Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, the Grand Canyon... The United States is famous for its national parks. The most well-known and, therefore, more frequently visited parks certainly inspire a sense of wonder and awe in all who visit them. But have you considered visiting one of these alternatives? From the highest peaks to the deepest lakes, here are a few off-the-beaten path national parks worth visiting.
Capital Reef National Park, Utah
Utah claims five of the very best national parks in the United States: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion. Dubbed "The Mighty Five," these natural masterpieces are popular for their red rock formations and epic trails. Of the five parks, Bryce Canyon is perhaps the most visited for its hoodoo-filled amphitheaters, followed next by nearby Zion and its stunning canyon and crimson monoliths. But the underdog of them all is undoubtedly Capitol Reef National Park, which preserves a 90-mile-long monocline (wrinkle in the Earth's crust) called the Waterpocket Fold. Less visited but no less stunning, this park is perfect for those who appreciate wild geological wonderlands without the crowds. Hundreds of miles of trails and backcountry roads extend through its expansive collection of cliffs, domes, canyons, and arches. There is even fascinating Native American and Mormon history to be found here. Don't skip out on Utah's "best-kept secret."
Classic Intro: Hiking Tour
Explore Capitol Reef National Park with a private guide. Some great hiking trail options include: Chimney Rock Loop, which follows the top of Mummy Cliff while passing close to Chimney Rock—a solitary pillar of Moenkopi sandstone; Cassidy Arch, named after Butch Cassidy and located within the western walls of Grand Wash; Hickman Bridge, an easy and scenic trail up to a large natural arch; and the incomparable Cathedral Valley with its columns of spire-like geological formations located in the northern part of the park.
Favorite Experience: Stargazing with an Astronomer
Some of the best dark skies in all of North America exist over Capitol Reef National Park. With an astronomer, peer through a powerful telescope to see the planets and moon up close. You can even witness hidden phenomena like double stars, nebulas, and neighboring galaxies here.
Don't Miss: Fruit Picking in Fruita
Just outside of Capitol Reef's tormented landscape resides a surprising abundance of groves and orchards. Originally established by the Mormon community, Fruita continues to nourish visitors during the summer fruit season. You'll find cherries in June, apricots in July, pears in August, and apples in September.
Where to Stay: Cougar Ridge Lodge
Situated on 42 acres at the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park, the suites and casitas of Cougar Ridge provide a scenic place to relax after a day of adventure in the park.
Utah is renowned for its slot canyons, and Capitol Reef plays host to many of them. Some can be explored on foot, while others require a knowledgeable guide who can help novice and experienced canyoneers alike navigate the climbing and rappelling involved in exploring these slot canyons, inside and out.
Denali National Park, Alaska
Denali is the highest peak in North America and one of the world's largest frontier wilderness adventure areas. (At six million acres, it's third in overall size only after two other Alaska national parks.) And while it is certainly not lesser known, it does take a bit more effort and enterprise to undertake its wonders. However, those who make the journey will find themselves in a veritable Narnia. Dall sheep meander on cliffs, caribou run in the fields, mama grizzlies nurse their cubs, and the mighty moose—Alaska's state animal—wander the terrain.
Classic Intro: Tundra Wilderness Drive
Instead of navigating the massive park on your own, consider getting an introductory lay of the land by vehicle with a private naturalist guide. They can provide you with a narrated history of the park and point out the resident wildlife along the way.
Favorite Experience: Hike and Paddle Day
Go rafting in the Denali with a professional river guide, who will lead you down your choice of Class I, II, III, or IV rapids. Then go hiking in the surrounding backcountry to identify the flora and fauna with a local Alaskan guide.
Don't Miss: The Train from Denali to Anchorage
Journey by luxury dome rail car—the only one of its kind—from Denali National Park to Anchorage. Large, panoramic windows allow for unrestricted views of the snaking Indian River and expansive Hurricane Gulch, while the private full-service dining car and bar ensure an indulgent experience.
Where to Stay: Tonglen Lake Lodge
This artistic and modern retreat near Denali National Park features both lodge and cabin accommodations, as well as all-inclusive meal service, an art gallery, custom hand-made log furniture, and a stunning lakeside location with views of the Alaska Range mountains.
Avid hikers especially love the unlimited backpacking opportunities found within Denali, but for a bit more fun, consider exploring the trails of Denali National Park by ATV. Ride at speeds up to 30 miles per hour, navigate through rocky creek beds, and stop at breathtaking 360° overlooks with views to the Alaska Range, Otto Lake, and the Healy Valley.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Olympic National Park is one of the most breathtaking corners of the country, and yet it remains one of the lesser visited. It's also one of the most diverse in terms of terrain. Within its boundaries resides three vastly different ecosystems: towering mountains, 60 miles of Pacific coastline, and old growth rainforests housing turquoise lakes, impressive waterfalls, and hidden hot springs. What's more, many Native American tribes continue to live along the Olympic Peninsula, just as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. Most of the interior of the park is only accessible by trail, but those willing to make the journey will find a beautiful unfolding of treasured and protected nature with delightful names like Ruby Beach and Enchanted Valley.
Classic Intro: Kayak on Lake Crescent
Often dubbed the "gem of the peninsula," the waters of glacial-carved Lake Crescent are ideal for a refreshing swim or getting out on a watercraft. A guided kayak trip is a great way to explore its formation, unique ecology, phantom forests, wildlife, Spruce Railroad tunnels, legends, and history.
Favorite Experience: Native-Style Salmon Bake
Meet with a family of the Jamestown Tribe for a traditional native salmon bake dinner and storytelling experience. Watch as a tribal member and her family prepare the fire and salmon for a special community meal. Following dinner, the family's elders will share their special stories with you.
Don't Miss: Rialto Beach
Rialto Beach is a rocky coastal area known for its pounding waves, giant drift logs, and offshore islands known as "sea-stacks." It also offers up unbelievably ethereal sunsets. Take some time with a local expert who will lead you through the beach's coastal tidepools, where you will find a mysterious world of marine life, from colorful anemones to curious crabs.
Stay At: A "Glamper" at Kalaloch
These oceanfront mobile dwellings offer unparalleled front row views of the Pacific Ocean and direct access to the beach. One of the more environmentally responsible options, glampers provide both exclusivity and privacy, making them a truly magical experience where lodging is typically very limited.
The Silence of Hoh Rainforest
The Hoh Rainforest is famous for its magical beauty: unbroken blankets of moss, nurse logs sprouting mini groves of trees, and an explosion of life can be found here. It is also part of the "One Square Inch" project, an initiative to keep the rainforest as free from human-created noise as possible, including air traffic. The Hoh Rainforest is therefore one of only a few places in the world where you can go 15-plus minutes without hearing man-made sound.
Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
It's hard to beat the showmanship of Old Faithful, but when comparing volcanic hot spots, there is nothing quite like feeling the heat of lava on your face at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Located on the Big Island, this stunning park protects the summits of two of the Earth's most active volcanoes: Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. In fact, Mauna Loa is the second largest volcano on the planet. Rising 30,000 feet from the bottom of the sea, it is actually taller than Mount Everest and bends the ocean floor under its impressive weight. In addition to its mighty massifs, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park also encompasses a range of unique geological, biological, and cultural landscapes and, as such, has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its wild, rocky, and volcanic terrain makes the Big Island a true adventure destination.
Classic Intro: Volcanic Drive and Hike
Drive down a road less traveled for private access to one of the Big Island's volcanoes with a private guide. Your guide will take you on several short hikes to get a closer look at the flora growing in the remains of lava fields.
Don't Miss: Sunset on Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea is an inactive volcano and the highest point in Hawai'i. Hike to its summit with a guide to see the dramatic landscape below. As the daylight fades, stay for the epic sunset and stargazing opportunities.
Best Thrill: Helicopter Flight
Witness the volcanoes by air on a special doors-off helicopter ride. Not only will you receive a bird's eye view of the Kona coffee districts, but you will also have a chance to soar past waterfalls, beaches, and craters to the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano and its impressive heat.
Where to Stay: Kona Village, a Rosewood Resort
First discovered by Polynesians around the year 1000 AD, Kona Village laid dormant for ten years and only recently reopened in the summer of 2023. Its location along the pristine shores of Kahuwai Bay on the Kona Coast paired with its warm Hawaiian culture make it the place to be on the Big Island.
Lava Tube with a Volcanologist
Follow a volcanologist into a private lava tube to fully immerse yourself in the terrain. She will enthusiastically share her many experiences with lava with you and can even set up a picnic outside the lava tube.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Crater Lake National Park is a stunning landscape centered around the deepest lake in the United States, which stands at a mesmerizing 2,000-feet-deep and 30 miles wide. One of the oldest national parks in the country and the only national park in the state of Oregon, Crater Lake is guaranteed to leave you breathless. Hike along the Cascade Mountain Range, swim in the pristine waters of the lake, go stargazing with an astronomer, witness thousands of salmon in the hatchery, or simply navigate the Rim Drive for heart-stopping panoramic views of the lake. The geological mysteries and ecological marvels of Crater Lake National Park are truly surprising and awe-inspiring.
Classic Intro: Cleetwood Cove Trail
Embark on a guided trek down the unique Cleetwood Cove Trail, the sole pathway leading to Crater Lake's edge. Dive into the shimmering crystal-clear waters in the summer for an invigorating swim or simply soak in the stunning surroundings over a delightful picnic lunch.
Don't Miss: Indigenous Storytelling
Set out along the lesser-known trails with an Indigenous guide who will share the rich history and significance of the area to the Klamath Tribes. This promises to spark a more intimate connection and deeper appreciation for the land.
Stay At: Running Y Ranch Resort
Situated at the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range in the Klamath Basin, this 3,600-acre resort offers 81 lavish rooms, a spa and wellness center, and an Arnold Palmer Signature Golf Course, the only "Sweet 16" course in the State of Oregon.
Best Thrill: Snowmobiling
Winter is truly special in Crater Lake National Park, as you essentially have the place all to yourself. Hop aboard a snowmobile for a ride up to the North Rim of the Crater. From here, you can explore the ungroomed wilderness trails by cross-country ski or snowshoe with a naturalist guide.
Umpqua Hot Springs
Set out on a waterfall and hot springs hike along the North Umpqua, also known as the “Highway of Waterfalls,” which runs through the Umpqua National Forest. Finally, arrive at Umpqua Hot Springs for a soak in its three-tiered hot pools located above the North Umpqua River.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park is by no means lesser known—it draws millions of visitors each year—but most don't realize how much it has to offer in the winter months, especially in terms of wildlife viewing. In fact, some five percent of visitors come in the winter, despite the concentration of animals. Luckily, the popularity of skiing in the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort area makes flight connectivity to the Grand Tetons even better from December through March. And while in the summer you will typically spend an entire jam-packed day out in the park, the winter affords visitors a much more leisurely pace, which is ideal for families. So, while the masses head to the ski slopes, opt instead for a crowd-less American safari through the snowy alpine terrain and frozen lakes of the Grand Tetons. If you have more time, consider taking advantage of the many winter wildlife viewing opportunities in nearby Yellowstone as well.
Classic Intro: Winter Wildlife Safari
Depart before sunrise (fortunately, at a later hour in the winter!) for wildlife viewing in Grand Teton National Park with an expert naturalist guide and animal spotter. Whether snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, follow their tracks through the snow-covered forest groves in search of the resident elk, bison, wolves, moose, eagles, and more. Stop along the way for a surprise gourmet lunch around the fire.
Favorite Experience: Sleigh Ride
Climb into a horse-drawn sleigh and take a ride through the National Elk Refuge, home to the world's largest elk herd. Listen to the sound of crunching snow beneath the horses' feet and encounter up-close the many thousands of herds of elk that make their home here for the winter. Additional winter residents include eagles, coyotes, foxes, bison, deer, trumpeter swans, and more.
Don't Miss: The National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole
The Museum’s permanent collection of more than 5,000 catalogued items includes paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by over 100 distinguished artists ranging from early Native American tribes through contemporary masters.
Best Thrill: Fat Bike Tour
Skiing might be the most popular pastime in Jackson Hole, but a Fat Bike tour through Grand Teton National Park offers a different kind of thrill. Journey along the roads less traveled in the park amid an incredible winter wonderland.
Four Seasons Jackson Hole
Four Seasons Jackson Hole features a collection of residential-style guest rooms and suites designed to bring the grandeur of the outdoors inside. The resort is an homage to mountain indulgence, boasting a nationally lauded and luxuriously appointed alpine spa, a trio of hot-spring-style outdoor Jacuzzis, and unique access to the majestic mountains, abundant wildlife, and pristine natural beauty of the Old West.
Ker & Downey can customize your National Parks tour to your preferences and avoid the crowds. Speak with one of our designers and tell them about your dream trip through some of America's most loved and under-the-radar national parks.
Mini Guide: The Grand Canyon
Skip the crowds and see what else the Grand Canyon has to offer in this mini guide to one of America's most beloved national parks.See the Mini Guide
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