and Kennicott are like frozen rivers, carving their way through the valleys and creating a surreal panorama of ice and rock.
Exploring Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is a truly humbling experience. The sheer scale of the landscape makes you feel small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. As you traverse the park's trails and hike through its wilderness, you'll encounter a sense of solitude and serenity that is hard to find in our modern, bustling world.
One of the highlights of visiting Wrangell-St. Elias is the opportunity to witness the park's abundant wildlife. From grizzly bears to wolves, moose to Dall sheep, the park is home to a diverse array of animal species. Imagine catching a glimpse of a bear fishing for salmon in a crystal-clear river or spotting a herd of caribou grazing on the tundra. These encounters with nature's magnificent creatures are memories that will stay with you forever.
To truly appreciate the wonders of Wrangell-St. Elias, consider embarking on a scenic flight or helicopter tour. Soaring above the park, you'll be treated to an aerial spectacle of icefields, glaciers, and jagged peaks. The vastness of the landscape becomes even more apparent from above, and the experience is nothing short of breathtaking.
But don't just take my word for it. Travelers who have explored Wrangell-St. Elias National Park have been captivated by its beauty and untouched wilderness. They speak of the overwhelming sense of peace and tranquility that washes over them as they immerse themselves in this raw and untamed environment. They describe the thrill of standing at the foot of a glacier, listening to the cracking sounds of ice and feeling the chill in the air. They recount tales of hiking through alpine meadows, surrounded by wildflowers and the distant echoes of nature's symphony.

Nestled in the rugged north cascades of Washington State lies North Cascades National Park, home to over 300 thundering waterfalls carved from ice and granite. Here, glacial runoff tumbling over sheer cliff faces conjures scenes of pure, untamed power—a reminder that nature rules this domain.

Nowhere is this elemental force felt more than along the Skagit River valley trailing. Over the course of ten miles, hikers are treated to a procession of cascading giants, each spill plummeting with primal vigor. Early along this high alpine route, Rocky Creek unleashes its flows through narrow canyons, the roar echoing off imposing cliff lines. Close by, Diablo Lake comes into view, its deep sapphire waters contrasting the ragged coastlines edged with scrambling pines.

As the trail winds deeper into the core of North Cascades wilderness, the landscape becomes increasingly untamed. Towering peaks hem travellers on all sides, nature’s sentinels guarding the domain below. Through this dramatic mountain theatre, Rainbow Falls delivers its thundering performance—a bent plume of water arcing through the air with balletic grace before crashing into churning rapids below. Few sights convey sheer power so poetically.

Further north, Boston Creek Falls delivers the most resounding performance along the valley trail. Here, an entire creek hurtles over the cliff edge as though leaping unbridled into empty space. At the base, mistrises in ethereal clouds, the earth trembling underfoot from the mighty impact. It requires no stretch of imagination to feel oneself dwarfed before nature's raw and relentless force.

Hidden within the vast wilderness of central Idaho lies a surreal and otherworldly landscape: Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. Encompassing over 700 square miles, this distinctive region bears the scars of ancient volcanic eruptions that left behind a terrain unlike anything else in the Lower 48 states. Lava flows, squeezes, and towering cinder cones dominate endlessly, transporting visitors to feel as though they have stepped foot onto another planet.

Craters of the Moon tells a vivid story through its arrested geography. Over 15,000 years ago, fissures opened within the Snake River Plain, spewing forth rushing rivers of hot molten lava. Though activity waned, successive eruptions gradually engulfed the land, building layers upon layers of volcanic deposits. What remains today is a lesson in fire and time – a montage of volcanic landforms presenting itself chaotically yet purposefully across the blackened earth.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspects are the lava tubes hidden just beneath the surface. Formed when the tops of flowing lava streams hardened while liquid rock still coursed underneath, these hollow cave systems invite exploration of an alien subterranean world. At over 10 miles in length, the most accessible tube, Big Skylight, elicits wonder as it glows with an ethereal bluish light. Stalactites hang ethereally as passages wind and dip, transporting visitors inside the earth itself. Deeper in, narrow fissures lead to hidden gems like Little Hell and require perseverance to unravel nature's mysteries below.

Isle Royale National Park is nothing short of spectacular in its raw wilderness. Situated some 45 miles from the shores of northern Michigan and Ontario, this 210-square-mile island grants access to nature in its purest, most authentic form. With not a single road or building in sight, visitors trade easy access for true discovery and adventure off the beaten track.

Upon arrival by ferry or seaplane, it becomes apparent this is no casual hiking ground. Isle Royale demands resilience as its scarred terrain is as rugged as its shoreline. Granite ridges scrape the sky while boreal forest stretches as far as the eye can see, granting solitude from civilization. With moose and gray wolves the primary inhabitants outside a handful of park rangers, this feels truly removed from modern trappings of society.
The rewards for venturing Isle Royale's trails reward tenfold. Coastal stretches reward with vistas stretching across Lake Superior's choppy waters, from pounding surf to brilliant azure. Inland, gnarled trees cling impossibly to rocky slopes, craggy peaks silhouetted against the sky. Wildlife sightings ignite the soul - nothing compares to happening upon a bull moose amid dense pines, or spying wolves from afar as they embark on nightly hunts.

Of all the national parks across America's last frontier, none encapsulate raw wilderness quite like Gates of the Arctic in northern Alaska. Its staggering 8.5 million acres contain not a single road or even trail, refusing accessibility in favor of preserving a vital pocket of untouched arctic terrain. Here, visitors are not catered to but instead invited to discover fragile beauty hidden in river valleys that time forgot.

Stepping into Gates of the Arctic requires self-reliance and patience. The park offers few comforts, with visitors venturing via bush plane into gravel bars along wild rivers. Solitude reigns, sans crowds and the modern trappings of society. Days are governed by the elements rather than clocks. Without maps or signs, hikers must trust instincts when forging routes through trackless tundra dotted with cotton grass. Rivers present the only reliable pathways, though crossing the snaking waterways demands care when hopping between slippery stones.

Yet forging into this unknown elicits immense rewards. Herds of caribou roam freely, their calves wobbling behind them on spindly legs. Sparring grizzlies dig for tubers, bearded faces rising with dirt clumped on their snouts. Wolves survey endless landscapes, standing sentry upon ridgelines with tails held erect. And arctic foxes dart between dwarfed willows, their fur transitioning from summer brown to ghostly winter white.

Nothing stimulates the senses quite like 24 hours of summer daylight. With the midnight sun lingering atop the horizon, energy surges through the body until sleep becomes an afterthought. A nighttime hike reveals tundra shimmering under the gloaming, pools reflecting dusky skies as though mirroring a dreamscape. The world takes on a transcendent quality, blurring lines between reality and reverie.

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