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Looking for some incredible yet underrated parks to visit this summer? Check this list below to start planning!
Fun fact – there are 63 places in the United States’ National Park Service that have the name “national park” in their name. When you add in all the other parks that are part of the system, you’re looking at 424 ways to get outdoors! With summer coming up, what better way to escape the hustle and bustle of city life than getting outdoors and enjoying some of America’s most stunning natural wonders?
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Sometimes the national parks can be just as busy as hanging out in the city With millions of visitors annually (most of that number in the summer), the bigger names in the NPS like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Great Smoky Mountains sure don’t feel like an escape to nature. However, many of the lesser known national parks see a fraction of the big name visitors and truly feel like hidden gems mere hours away. From epic waterfalls to otherworldly landscapes and hundreds of miles worth of hiking trails, these are my picks for some of the most underrated national parks to visit in the summer. Just don’t forget your sunscreen, water, and hat when visiting!
Underrated National Parks to Visit this Summer
1. Gates Of The Arctic National Park & Preserve in Alaska
The Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve is one of the least visited national parks on this list. Located in the middle of nowhere in Alaska above the Arctic Circle, the park stretches 8.4 million acres of untouched wilderness and is the size of two small New England states combined! If you visit, expect views straight out of your wildest dreams – rugged mountain landscapes, arctic valleys, scenic rivers, and so much more. Even in summer, the days can be short and the temperatures cold.
Not only should you expect any established roads or trails when visiting the Gates of the Arctic, you also won’t have any park services, campsites, or cell service either. This is truly a park for the professional adventurer seeking solitude! It’s strongly advised visitors have proficient outdoor survival, backcountry, hiking skills to visit. Otherwise, you can do a sightseeing trip via local air taxis from nearby.
2. Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas
About an hour southwest of Little Rock, Hot Springs National Park has been a national park before the NPS was a thing. All the way back in 1832, this land was set aside for preservation – a whole 84 years before the NPS was established! Boasting nearly fifty hot springs, people have been coming here for thousands of years in search of healing and rejuvenation. While you can no longer hangout in the outdoor springs, there are two places along Bathhouse Row (Buckstaff and Quapaw) where you can experience a hot soak.
Besides enjoying a hot spring bath, there are also plenty of trails that’ll take you through the park and a 65.8 meter observation tower to really enjoy the views around you.
3. Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota
Voyageurs National Park has the honor of being the only national park in the state of Minnesota. About three hours from the nearest town of Duluth, it sits right at the Canadian border and spans over 218,000 acres of islands, undeveloped shoreline, and water. This park alone is the reason why one of Minnesota’s nicknames is the land of 10,000 lakes!
Of course, one of the best things to do in Voyageurs in the summer is to get on the water. Choose between any of its interconnected lakes to fish, canoe, kayak, boat, and more. You can even rent a houseboat! If you visit from July to mid-August, you’re in for a real treat. Voyageurs has one of the darkest skies in the U.S. which means you have a good chance of seeing aurora borealis.
4. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is another of the least visited national parks with less than 200,000 visitors annually. Fairly secluded in Colorado, it’s a five hour drive from Denver and Colorado Springs with no major interstate nearby. The park gets its name from the deep and narrow canyon that runs through it, sculpted by the Gunnison River that flows through. Some areas in the canyon are so deep, they get less than an hour of sunlight a day no matter the time of year!
While experienced adventurers can hike down to the bottom of the canyon, most prefer sticking to the trails along either side of the canyon’s rim. It’s also possible to drive and stop off at various scenic lookouts. Be sure to stay the night for a chance to see the Milky Way!
5. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota
Named after one of the NPS’s most ardent fans, Theodore Roosevelt National Park was indeed visited by our 26th president back in 1883. He loved it so much, he bought a local cattle ranch and then later founded Elkhorn Ranch which he always considered his “home ranch” even after returning to the East Coast to enter politics.
Located in the badlands of western North Dakota, this park spans over 70,000 acres and is full of both surreal landscapes and a plethora of wildlife that’ll have you wanting to grab your camera. Whatever you do, don’t miss the hoodoos in the park’s south unit! Drive through and stop off for various day hikes that’ll take you up close and personal to the very sights that made a young city boy fall in love.
6. Guadalupe Mountain National Parks in Texas
Full of stunning mountain ranges and the nearly 9,000ft high Guadalupe Peak, Guadalupe Mountain National Park goes a long way in dispelling the idea that Texas is mostly flat. Another unique feature? The park features the most expensive Permian fossil reef which can best be seen hiking the 8.4-mile long Permian Reef Trail.
Summers in Texas can be extremely hot, and while Guadalupe can be nice and windy, you should know summer temps can reach up to 100F! If you plan on hiking in the summer, proceed with caution. I’d recommend enjoying a scenic drive and stopping off at various lookout points to take in the ever changing landscapes of the park. Whatever you do – don’t skip the sunset!
7. Northern Cascades National Park in Washington
Nicknamed the American Alps, it’s actually kind of surprising North Cascades National Park is still considered a more hidden gem! Only 2 ½ hours from Seattle, this park is nearly 700,000 acres of pure Pacific Norwest beauty. Think glacial lakes, fir and pine tree-covered mountains, and epic waterfalls.
What also makes it one of the best national parks to visit in the summer is the fact that it’s really only open from late May to early September! Hike up one of the many beautiful trails to get a peak at the bluest of blue lakes before descending and either swimming or kayaking in one of them. Be sure to drive the Cascade Loop for even more viewpoints.
8. Pinnacles National Park in California
When it comes to national parks in California, especially ones within driving distance of San Francisco, it seems almost like an oxymoron to call any of them underrated. However, I’d say Pinnacles National Park fits that bill with less than 300,000 visitors annually. Compare that to Yosemite’s 3 million, this is definitely the perfect place to escape the summer crowds. Formed by erupting volcanoes some 23 million years ago, the views here consist of a unique landscape of volcanic stones and caves that attracts not only hikers but climbers as well.
Because of its Mediterranean climate, expect a summer visit to be hot and dry, reaching up to 100F. Bring plenty of water (it’s recommended to have at least one liter per person) and don’t hesitate to take advantage of the trail’s various shady spots.
9. Dry Tortugas National Park
You’d think with such a close location to one of Florida’s most popular destinations, the Florida Keys, that Dry Tortugas National Park would be topping the NPS’s most popular lists! However, it sees fewer than 100,000 visitors a year. I’d guess the main reason is that it’s only accessible by boat or seaplane, but if you have the time, it’s well worth making the 70-mile journey over water to get there.
The 100-square park itself preserves a 19th century fort, but the real showstopper is the surrounding crystal clear waters. If you make your way out here, be sure to go snorkeling or diving to see the park’s coral reefs and colorful marine life. You may also just see a shipwreck.
And there you have it – some truly underrated national parks to visit this summer! With some of the lowest visitor counts of all sixty-three parks in the NPS system, you’re guaranteed fewer crowds and a more peaceful experience. Any you think we missed out on adding? Feel free to comment below!