Today is the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. Over the past century, the NPS has worked to protect millions of acres of the United States’ untainted natural beauty. Today, visitors have the option to explore 407 diverse parks across the country. This started with two of the most visited national parks in history: Yellowstone and Yosemite. While these have their glory, many parks stay untouched and get only a fraction of the visitors. Here are five under-the-radar national parks worth exploring to celebrate the NPS’ 100th birthday this month.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist with a small budget and a big appetite for the world—follow her travels here.
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1. Mammoth Cave National Park, Bowling Green, Kentucky
This underground national park rightfully earns its name with over 400 miles of caves-- the longest system known to man--and that's just what they've found so far. People have been exploring the area for over 4,000 years, starting with Native Americans who left behind ancient artifacts like moccasins and pottery. Scientists even say these prehistoric miners searched miles of the caves for useful minerals to take home. Today, you can tour the same caves and over 70 miles of nature trails on the property. Companies hold a range of tours, anywhere from kid-friendly expeditions to adrenaline-pumping extreme caving. Whichever you decide, make sure to book in advance to guarantee a spot. The calm Green River runs above ground here and can be explored via canoe or kayak.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia/Daniel Schwen CC BY-SA
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2. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Speaking of giant, this national park covers a total of 77,180 acres. Although the name might be tricky, there are at least 90 basins in the park and about 65 miles of trails. The most popular trail leads to Wheeler Peak, Nevada's second highest mountain. If you decide to trek the 13,000 foot summit, expect to be rewarded with views of the park's incredible glacier and 5,000 year old bristlecone pine trees. If you'd prefer to skip the nine mile hike, there are also caves at the base of the peak that you can tour for just $10 through the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. In addition, the park is known for being home to some of the best stars in North America, due to how dark the night sky is.
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3. Big Bend National Park, Texas
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and well, Big Bend is no exception to that rule. This national park is bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island and houses part of the Rio Grande. As the only mountains in the Lone Star State, the rocky Chisos are cut by canyons with still water and offer unlimited trails of day hiking and overnight backpacking. If you're worried about the desert heat, you can hire a guide to hike with or even take a half-day trip down the mighty river. Some of the other highlights to the park are huge tropical butterfly and bird populations, as well as natural hot springs that you can swim in.
Photo by faungg's photos/Flickr CC BY-ND
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4. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
If you're looking for the ultimate idea of privacy, look no further. Isle Royale is a protected island in Lake Superior that sits right between Canada and the U.S. You'll have to take at least an hour's long boat ride from either Minnesota or Michigan, but this secluded national park has less visitors per year than Yellowstone does in one day. Once you get there, you'll be able to backpack the entire island, a total of 40 miles, in 4-6 days and camp at campgrounds that are located 2 to 12 miles apart. The isolated retreat also offers activities like fishing and scuba diving to multiple major shipwreck sites (for licensed SCUBA divers). If you don't feel like roughin' it all the way, the island has a lodge and private cottages, but these can get pricey averaging around $260 a night.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia/Ray Dumas CC BY-SA
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5. Valley Forge National Park, Pennsylvania
Most people know the name and probably remember something about this place and George Washington. To refresh your memory from second grade, Valley Forge was the infamous winter camp of Washington's Army that got us through the winter of 1777. Today, the park has almost 20 miles of trails of flat terrain that locals often visit for an easy day's hike or run. Bikes are available to rent for about $25 a day or $15 an hour, complete with a five-mile tour of the park's best sites, including the U.S. National Memorial Arch. About 45 minutes outside of Philly, this perfect day trip is a great alternative for those who don't want to commit days in the wild.
Photo courtesy of Jonathan/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND