The 12 most underrated national parks in the US

How many have you visited?
the moon over the red plateaus of the Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. NPS/Hallie Larsen

Ever worry that you will run out of places to explore in America? Lucky for you, there are 63 national parks and 429 national park sites across the country—it will take a long time to work your way through the 85 millions acres they encompass. And with additional sites being earmarked for conservation (West Virginia’s New River Gorge was just designated as a national park in 2021, for example), the list of destinations keeps growing and growing.

Remember, it takes some planning to visit the national parks, though the journey you make of it will be worthwhile. One way to optimize the experience is by targeting the lesser-known parks. Avoid the snaking lines at the Grand Canyon and take in the wrinkly sandstone at Capitol Reef. Skip the tortuous campsite-booking system at Acadia and sleep on the sands of Indiana Dunes. Smaller parks might mean fewer amenities and tour outfitters, but that’s where the real beauty of wilderness shines through.

In 2024, National Park Week runs April 20 to April 28. On April 20, entrance fees will be waived to kick off this year’s celebration and encourage people to sign off of screens and visit a national park in person.

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota is abundant with lakes and wetlands.
Voyageurs National Park in Northern Minnesota has been home to Native Americans, fur traders, homesteaders, miners, and fishermen. Today it’s a 218,054-acre national park with four large lakes and 26 smaller interior lakes. On clear nights, lucky visitors have the opportunity to see the Aurora Borealis, also known as the northern lights, from the park. Skiing and snowshoeing are popular activities in the winter, while summer campers can charter a tour boat. Image: USGS

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Guadalupe Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park is in Texas
Guadalupe Mountains is home to the four highest points in Texas and the bright-white Salt Basin. During the Pleistocene Epoch, this Salt Basin was covered by a shallow lake but today it’s dry most of the year. This photo captures one of the rare times when there’s water—this usually happens in the summer. While the Basin is covered in gypsum and salt, the nearby dunes consist of pale red quartz grains. Image: National Park Service

North Cascades National Park, Washington

North Cascades National Park in Washington is known as the American Alps with purple wildflowers
There are more than 300 glaciers in North Cascades National Park. Known for its rugged beauty, this park—just three hours from Seattle, Washington—has earned the reputation of being the American Alps. With over 400 miles of trails, visitors can explore forested valleys, birdwatch, and keep an eye out for grizzly bears. Image: National Park Service

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen National Park in California is where you'll find boiling springs and steam vents.
The park’s Bumpass Hell Trail will lead to you boiling springs and steam vents. Image: National Park Service

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

The red canyons of Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
When you visit Capitol Reef you can see canyons, sandstone structures, and ancient petroglyphs. Image: National Park Service

Biscayne National Park, Florida

clear waters and small islands
Not all national parks are located in remote areas. Biscayne Bay National Park sits not far from Miami on Florida’s southeast coast and measures 172,971 acres, 95 percent of which is water. The aquamarine waters are home to a large coral reef and a history lesson. Evidence suggests that humans lived in the area 10,000 years ago. Image: DepositPhotos

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park in South Carolina protects an ancient forest.
Here you’ll find the largest remaining section of old-growth bottomland forest in the United States. Image: Paul Angelo/National Park Service

Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Glacier Bay’s 3.3 million acres include jaw-dropping mountains, glaciers, rainforests, coastlines, and fjords. The park was named for its vast number of tidewater and terrestrial glaciers, totaling 1,045. An abundance of wildlife call Glacier Bay home, including black and brown bears, moose, red fox, marmot, beaver, otter, bald eagle, osprey, orca, minke whale, humpback whale, wolverine, coyote, falcon, and more. Birdwatchers can delight in trying to spot some of the 274 species sighted in the park. Image: National Park Service

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

A purple Catawba rhododendron blooming in New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia.
From 1,400 feet above the river at Grandview Main Overlook, visitors are rewarded with one of the most outstanding views in the park. On a clear day you can see directly into the heart of New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, including seven miles of the New River and its watershed. From Main Overlook visitors can also get a glimpse of some of the gorge’s unique cultural history. From here you see an active railway and the town of Quinnimont, where the first coal was shipped out of the gorge in 1873. Grandview is a great place to see the spectacular displays of Catawba rhododendrons that bloom here every spring. The purple Catawba rhododendrons bloom in mid-May, while the white great rhododendrons bloom in July. Image: National Park Service

Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana

Indiana Dunes National Park in Indiana is a refuge of sand dunes, wetlands, and woodlands. Canoes are welcome on the shores too.
While the Indiana Dunes maintain a legacy of modern scientific inquiry that began towards the end of the 19th century, this landscape had already been studied by Native Americans for thousands of years. Their vast knowledge of the region reveals an intimate past of research. Indiana Dunes National Park is one of nine parks that are within the federal government’s Great Lakes Inventory and Monitoring Network. National parks within the boundaries of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior are monitored and studied for wildlife and plant populations, changes in the landscape, and effects of pollution on the environment. Great Lakes Network scientists use the parks for science and use the science to make management decisions to help the parks. Image: National Park Service

Haleakalā National Park, Maui, Hawaii

Haleakalā National Park in Hawaii is where you'll find a dormant volcano.
Haleakalā National Park holds more endangered species than any other US national park. Image: National Park Service

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Closeup of petrified wood in the Crystal Forest in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.
A slice of the Crystal Forest Trail in the Petrified Forest National Park. It was originally called First Forest as it was the first large accumulation of petrified wood reached from Adamana, Arizona. The petrified log segments continue to erode from the 216-million-year-old bed, which caps the exposures in the area, including Blue Mesa, Agate Bridge, and Crystal Forest. The historic access point built in the 1930s was closed in 1965 to reduce illegal petrified wood removal. Image: Hallie Larsen/National Park Service

Bonus National Lakeshore: Picture Rocks, Michigan

sandstone cliffs above blue water
Located in the UP (Upper Peninsula) of Michigan, Picture Rocks National Lakeshore is most known for its stunning namesake cliffs that rise from Lake Superior. These towering chunks of sandstone get their color from minerals in the groundwater that leak from the cliffs’ surface. Image: National Parks Service

This story was originally published in 2023 and updated in 2024.