While COVID-19 may have derailed the epic globe-trotting adventures you had planned this summer, there’s no harm in dreaming about your next getaway. But before you consider boarding a long-haul flight to some far-flung destination, don’t forget about all the unique national parks just waiting to be explored right here in the U.S.
Our country boasts countless natural wonders, diverse landscapes, and some of the most majestic places on the planet. Thankfully, many of them are protected by the National Park Service, attracting millions of visitors each year. Today, there are 62 areas that are designated as national parks. Heavy hitters like Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, and Zion tend to draw the biggest crowds. However, there are plenty of unique national parks that may not see as much foot traffic, but still pack an impressive punch.
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Today, we’re taking a closer look at some of those that deserve a bit more recognition. Every selection is unique and proves you don’t need to travel halfway across the world to witness truly awe-inspiring sites. From quiet coastal escapes to rugged mountainous retreats, each park below is sure to stoke your wanderlust.
Disclaimer: People planning travel of any kind should visit the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization for the most current COVID-19 alerts and updates. Be sure to also review any travel advisories related to the destination(s) you’re planning to visit and keep yourself and others safe by wearing a face covering, practicing social distancing, and bringing the appropriate food, drinks, and other supplies when possible. Also be aware of states like Oregon and California that are currently undergoing widespread wildfires.
Channel Islands National Park, California
Those who enjoy the journey as much as the destination itself will want to explore the glories of Channel Islands National Park. Located just off California’s Central Coast, the park spans five distinct islands: Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel. Sometimes referred to as “the Galapagos of North America,” the Channel Islands are only accessible by boat or plane. Isolation from the mainland has allowed evolution to take its natural course, and the islands are home to more than 2,000 plant and animal species (of which, 145 are found nowhere else on Earth). Once on the ground, visitors can spend their days fishing, diving, and surfing before setting up camp for the night. While each season offers its own perks, schedule a trip between December and March to spot grey whales, or during the summer months for blue and humpback whale sightings.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
The gobsmacking views of White Sands National Park are sure to leave any visitor speechless. Rising from the heart of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin along U.S. Route 70, the park encompasses 275 miles of desert. It’s the largest gypsum dunefield in the world, creating an otherworldly scene where undulating waves of gleaming white sand stretch as far as the eye can see. The park is just a 20-minute drive from Alamogordo, New Mexico, and makes for a once-in-a-lifetime road trip. Intrepid visitors can venture through the dunes by hiking, cycling, driving, sledding, or horseback riding. White Sands is also the newest addition to the country’s collection of national parks, earning its official designation in December 2019.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
If you’ve ever dreamt of exploring the planet’s longest-known cave system, then pack your bags and head to Kentucky. Situated in the middle of the Bluegrass State, the Mammoth Cave National Park was first established in 1941, recognized as a World Heritage Site in 1981, and became an international Biosphere Reserve in 1990. The Green River runs through the 52,830-acre park, which is marked by brilliant rolling hills, plunging valleys, and, of course, an expansive network of limestone and sandstone caves. Visitors can join in on a ranger-led cave tour, but try to make a reservation in advance, as they tend to sell out quickly. Anyone who prefers to spend their time above ground can explore the park by kayak or canoe; trek along 80 miles of nature trails; or kick back at one of the park’s 13 campsites.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Today, Teddy Roosevelt is remembered for his remarkable conservationism and dedication to preserving America’s natural resources. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is named in honor of the former U.S. president, and is the only American national park named directly after a single person. When it comes to wildlife watching, more popular parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite tend to steal all the thunder. But don’t overlook this gem, which covers more than 70,000 acres across three geographically separated areas of badlands: the North Unit, South Unit, and Elkhorn Ranch Unit. From its magical crags to its windswept prairies, visitors can come across wild mustangs, herds of bison, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, cougars, and more. The park also transforms into a winter wonderland, offering cross-country skiing and snowshoeing across ungroomed trails.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
It’s easy to maintain social distancing guidelines at Isle Royale National Park, considering it’s one of the country’s least-visited national parks. But the lack of visitation shouldn’t raise a red flag. The remote island is located in the middle of Michigan’s Lake Superior and can only be reached by boat or seaplane. Isle Royale Seaplanes offers overnight or day trips to the park, as does a ferry that operates regularly. The rugged retreat provides a tranquil getaway that seems worlds away from nearby city life. Its scenic landscapes change with the seasons, but the best time to visit is during the fall when the parks bursts into a kaleidoscope of crimson, amber, and gold. Explore 165 miles of trails, paddle along the island’s countless bays and coves, or sleep beneath the stars at one of the island’s 36 campgrounds. And be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a moose sighting.
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Virginia
Looking for a one-of-a-kind cultural destination? Then consider making the trek to Fairfax County, Virginia. Here, visitors will find Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts—the only national park dedicated solely to presenting the performing arts. Truly unique, the sprawling natural grounds are home to three distinctive venues: the architecturally stunning Filene Center; a collection of refurbished 18th-century barns appropriately dubbed The Barns at Wolf Trap; and a charming, concealed stage called the Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods. Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts oversees the park’s ever-rotating programming, which typically runs from May through September and includes performances that span every genre (previous acts include artists ranging from Sting to Yo-Yo Ma). Due to COVID-19, the park began streaming live concerts from their grounds, but it’s also worth a trip year-round for its tranquil setting and organized hiking excursions.
National Park of American Samoa, American Samoa
Although not part of the contiguous United States, American Samoa is a U.S. territory that covers seven South Pacific islands and atolls. The National Park of American Samoa is divided between the idyllic islands of Tutuila, Ta‘ū, and Ofu. It’s the only national park that can be found south of the equator, and no other park can quite compete with its raw, tropical beauty. Sprawling across 13,500 acres, some 4,000 acres of the park are completely underwater, comprising ocean and coral reefs. The park preserves the only mixed-species paleotropical rainforest in the United States and is bursting to life with rare bat species, native reptiles, and diverse marine life. Popular outdoor adventures include snorkeling along the coral reefs and soaking up the sun on pristine white sand beaches. Visitors can also skip the hotel and participate in the park’s homestay program to learn more about local Samoan culture.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Nevada is home to another one of America’s least visited national parks. Located near the Utah border, Great Basin National Park was established in 1986 and has been impressing visitors ever since. It gets its name from the mountainous Great Basin region found between the Sierra Nevada and Wasatch Mountains. The park demonstrates the surprising diversity of the area, including sage-covered foothills, soaring mountains, expansive groves, subterranean caves, and more. One of its most notable features is the abundance of ancient bristlecone pines, the oldest known living organism on Earth. In addition to appreciating the solitude of nature, other popular activities include fishing, birding, spelunking, mountain climbing, and stargazing. Plus, there’s a solid chance you won’t encounter another living soul during your visit.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Tucked away in Southern Oregon, Crater Lake National Park is known for delivering jaw-dropping views. Surrounded by cliffs stretching up nearly 2,000 feet, the park is living proof of its violent volcanic past. It was formed over 7,700 years ago, when one of the region’s tallest volcanoes erupted and sparked its catastrophic collapse. Today, it has become one of the most pristine lakes in the world, as well as the deepest in the nation. Marked by clear blue waters, the lake is remarkably pure, fed entirely and exclusively by rainfall and snow. It’s a perpetual favorite for nature photographers and road trippers on the hunt for a picturesque drive. Thrill seekers also delight in trekking through its endless old-growth forests and skiing during the winter months.
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