Our “other” national parks: away from the crowds and ripe for discovery, lesser known sanctuaries provide scenic beauty and plenty of elbow room
Cascading waterfalls, towering peaks, wilderness areas filled with exotic flora and fauna all enveloped in colors ranging from pastel to outrageous. What’s not to like? Our national parks are perhaps our most valued and visited treasures, and every year millions of vacationers drive, hike, boat, or bike through them.
While the better known parks are spectacular and have earned their popularity, I prefer the less traveled and unique. There is something eerily intriguing about Arizona’s Petrified Forest with its gently hued sand and sparkling rock-like logs. Mystery hangs over Colorado’s Mesa Verde, where abandoned cliff dwellings give no clue as to why their occupants disappeared 700 years ago. And animals? On our way to California’s Channel Islands one afternoon our boat was surrounded by frolicking dolphins.
So, to avoid the crowds and still see some of America’s most impressive natural beauty, take the road less traveled.
Everyone knows Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon, but here are some national parks we sometimes overlook:
Gates of Arctic National Park, P.O. Box 26030, Bettles, AK 99726; (907) 692-5494; www.gates.of.the.arctic.national-park.com. This is one of the most remote parks and gets fewer than 7,000 visitors a year. An 8.4-million-acre wilderness area above the Arctic Circle, it straddles the Arctic Divide in the Brooks Range, 200 miles west of Fairbanks.
Petrified Forest National Park, P.O. Box 2217, Petrified Forest National Park, AZ 86028-2217; (928) 524-6228; www.petrified.forest.national-park.com. Part of the Painted Desert, this park is named for the ancient logs which, covered in mineral deposits 20 million years ago, have crystallized and now lie strewn around the area.
Saguaro National Park, 3693 South Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, AZ 85730-5601; (520) 733-5100; www.saguaro. national-park.com. Named for the whimsical-looking saguaro cactus with its arms and human-like stance, the park is part of the great Sonoran Desert. This desert surpasses other deserts in lushness and variety of life, despite its heat and dryness.
Hot Springs National Park, P.O. Box 1860, Hot Springs, AR 71902-2701; (501) 624-2701; www.nps.gov/hosp. This is the only national park known primarily for its thermal activity. Visitors can enjoy thermal water bathing in hot springs that have soothed bathers for as many as 10,000 years.
Channel Islands National Park, 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, CA 93001-4354; (805) 658-5700; www.channel.islands. national-park.com. To get to this park, you’ll need a small plane or a boat, as it is comprised of five islands and their surrounding one nautical mile of ocean. The area is home to marine life ranging from microscopic plankton to the blue whale.
Death Valley National Park, Death Valley, CA 92328; (760) 786-2331; www.death. valley.national-park.com. The hottest spot in America, much of the valley is below sea level, hence acres of crusty salt flats as well as sand dunes and stunning rock formations. Though the area receives minimal rainfall, there are 900 kinds of plants in the park.
Mesa Verde National Park, P.O. Box 8, CO 81330-0008; (970) 529-4465; www.mesa-verde.national-park.com. What makes this park unique are the spectacular remains of a 1,000-year-old ancestral pueblo culture. Tucked into sheltered recesses of the canyon walls are clusters of square structures that made up villages abandoned at least 700 years ago.
Dry Tortugas National Park, P.O. Box 6208, Key West, FL 33041-6208; (305) 242-7700; www.dry.tortugas.national-park. com. This park consists of seven coral reefs about 70 miles west of Key West. These reefs and surrounding shoals and waters are known for a wide variety of bird and marine life and for colorful legends of pirates and sunken treasure.
Everglades National Park, 40001 State Road 9336, Homestead, FL 33034-6733; (305) 242-7700; www.everglades.national-park.com A 1.5-million-acre marsh, the Everglades is home to a rich mixture of plants and animals, but encroaching civilization is a constant threat to the park’s delicate ecological balance.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, P.O. Box 52, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI 96718-0052; (808) 985-6000; www.hawaii.volcanoes.national-park.com. Though this park has its share of lush vegetation, what sets it apart are the areas devastated by eruptions of the Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes. Stark moon-like landscapes have been created by the destructive lava flows and pumice.
Acadia National Park, P.O. Box 177, Bar Harbor, ME 04609-0177; (207) 288-3338; www.acadia.national-park.com. Occupying more than 50 square miles of rock-based Mount Desert Island, Acadia offers an unusual combination of ocean and mountain scenery. Great granite peaks rise from the sea, and there are miles of vehicle-free roads and trails to explore.
Isle Royale National Park, 800 East Lakeshore Drive, Houghton, MI 49931-1895; (906) 482-0984; www. isle.royale.national-park.com. A wilderness island on Lake Superior’s northwest corner, this park is reached by boat or float plane. The scant 17,000 visitors per year enjoy 165 miles of foot trails through unspoiled forest and around numerous inland lakes.
Voyageurs National Park, 3131 Highway 53, International Falls, MN 56649-8904; (218) 283-9821; www. voyageurs.national-park.com. Boating, from kayaks to houseboats, is where it’s at in this park where 30 lakes fill glacier-carved rock basins. Wildlife includes beavers, moose, timberwolves, and whitetail deer.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, HC 60, P.O. Box 400, Salt Flat, TX 79847; (915) 828-3251; www.guadalupe.mountains.national-park.com. The biggest draw in this park are the mountains themselves. Part of one of the finest examples of an ancient marine fossil reef, they were formed about 250 million years ago when a vast tropical ocean covered this region.
Capitol Reef National Park, P.O. Box 15, Torrey, UT 84775; (435) 425-3791; www.capitol.reef.national-park.com. All five of Utah’s national parks (Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef) are filled with striking rock formations. What makes this park different is that it is less trafficked than the better known ones, having one-third as many visitors as Bryce Canyon.
North Cascades National Park, 810 State Route 20, Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284-1239; (360) 856-5700; www. north.cascades.national-park.com. For dramatic scenery, this 505,000-acre park is at the top of the list, with high jagged peaks, ridges, valleys, countless waterfalls, and 318 glaciers. The most rugged and remote of Washington’s national parks, it has the fewest roads and visitors.
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