Lesser Known U.S. Parks Well Worth the Trip

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Planning a vacation that’s truly unique doesn’t always have to mean scouring the house for your passport–sometimes traveling within our own country’s borders can be the trip of a lifetime. Our nation’s park system has some truly out-of-the-ordinary activities that every travel buff should experience. Most Americans make it a point to try their hand at hiking the Grand Canyon, trekking through Yosemite or exploring the geysers of Yellowstone at least once in their lifetimes. The big-name parks are breathtaking, yes; but they’re not the only ones worth exploring.

The National Park Service boasts a park system composed of 405 different areas that cover more than 84 million acres across every state and territory. So if you’re itching for some adventure, take a page from Robert Frost and consider the road less traveled by trying out one of these national park areas. Most of them you may have never before heard of, but that doesn’t make them any less worth the trip.

The Midwest
What better way to explore America’s wildlife than by trekking through it? At Isle Royale National Park, located on a remote island on Lake Superior, you can hike, kayak, canoe and even scuba dive alongside the animals and reconnect with Mother Earth. The plus side? There aren’t any bears–but there are wolves and moose, so don’t let your guard down completely. It’s one of the most isolated parks in the system, so it’s not for the faint of heart, but a trip here can be a very spiritual experience.

The Rockies
Who says you need snow to go sledding? At Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado, you don’t. One of the more popular activities here is sand boarding and sledding down the sand dunes of the park. There are also bison tours, educational programs and more throughout the year.
If you loved the Grand Canyon but want a new experience, Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah is a comparable option. It’s part of what is known as the Grand Staircase, a geological region that includes Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. Bryce Canyon holds an annual festival, GeoFest, on the third weekend in July. At the festival you can take part in geology bus tours, family-friendly activities, cave hikes and more as a great way to spend time with the family and learn more about the natural world.

The Southwest
Astronomy lovers, rejoice! The Great Basin National Park in Nevada is the perfect park for stargazing, and it offers great family-friendly activities. The astronomy program, held on Saturdays in April and May, is a chance to view one of the darkest areas of sky in the country on a ranger-led viewing with telescopes provided by the park. There’s also a monthly themed train ride called Star Train that explores the park at night in greater depth, with trivia and prizes throughout the ride.

If you’re so inclined, you can get up close and personal with creatures of the night at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. Every evening during the summer season, Mexican free-tailed bats can be seen leaving in large groups from the caves in search of insects to eat for “breakfast.” Early risers can experience the bat flight as well; the bats return just before dawn and make impressive dives into the caves from up to hundreds of feet in the air. The park even offers a chance to dine with the nocturnal noshers at an early-morning Bat Flight Breakfast in July.

The Southeast
On the other side of the country, Mammoth Cave National Park offers another chance for caving. Located in Kentucky, this cave system is the world’s longest, with more than 400 miles already explored. The park offers horseback riding, ranger-led programs, hiking trails and more, but spelunking is what it’s known for.

If you don’t want to sacrifice your only chance to escape to warmer climates, Dry Tortugas National Park–just off the coast of Florida and 70 miles west of Key West–is a great option. It’s known for being a popular gathering spot for migratory birds in the spring, so birdwatching is among its most popular activities. You can only get there by boat or seaplane, though, so take care to plan accordingly.

The Tropics
If you’re particularly adventurous, the National Park of American Samoa is another tropical option. Located in Oceania, the island group in the South Pacific Ocean, this U.S. territory has a national park that spans three islands and contains a rainforest and coral reef among its many other attractions. The park even has a homestay program, matching visitors with local families for a truly immersive experience.

There are so many parks in the national system; there’s one to meet even the wildest of expectations. National parks are great places to get in touch with another side of yourself that you may have never known existed, and with so many to choose from, your dream vacation might be closer than you think.

Sources: cia.gov, esquire.com and nps.gov.