Nature in All Its Glory

Happy 104th, National Parks Service! These 15 Lesser-Known Gems Are Closer Than You Think

by Daniel Schwartz
Great America, the stunning. Photo courtesy of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

For information about Covid-19 safety protocols as well as info openings and access, check the NPS Public Health Update while planning your trip.

The National Park Service turned 104 years old this year, marking more than a century of protecting and promoting the priceless natural beauty of the United States. From sea to shining sea, we're blowing out the candles to honor the parks and preserves from Acadia to Yosemite, with stops at Big Bend and Grand Canyon along the way.

We love them all, but we want to highlight lesser-known gems that may be closer to you than you think. Many of us are hitting the road this summer, going as far as our four wheels can carry us. And we all want to get into the big, open wild, which feels like the safest place to be. Hop to it. There's a national park near you.

Photo courtesy of Channel Islands National Park.

Channel Islands National Park

Close to: Los Angeles, California
Don't miss: Even by Californian standards, these five pristine islands off the coast of Los Angeles shine for their natural beauty and rich populations of birds, seals, and whales, making a water sport weekend an enticing prospect for urbanites.

Photo courtesy of Congaree National Park.

Congaree National Park

Close to: Charleston, South Carolina
Don't miss: It's a pleasant surprise to find a national park near one of the most charming cities in the American South, especially one with swamp trails, top-notch bird watching, and some of the tallest trees on the East Coast.

Photo by Christoph Strässler / Flickr.

Katmai National Park and Preserve

Close to: Anchorage, Alaska 
Don’t miss: The the size of a small country, the park is widely regarded as the world's best place to watch brown bears, who make appearances near Brooks Camp to snack on sockeye salmon. From there, visitors can hitch rides to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, a crater carved out after the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.

Photo by NCinDC / Flickr.

Rock Creek Park

From: Washington, D.C. 
Don’t miss: Washingtonians may not know this, but Shenandoah isn’t the only national park nearby. The oldest and largest urban park in the national system is ten minutes north of the Potomac.

Photo courtesy of North Cascades National Park Complex.

North Cascades National Park Complex

Close to: Seattle, Washington
Don't miss: Though most popular with off-roaders, casual naturalists can drive through to Ross Lake National Recreation Area for camping and picnicking. Those who wander deeper into the wilderness will find the highest number of glaciers outside Alaska.

Photo courtesy of Mammoth Cave National Park.

Mammoth Cave National Park

Close to: Louisville, Kentucky
Don't miss: The chance to take an excursion into the dark underbelly of Kentucky's hill country, preferably on a Wild Tour, where guides take hardy but nimble travelers deep into the crevices of the world’s longest cave system.

Photo courtesy of LassenNPS.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Close to: San Francisco, California
Don't miss: The smaller version of Yellowstone has ample snow for winter sports through July, hiking routes within hydrothermal areas, and the world's largest plug dome volcano. And it's all just four hours from the Bay Area.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Big Thicket National Preserve

Close to: Houston, Texas 
Don't miss: Though not as visually arresting as Big Bend, Big Thicket has plenty going on under its brush — the densely forested preserve is one of the world's most biodiverse areas outside the tropics.

Photo courtesy of Petrified Forest National Park.

Petrified Forest National Park

Close to: Phoenix, Arizona 
Don't miss: The park's famous wooden fossils have essentially been turned to crystal after millions of years of petrification. Also of note is the Painted Desert, a treat for the eyes due to its pigment-rich sediments.

Photo courtesy of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Close to: Cleveland, Ohio (and not far from Detroit, Michigan)
Don’t miss: There's boating, bird watching, and biking on Towpath Trail, an old portion of the Ohio and Erie Canal, though perhaps the best pastime here is appreciating the natural and geological diversity of the park, which is sandwiched between the urban sprawl of Cleveland and Akron.

Photo by Daveynin / Flickr.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Close to: Salt Lake City, Utah
Don't miss: The state's smallest and least-trafficked national park is worth the weekend camping trip, if only for the opportunity to marvel at hoodoos, skinny rock spires that prove erosion has a sense of humor.

Photo by Photommo / Flickr.

Haleakalā National Park

Close to: Maui, Hawaii 
Don't miss: Visitors can drive straight to Haleakalā Crater, the summit of the park's namesake volcano, to watch the sun rise and fall, while hikers can do both from the comfort of one of three cabins within the crater. On the other side of the park, a bamboo forest, tropical flora and fauna, and seaside vistas are a lush change of scene.

Photo courtesy of Biscayne National Park.

Biscayne National Park

From: Miami, Florida
Don’t miss: Across the bay from South Beach, there are more adventurous ways of staying cool — kayaking past mangrove forests, searching by scuba for shipwrecks, and snorkeling over one of the largest tracks of coral in the world.

Photo courtesy of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Close to: Denver, Colorado
Don't miss: What looks like a scene from Arabian Knights are actually the tallest sand dunes in North America. Sand boarding options and a creek flowing at its base make this the closest Colorado will ever get to having a beach.

Photo by Bennett Stowe / Flickr.

Hot Springs National Park

Close to: Memphis, Tennessee
Don't miss: The oldest preserved park in the country is a hot spring that flows from Hot Springs Mountain outside the Arkansas city of Hot Springs. Visitors can test the water's medicinal effects in town on Bathhouse Row, a boulevard of grand bathhouses including some from the Guilded Age.