Authored by Megan Johnson
National Parks are often quoted as America’s best idea – in 1872 Yellowstone became the first national park to ever exist, and its protected status sparked an idea that spread across the country, and then across the world.
In 1916 the National Parks System was born, and since then, the US has declared 58 areas of natural wilderness to be a protected national park.
Destinations Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite are world famous, and draw enormous crowds from all corners of the globe, though there are many parks that fly under the radar, that even Americans overlook.
Hot Springs National Park – Arkansas
Hot Springs National Park is different than any other park you will visit. There is no entrance where you pay because the town of Hot Springs forms part of the park. The historic bathhouses have been turned into a gallery, a brewery, a gift shop, and a visitor’s center, which is sort of like a little freezing cold museum.
Water is what first attracted people to this region, and they have been coming here ever since to use these soothing thermal waters to heal and relax. Rich and poor alike came for the baths, and a thriving city built up around the hot springs.
Though nature lovers should fear not, as there are tons of hiking trails in the mountains and hills surrounding the town. Goat Rock Trail is one of the most popular and can be combined with Gulpha Gorge.
Capitol Reef National Park – Utah
As part of Utah’s Mighty 5, you would think more people would visit Capitol Reef National Park, but most skip over it for the more well known parks. In fact, I overlooked it myself on two Southwest US road trips, finally visiting when I found myself living a mere 2 hours away. And I ended up going back five or six times.
Located in south-central Utah in the heart of red rock country, this park is a hidden treasure filled with cliffs, canyons, domes and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold (a geologic wrinkle on the earth which extends almost 100 miles).
And there’s something here for everybody. You can overlook the park at Hickman Bridge, pick fruit in one of the orchards (if it’s the right season), drive through Capitol Gorge, search for petroglyphs, adore the wildlife, and be awed by the Goosenecks. And this is just in the north part of the park.
If you want even less visited areas, brave the rough Notom Road and check out the Waterpocket Fold and some cool canyons on the other side of the reef.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison – Colorado
Big enough to be overwhelming, still intimate enough to feel the pulse of time, Black Canyon of the Gunnison exposes you to some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock, and craggiest spires in North America. With two million years to work, the Gunnison River, along with the forces of weathering, has sculpted this vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky.
I hadn’t even heard of this until we were planning out drive to Florida and needed somewhere to stop to break up the drive. The south rim is more popular than the north, but the drive between them is phenomenal and I would highly advise you make it if you have the time. There are hiking trails along the south rim and there is also a very steep road to take you into the canyon itself, right down to the river flowing through the bottom.
One piece of advice, put in the park visitors center or it may take you down to the river and you’ll be in the totally wrong place. I would also highly recommend visiting at sunset. The way the sun shines on the canyon rock is fantastic and I could have taken a thousand more pictures of the same thing if it wasn’t so cold.
Great Sand Dunes National Park – Colorado
Great Sand Dunes in Colorado is such a cool park. Home to the tallest dunes in North America, these are the centerpiece in a diverse landscape of grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes, and tundra. And you can experience this diversity through hiking, sand sledding, splashing in Medano Creek, wildlife watching, and more!
Climbing the dunes was much harder than I anticipated, but you’ll have a blast. You can rent sand board in town to go sand sledding or sand boarding after having climbed up. The highest dune, of course with the best views, is over 700 feet tall. This is a really great leg workout!
I would recommend sunglasses to keep the sand out of your eyes, and that you bundle up if traveling in the late fall and winter; it gets pretty cold, especially with the wind.
OUTDOOR GEAR WE RECOMMEND: CLICK PHOTO ↓
INSPIRED?! PIN THIS TO YOUR TRAVEL PINTEREST BOARDS ↓