Places like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon may get all the attention, but don’t overlook these less popular (but just as spectacular) national parks.
While just about everyone would love to see Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, you rarely see places like Congaree, Channel Islands, and Isle Royale on people’s bucket lists. But savvy travelers know that these less popular national parks offer equally exciting outdoor opportunities—and much smaller crowds. So don’t limit yourself to the big-name destinations. Check out these top “secret” national parks in the U.S. and Europe.
Channel Islands, California
Millions of people visit Los Angeles every year, but fewer than 30,000 make it to a largely unknown national park that’s less than 15 miles off the Pacific coast. Five islands make up Channel Islands National Park, which is accessible via a one-hour boat ride from the city of Ventura that’s is just north of Los Angeles. The park is a prime viewing area for the gray whale migration in winter. Other popular activities include camping, scuba diving, kayaking, and simply reveling in the solitude that’s otherwise hard to find in SoCal. http://www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm
Congaree, South Carolina
Congaree is not a line dance or a Gloria Estefan song, but rather one of the most underrated destinations in America. Established in 2003, the Hopkins, South Carolina national park has a terrain that you can envision as a mix between the Smoky Mountains and the Everglades. Visitors come to hike through dense forests and canoe in vast swamps, looking out for alligators, turtles, deer, turkeys, and coyotes. Congaree park rangers even provide a limited number of free canoe tours throughout the year. http://www.nps.gov/cong/index.htm
Gates of the Arctic, Alaska
No fewer than eight national parks can be found in Alaska. While some, like Glacier Bay and Denali, are tourist attractions, Gates of the Arctic has only 10,000 annual visitors (a paltry total by national park standards)—despite being larger in size than the entire country of Belgium! Situated north of the Arctic Circle in the North Slope region, the park can be reached only by airplane. Those who make the trip find a remote, mountainous wilderness teeming with moose, brown and black bears, wolves, and Dall sheep. http://www.nps.gov/gaar/index.htm
Isle Royale, Michigan
Like Minnesota’s Voyageur National Park, Michigan’s Isle Royale sits in the far north of the state along the Canadian border. It consists of about 400 islands in Lake Superior. When the park is open from April through October, you can reach the main island by boat or plane. Because of the effort involved in getting there, you’ll probably want to bring your backpack and camp there for a few days. And keep your eyes peeled: You may even catch a glimpse of moose or wolves, which live in relative isolation there. http://www.nps.gov/isro/index.htm
Our choice for the best European secret national park is Scotland’s Cairngorms. The park is actually the largest in the U.K., but its annual visitor total is among the smallest. Those who stay away are missing a variety of landscapes within the park, including glaciers and pine forests. The diverse environment results in a wide range of activities, such as climbing, skiing, biking, and wildlife-watching. And if you have dreamed of spotting the Loch Ness Monster, the park is less than an hour’s drive from the infamous freshwater lake Loch Ness. http://cairngorms.co.uk
What is your favorite national park? Tell us in a comment below.
Scott Shetler is a freelance journalist and frequent traveler who enjoys national parks, urban nightlife, and everything in between. He blogs about his adventures at http://quirkytravelguy.com.