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The Most Underrated National Parks and What to Do When You Visit Them

Looking out over the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Written by Chris Osburn

This blog post was updated on August 21, 2019.

There are 58 national parks in the United States. Some are of course far more popular than others, but we firmly believe they are all well worth experiencing. While the best-known parks — such as the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, and Yosemite — see visitor numbers swell year after year, many underrated and less frequented parks are often virtually empty or at least nowhere near as crowded as their more famous counterparts.

Here’s our look at 10 of the best national parks that are least appreciated, with reasons why you shouldn’t overlook them when booking round trip flights to your next outdoor adventure.

Assateague Island National Seashore

Wild Pony (Equus caballus) at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland

Situated off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia and left largely wild, Assateague Island National Seashore is the biggest natural barrier island ecosystem in the Middle Atlantic states region. Within a three-hour drive of Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Richmond, and Wilmington, this 37-mile long island never sees droves of tourists even during holidays or summer vacation months. A thrill for many visiting Assateague is the chance to see the bands of feral horses that roam there freely.

Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail

This 175-mile corridor and trail network runs along the west coast of the Big Island of Hawaii through ancient Hawaiian settlement sites and sacred spaces as well as four other national parks on the island: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, and Pu’ukohola National Historic Site. Most of the hiking along this historic trail is easy and accessible. All parts of it offer stunning views and opportunities to discover Hawaii’s unique history in the midst of natural beauty right beside the mighty Pacific Ocean.

Ready for your next outdoor getaway? Check out these cheap round trip flights that can help you get there for less!

Biscayne National Park

Boca Chita Key Campground in Biscayne National Park in Florida, United States

Just south of bustling Miami, Florida, is Biscayne National Park. A network of small islands of mangrove forest, offshore barrier reefs, and the surround Biscayne Bay, it’s not surprising that 95% of this park is actually water. The park is a dream for anyone who loves to scuba dive or snorkel and boasts some of the best conditions for diving in the lower 48 states. Marine life abounds here…and so do shipwrecks. There are more than 40 documented wrecks, some of which date back to the 16th century and are accessible to even novice snorkelers. Despite being so close to metropolitan Miami, visitors should have plenty of elbow room whenever they go — especially if they’re there to get in or on the water!

Bering Land Bridge National Preserve

One of America’s most remote national parks, Bering Land Bridge National Preserve is in western Alaska, stretching across a vast swathe of the Seward Peninsula to the Bering Strait. The park is named after and protects a remnant of the Bering Land Bridge that once connected Asia with North America more than 13,000 years ago during the Pleistocene ice age, allowing humans and animals to pass from one continent to the other. No roads lead to this 2.7 million-acre national preserve. So if you can get to it, odds are you’ll have it largely to yourself, with loads of time to take in the otherworldly scenery and amazing wildlife, which includes brown bears, caribou, musk oxen, moose, wolverines, walruses, and a variety of whales. You can even take a dip at Serpentine Hot Springs at the end of the day to unwind in true rugged Alaskan style.

Congaree National Park

Boardwalk At Congaree National Park

Folks who say swamps are ugly have clearly never been to Congaree National Park in South Carolina! A short drive from Columbia, it’s the state’s only national park. This wetland wilderness area is comprised of large hardwood forest filled with some of the tallest trees on the east coast with the Congaree River and its creeks and streams winding through it. The park is an ideal destination for hikers, paddlers, and fishing enthusiasts.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park spans from the south of Cleveland to just north of Akron. It features several waterfalls, including the 230-foot Brandywine Falls, with lots of well maintained trails to explore. There’s even a restored section of the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath that you can walk, while the Canal Exploration Center is a great stop to learn more about the history of the 19th century waterway.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

In the Gulf of Mexico, about 70 miles from Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is a series of seven islands and protected coral reefs. Accessible only by daily concession ferry, private and chartered boats, or seaplane, it makes even the laidback Florida Keys seems hectic. Come here for crystal clear waters, amazing dive and snorkeling sites, fascinating American history, and an away-from-it-all feeling.

Isle Royale National Park

A remote cluster of islands in Lake Superior, Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park is home to dense forest, wolves, moose, beavers, and little else. Closed for winter (and the only national park to do so), Isle Royale sees fewer yearly visitors than Yellowstone attracts on an average day. For solitude and a real chance to reconnect with mother nature, this Great Lakes destination is a great choice!

National Park of American Samoa

National Park of American Samoa, Tutuila island, American Samoa, South Pacific

Yep, American Samoa is a territory of the United States, and it’s even got its own national park. For a tropical paradise with a South Pacific backdrop featuring swaying palm trees and towering volcanoes as well as plenty of blue water to frolic in, this park ticks all the boxes! Traditional Samoan ways of life are preserved here at the only national park situated south of the equator. The 9,000-acre coastal park is a protected habitat for a range of birds, fruit bats, and coral reefs. Need to get off the beaten path and back on track with the important things in life? The National Park of American Samoa — and indeed the entire island of America Samoa — might be just the place for you.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

This park in the badlands of North Dakota is named for President Theodore Roosevelt, the man who established the United States Forest Service and signed into law the creation of America’s first five national parks. Perhaps it was his time spent in this area that inspired him to create the National Park Service. It was in the badlands in the 1880s where Roosevelt discovered the “perfect freedom” of the west while hunting for bison, and you can experience some of that freedom when you book round trip flights to North Dakota to spend some contemplative time at the park. It’s an excellent destination for scenic driving, hiking, and horseback riding, with plenty of opportunities to see bison, elk, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and golden eagles in their natural habitat.

Do you have a favorite national park or know of another wonderfully overlooked spot of natural beauty? Would you be willing to divulge its whereabouts?

About the author

Chris Osburn

Chris Osburn is a freelance writer, photographer, consultant, and curator and the driving force behind the long running and award winning blog, Originally from the American Deep South, Chris has lived and worked all over the world and has called London home since 2001.

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