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Home > Close-Ups > National Park Hidden Jewels

 

 

My 10 Favorite National Park "Hidden Jewels"

 

 

I've always loved national parks.  When I was a kid, my whole family would pile into our station wagon each summer, drive around the U.S. and visit national parks, and from those early trips, I decided that I wanted to be a park ranger someday.  When I was a grad student, I got a summer job as a ranger and firefighter, not with the National Park Service but with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the scenic San Juan Mountains of Colorado and worked there for six terrific seasons.  As it turned out, that job was even better than working in a national park because, way up high in the Rocky Mountains, it was just as scenic as a national park but without the hordes of visitors.

 

 

The National Park Service manages 394 units, including national parks, monuments, historic sites, battlefields, and parkways.  Having visited about 210 parks so far, I've been to more national parks than anyone I know and I've visited what most people consider to be the "major" parks several times each, including Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Olympic, Yosemite, Acadia, and the Grand Tetons. 

 

I recently combined my interest in national parks with my job as a transportation planner with Parsons Brinckerhoff in Portland by developing two transportation plans for the National Park Service, one for Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and the other for Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in southern California, the most heavily visited national park in the U.S.

 

I thought about listing my favorite national parks on this website, but I had a tough time deciding which parks I like best.  Most scenic parks are incredibly crowded so I have mixed feelings about visiting them.  Yosemite, for instance, is one of the most beautiful places in America but it's so darned crowded that I've only been there once in the past 30 years.  That was about five years ago during a Tuesday in March and it was incredibly jammed, so I can't even imagine what it's like there during a summer weekend.  I still have my memories, though, of what Yosemite used to be like, back before the hordes began descending upon it.

 

It always amazes me that people will drive right by lesser-known parks to crowd into the more famous parks.  Regardless of how beautiful an area is, I don't like crowds and would much rather visit a slightly-less-scenic park and deal with fewer visitors than go to someplace like a Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, or Great Smoky Mountains and have to fight over parking spaces, campsites, and cope with huge mobs of visitors.

 

Therefore, instead of listing my favorite national parks, I decided to list what I think are the 10 most underrated and undiscovered national parks in the U.S.  These are what I call the "hidden jewels" of the National Park System.  Because each park is lightly visited, you could say that these are indeed my favorite national parks in the U.S.  They're shown on the map below and, beneath that, are listed in order.

 

Hidden Text: Map

My 10 Favorite National Parks                  (Click for story and photos)

 

Hidden Text: Canyonlands

1.  Canyonlands National Park, Utah

If I could spend a week visiting anywhere in America, I'd go to southern Utah.  I love the solitude and remoteness here, as well as the vast stretches of public land, and knowing that I can go just about anywhere without seeing a "No Trespassing" sign... or another person.  More and more people are discovering the desert Southwest, though.  I don't even try to visit the  Grand Canyon during the summer months, and even places like Zion and Arches National Parks are getting pretty darn crowded.

 

I love Canyonlands because it's not nearly as developed or crowded as its sister park, Arches (which is right across the road) and because there are a lot of different things to see and do here.  The park is divided into three areas offering three very different types of experiences.  The "Island in the Sky" district in the northern part of the park is located on a giant butte and is a great place if you only want to drive around in your car, stop at vista points, and gaze down into the seemingly-endless sandstone formations.  The "Needles" district, in the southern part of the park, offers great hiking opportunities across the slickrock (i.e., sandstone) with some pretty amazing trails.  Those who really want to get away from civilization should visit "The Maze" district in the western part of the park, which offers great four-wheel drive roads and some of the most scenic and desolate areas in the U.S.

 

Whatever your preference, Canyonlands has it.  Beware, though, because once you visit Canyonlands, you may not want to go back home.

 

For more information, see the National Park Service website on Canyonlands National Park.

 

 

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Above left:  Canyonlands National Park, near Grandview Point in the "Island in the Sky" District (and the photo that I use for my laptop's wallpaper).

Above center:  Hiking in the Needles District with my old girlfriend Katy and a BLM ranger buddy, Mike.  It gets pretty darn hot here in the summer, as Mike's attire indicates.  Some sections of the "Joint Trail" in the background are only 18 inches wide between the massive sandstone walls.

Above right:  One of the more interesting roads in the Southwest is the Shafer Trail, which extends from Canyonlands to Moab, Utah.

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Hidden Text: Cumberland Island

2. Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

The most peaceful place I've ever visited in the eastern U.S. is a little known island, 18 miles long, tucked away on the coast of Georgia.  It's also one of the most unique places I've ever been to.

 

Cumberland Island, just north of the Florida border, is one of the longest islands on the Atlantic coast.  Portions of the island are privately owned but the National Park Service manages the rest.  There aren't any bridges out to the island, so the only way to get there is either by private boat or via the Park Service's twice-a-day passenger ferry.

 

Once you're on the island, you feel like you've stepped back a hundred years because there aren't any commercial facilities on the island -- no stores, restaurants, or motels, just a few rustic National Park Service buildings.  There are also very few cars and the only "road" is a narrow sandy lane that travels down the middle of the island.  During my three-day stay here in 1995, I didn't see a single vehicle and saw only a handful of visitors, mostly near the campground.  I also saw my first and only bobcat, which are extremely shy.

 

There are plenty of things to do on Cumberland Island for the day-user, and those wanting to spend a night can either backpack or stay at the campground that's located a hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean.  The campground has showers and is one of the most peaceful places that I've ever stayed at.  A word of caution though:  the campground's raccoons are incredibly smart (as I learned the hard way), so watch your food.  Also, be sure to call ahead and make reservations for the passenger ferry and campground because the Park Service limits the number of people allowed on the island at one time.  

 

Cumberland Island is a truly amazing place, and some day I hope to go back.

 

For more information, see the National Park Service website on Cumberland Island National Seashore.

 

 

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Above left:  The twice-daily boat drops you off on Cumberland Island.  If you're camping, you have to walk about a mile across the island.  However, it's a pleasant stroll through the Live Oak forest, and the Park Service provides pushcarts.

Above center:  Wild horses on the beach.

Above right:  Horses also reign at this abandoned mansion, which burned in 1959.

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Hidden Text: Lassen

3.  Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Among all of the national parks, I think of Lassen Park as my best friend because I know it so well, having hiked through almost the entire park on various trips.  Lassen reminds me of two more famous (and much more crowded) national parks:  Mt. Rainier and Yellowstone.  It's located in northern California at the southern reach of the Cascade Mountains, a volcanic mountain range that extends from California to Washington.  Each of the major peaks in the Cascades, including Lassen, Shasta, Hood, St. Helens, Rainier, and Baker are volcanoes, any of which could erupt at any time.

 

Lassen Peak did indeed erupt several times beginning in 1914.  In fact, the explosions at Lassen were even more spectacular than the next mountain in the Lower 48 states to erupt, Mt. St. Helens (in 1980), but there weren't many people around back then to witness it.

 

Every time I visit Lassen, I wonder why more people haven't discovered it.  Perhaps that's because it's not as close to the Bay Area as that mob-magnet, Yosemite.  There are lots of campgrounds scattered through Lassen Park with my favorite being on the north side at Manzanita Lake.  There are also lots of great hiking and backpacking opportunities.  You can even spend an hour hiking to the top of the peak, as I did last summer (see Who Am I for photo).  Be aware that the season here is fairly short and the road through the park is open only between about June and October.

 

For more information, see the National Park Service website on Lassen Volcanic National Park.

 
 

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Above left:  Lassen Peak, elevation 10,457', from Manzanita Lake. 

Above center:  Before the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980, Lassen Peak was the last volcano to erupt in the Lower 48 states.  Here's a sequence of photos from its eruption in 1914.

Above right:  The park's main geothermic area, called Bumpass Hell, is kind of like Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

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Hidden Text: Capitol Reef

4.  Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

I really love southern Utah.  There's an endless array of fascinating places here, topped off by a half-dozen stunning national parks.  Among all the national parks in southern Utah, Capitol Reef is the least visited and, in many ways, the most intriguing.  Not many folks visit Capitol Reef because it's well off the beaten path and because there's only one paved road that travels through the park, but don't let that stop you from visiting, because there are some really remarkable places here.

 

"Capitol Reef" was named by the early pioneers who thought that the many rounded sandstone buttes in this area (which reminded them of the U.S. Capitol's dome) formed a barrier to east-west traffic, similar to a reef in the ocean.  In the 1800s, a local rancher named John Atlantic Burr built a trail through this area (known as the Burr Trail) to drive his cattle.  Over the years, the trail grew into a road which is, incidentally, one of My Favorite Drives in the U.S. 

 

The 50-mile long Burr Trail is paved when it leaves the small town of Boulder, Utah, then winds through some spectacular sandstone canyons and finally enters Capitol Reef National Park, where the pavement ends and the fun begins.  If you've got air-conditioning or don't mind getting a little dusty, take the Burr Trail through Capitol Reef.  Those less adventurous can stick to Highway 24, which cuts through the more heavily-visited northern part of the park.

 

For more information, see the National Park Service website on Capitol Reef National Park.

 

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Above left:  Driving on my favorite road in America, the Burr Trail, which cuts through the southern half of Capitol Reef National Park.  I'm near Muley Twist Canyon here, so named because early pioneers thought the canyon was "crooked enough to twist a mule."

Above center:  A few miles down the Burr Trail you reach a summit and look down into a series of spectacular switchbacks.  Those are the Henry Mountains off in the distance, the last discovered and explored mountain range in the U.S.

Above right:  The beautiful Fremont River slices through the more heavily-visited northern half of the park.

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Hidden Text: North Cascades

5.  North Cascades National Park, Washington

Three of the most scenic "mountain" parks in North America, I think, are Montana's Glacier National Park and Banff and Jasper National Parks, which are in the Canadian Rockies.  Unfortunately, these parks are real mob scenes.  North Cascades National Park in Washington offers similar scenery but with a lot fewer visitors.

 

Created in the 1970s, North Cascades is one of the most recent national parks.  There's a single paved highway that travels east-west through the park -- a truly amazing drive.  I've seen a lot of spectacular scenery in the U.S. and I'm not easily "wowed," but the last time I drove through this park, I was saying "Wow!" around every bend.

 

The topography in this area is pretty steep, which limits the backpacking and dayhiking opportunities.  But if you want to see some of the most impressive, remote alpine scenery in the U.S., head for the North Cascades.

 

For more information, see the National Park Service website on North Cascades National Park.

 
 

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Above left:  That's the future Ranger Del leading the way over Park Creek Pass in North Cascades National Park.  This was my very first backpacking trip (well, o.k., I didn't actually carry a backpack during the entire hike).  I did carry that bottle of ketchup, though -- but don't ask me why.

Above center:  Ross Lake near State Highway 20, the only paved highway that crosses through the park.

Above right:  Alpine scene along Highway 20 in the North Cascades National Park.  This area gets so much snow that they close the highway during the winter.

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Hidden Text: Organ Pipe Cactus

6.  Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

I discovered this quiet park about about 15 years ago during one of my many trips around the country.  Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument sits just north of the Mexican border, so a lot of folks in a hurry to get to Mexico whiz right through it (of course, that's fine with me).  Yeah, it has a funny name, but if you like wide-open vistas with lots of mountains and cactus, this park is for you.

 

There's lots of solitude anytime you visit.  However, being in southern Arizona, the most pleasant time to visit is in the winter (December through February) when daytime high temperatures reach into the 70s.  Of course, that's also when the visitation is the highest, since snowbirders are finally starting to discover this park.  Because this area has the hottest summer climate of any part of the U.S., don't come here between May and September unless you like 100-plus degree temperatures.  My first visit was in October and the weather was pleasant (though pretty hot) and the park was empty.  I've also been here in February when the weather was also perfect but the park was a lot more crowded.  

 

A word of caution: Organ Pipe shares a 30-mile long border with Mexico so some nasty dudes travel through here.  In fact, in a recent study, this was rated as the most dangerous national park in the U.S.  I've never had any bad run-ins here, though, but you should still be careful.

 

For more information, see the National Park Service website on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

 

 

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Above left:  The entrance to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, near the town of Why.  Why is it called Why?  Why not?

Above center:  There are two campgrounds in this park.  You can camp at a KOA-type campground near the Visitor Center, which is suited to RVers and Trailer campers.  Or, if you want to sleep amidst the Organ Pipe and Saguaro ("Sah-WARR-oh") cactus, you can camp here in the primitive campground.

Above right:  Or you can drive just outside the boundary and camp for free on BLM land, which is my preference.  This is looking down into the Monument at one of my very favorite campsites in the U.S.

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Hidden Text: Lava Beds

7.  Lava Beds National Monument, California

Although Lava Beds National Monument is in California, the most populous state in the U.S., I've never seen more than a handful of visitors during any of my numerous trips here.  I've visited this monument for 30 years and it never seems to change, which is fine with me.  

 

With lots of lava beds and tunnels, this park is like Idaho's Craters of the Moon National Monument but with a historic twist.  That's because it was also the site of the Modoc Indian War of the 1880s when a band of Modocs holed up in a lava bed fortress here and held over a thousand American soldiers at bay for several months.  Remnants of the conflict are still visible.

 

The park has lots of lava tubes and caves that you can explore, and don't miss hiking up to the Fire Lookout on Schonchin Butte.  The park has a campground near the Visitor Center but if you want even more privacy, camp on Forest Service land just outside the park boundary at Golddigger Pass.  I've visited this park during every season and the weather here is generally pleasant anytime except the winter, when it can get pretty cold.  Whatever season you visit, though, you'll have lots of solitude.

 

For more information, see the National Park Service website on Lava Beds National Monument.

 

 

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Above left:  Mushpot Cave is one of the many lava tubes and caves in Lava Beds National Monument.  Most of the caves here don't have stairways or lights, but the Park Service loans out hardhats and lamps at the Visitor Center so you can spelunk to your heart's delight.

Above center:  View from the Schonchin (pronounced "Skon-chin") Butte fire lookout, the highest point in the park.

Above right:  Sunset over Schonchin Butte.  Ever notice that I don't have any sunrise pictures?  There's a reason for that.

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Hidden Text: Natchez Trace

8.  Natchez Trace Parkway, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee

The Natchez Trace Parkway, one of my favorite drives in America, winds for over 500 miles between Natchez, Mississippi and Nashville, Tennessee.  The road parallels what's left of the old Natchez Trace, a trail first used by Indians and then widened by the U.S. Army in the early 1800s.  For many years, the Natchez Trace was the only land route linking the Southeast with the rest of the United States.

 

In the 1930s, the National Park Service built a two-lane highway called the Natchez Trace Parkway that paralleled the trail.  There are crossroads every few miles leading into nearby towns, letting you get on or off the Parkway.  I've driven the  Parkway twice and both times saw very few cars.

 

Driving on the two-lane Natchez Trace Parkway is a unique experience.  No commercial vehicles, including trucks, are allowed on the Parkway, and there are no restaurants, motels or commercial facilities of any kind.  However, the Park Service does have three free campgrounds along the route (and yes, I've stayed at all three).  At first, it's strange to drive on a highway and not see any towns, gas stations, motels, or trucks, but after a while the rhythm of the parkway takes over and you begin to unwind as you pass by endless fields of corn, cotton, and kudzu.

 

As an added bonus, there are pullouts every few miles with interpretive signs, picnic areas, or segments of the old Trace that you can hike on.  Driving on the Natchez Trace Parkway is a really unique experience.

 

For more information, see the National Park Service website on Natchez Trace Parkway.

 

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Above left:  There's an interpretive site every few miles along the entire 500-mile length of the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Above center:  Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition spent his final night here at the Grinder Inn in 1809, three years after he returned from the West.  The original foundation of the Inn is in the foreground.  A replica of the Inn, containing what is probably (and unfortunately) the only tribute to Meriwether anywhere in the U.S., lies in the background.  For more on this site, see my page on Meriwether Lewis.

Above right:  A view of the rolling hills of central Tennessee along the Natchez Trace Parkway.

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Hidden Text: Devils Tower

9.  Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming

Ever wonder what possessed Richard Dreyfuss in the movie, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"?  Go to Devils Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming and see for yourself.  Established in 1906, Devils Tower was the nation's first National Monument.  The tower is a nearly-vertical pillar of volcanic rock over 1,200 feet high.  I can't describe why, but every time I visit Devils Tower I feel a strangely calming power and the native Americans, who for hundreds of years have considered Devils Tower to be sacred, feel the same way about it. 

 

How did it form?  Geologists claim that it's an exposed extrusion of columnar basalt.  According to Indian folklore, though, it was created when a huge grizzly bear chased some Indians to the top of a plateau, only to slip back down while scratching marks on the sides with his giant claws.  However it was formed, it's pretty darn interesting. 

 

Trails lead completely around the pillar and along the peaceful Belle Fourche (pronounced "Bell Foosh") River.  I really like the campground here, too, which sits near the base of the rock providing wonderful views of the monolith.  And there's a fascinating prairie dog village near the campground which you shouldn't miss.

 

For more information, see the National Park Service website on Devils Tower National Monument.

 

 

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Above left:  Does this remind you of the final scenes of the movie, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"?  

Above center:  That tiny white speck in the middle of this picture is a rock climber.  The Park Service discourages people from climbing Devils Tower out of respect to Native Americans who consider this rock sacred. 

Above right:  The peaceful Belle Fourche River meanders through the park alongside the campground.

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Hidden Text: Mt Rogers

10.  Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, Virginia

Well, o.k., it's run by the U.S. Forest Service and not the National Park Service, but who cares -- it's still a great place.  I discovered this park on my recent visit to Virginia.  After leaving the Great Smoky Mountains National Park the previous day, I was getting pretty fed up with all the crowds and was wondering if there was anywhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains that's beautiful and yet uncrowded.  There is, in this park in southwestern Virginia.

 

Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area is a great place to visit in the summer, because it's 3,000 feet higher than the nearby flatlands and is therefore a lot cooler.  Also, it has one of the nicest campgrounds (Beartree) that I've ever stayed at.  This is a great place for mountain bikers, as well, and there are some great rails-to-trails routes here.

 

If you get tired of the crowds in the Great Smoky Mountains, drive a few hours north and check this place out.

 

For more information, see the U.S. Forest Service website on Mt Rogers National Recreation Area.

 

 

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Above left:  The Beartree Campground is one of the nicest campground that I've ever stayed at.  The sites here are very secluded and numerous small creeks run through the campground.  Note the power cord running from my cigarette lighter to my laptop.  I've learned on this trip never again to take AC outlets for granted!

Above center:  Abandoned farmhouse near Abington, Virginia, in the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area.

Above right:  Roadside shot, with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background.

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