The United States—a.k.a. the “Original Gangster of National Parks”—is home to 60 diverse and awe-inspiring parks. Domestic and international travelers mostly come for the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Great Smokies and Yellowstone … all of which justify their popularity.
But, there are many others that are equally majestic and less traveled. Case in point: Below are five relatively unfamiliar places you should consider visiting.
Second only to Alaska, Utah has more national parks per capita than any other state and even more red canyons. Zion, Bryce and Arches are all worthy of their red rock reputation.
But there is an equally deserving place sandwiched smack in between them, and it’s the biggest of the state’s “Mighty Five” National Parks. It’s also the least visited. Unlike its more prominent siblings, Canyonlands National Park (pictured above) is really three parks in one (Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze), all of which are best explored with a 4×4 vehicle.
Descending the frightening switchbacks of White Rim Road and then turning to behold the towering cliffs will leave you hypnotized. The scale of it all is utterly spellbinding. Also of note, the stunning Green River overlook.
Situated 70 miles east of Key West in the Florida Keys, Dry Tortugas National Park is accessible only by boat or plane, which explains the fewer than 60,000 visitors it received last year. The park’s centerpiece is Fort Jefferson, a gargantuan but unfinished hexagonal brick fortress surrounded by teal blue seas, mucho tropical life and well-rated coral reefs.
Popular activities include snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, kayaking, day trips and camping at this special combination of natural beauty and American history.
Located two hours east of Seattle on the Canadian border, the rugged and Swiss Alps-like North Cascades National Park features jagged mountains, breathtaking lakes and the most glaciers of any U.S. park outside of Alaska.
One European visitor, Tob Starr, recently remarked, in enthusiastic German: “Just unbelievable! I’m blown away! Top!” The rest of his five-star review is difficult to understand for non-native speakers, but it featured several more exclamation points. The best time to visit North Cascades National Park is from the middle of June through September.
Humans say profound too often. Few things from everyday life are as moving, bottomless and intense as the word implies. The oldest living thing in the world, on the other hand—a 5,000-year-old Bristlecone pine at Great Basin National Park, for instance—is precisely that. So too is entering Lehman Caves or taking in soaring Wheeler Peak from the basin floor at one of the nation’s least visited parks. That’s what makes this landscape profound.
If it’s so good, then how come more people don’t visit it? It’s not for lack of beauty. On the contrary, it’s because Great Basin is four hours removed from either Las Vegas or Salt Lake City. That’s code for road less traveled.
You’ve seen white, gray, brown and red canyons. But have you ever seen black? Like something out of Tolkien’s Mordor, Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is not as well known as other area parks, but it’s just as humbling.
It’s also huge. Stack the Empire State Building atop the Sears Tower, and you’d still be two stories short of the canyon rim from the river bottom. With an average visitor rating of 4.8 out of 5 stars, which is better than some of the nation’s more iconic parks, it’s a lesser-known gem best seen up close.
Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Contact Blake and follow him on Twitter.