There are 60 National Parks across America. That’s not counting the hundreds of National Monuments, historical sites, battlefields, memorials, trails, and more. When you count all of them together, the number of protected sites that fall under the US National Park system is well over 400. So it’s not going to surprise anyone when we say: “There are scores of incredible sites worth exploring, in this nation. From sea to shining sea.”
Still, that point feels worth mentioning again, with summer rapidly approaching. So we thought we’d put together a list of the 12 US National Parks we love that don’t get the big ticket acclaim of a Yellowstone or Olympic. These are the parks that are a little more off the beaten path, a little more unique, and 100 percent worth a visit this summer.
Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
South Dakota is more than motorcycles and Mount Rushmore. The state is a summer vacay wonderland with endless forests for camping, mountains for climbing, rivers for floating, old-timey casinos for a little fun, and saloons for tipping back a cold one.
Wind Cave in South Dakota is a high plains wonderland. It’s where the beauty of the open prairie meets the lush wilderness of the Black Hills. The park has major historical significance as the place where the American Bison was saved from extinction (with the help from the Bronx Zoo). The herd that’s repopulated almost all of the American bison living today is still there, roaming what’s left of the great American frontier.
Summer Vibes: Spacious. SoDak (not a thing) is a land of wide open plains, so get in the mood to have room to explore. This goes double if you’re visiting Wind Cave. It’s literally where the buffalo roam.
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Louisiana
A national park named after a pirate? Sign us up!
The park is actually six separate sites along the lower Mississippi Delta. It’s a blend of nature and culture in a unique corner of the country. Most of the sections of the park are just outside of New Orleans and make for a very easy day trip from the city.
The lower Delta is an interesting corner of America where European, African, and Indigenous cultural lines blurred into “Cajun” — set amongst the hanging Spanish moss and dark waters of the swamps. If you’re into checking out the Cajun cultural aspects, the Acadian sections near Lafayette are a must visit. If you’re more into the wilds of the swamps, hit up Barataria Preserve. Just watch out for the gators lurking in those inky waters.
Summer vibes: Steamy. We’re not gonna lie, the humidity is going to be brutal down in those swamps. Luckily, you can escape back to New Orleans for a little AC between alligator spotting and Cajun food lessons. And that all makes the humidity worth it. Plus, there’s always a cooling cocktail nearby … it’s NOLA after all.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
The Florida Keys are a great choice in general with cool little fishing towns, plenty of rum, and postcard-perfect azure seas. And among the keys, the Dry Tortugas are a preserved natural paradise just waiting for visitors (it’s remote and doesn’t get too many).
The national park itself is a collection of seven islands with a massive old fort at its heart. The islands are surrounded by diveable coral reefs and gorgeous beaches. You can spend your days lounging, fishing, snorkeling, or just chilling out under a palm and watching the boats come and go. It’s the perfect place to finally get that diving certification while communing with sealife and a little El Carib history. Then you can celebrate with all the fresh seafood you can eat and all the tasty rum you can drink.
Summer vibes: Sunny. It’s Florida, one of the most popular summer destinations in the world. ‘Nuff said.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
South Carolina’s Congaree Park is one of the newer additions to the national park system (it was created in 2003). The park is also one of the most diverse in the country — with dense forests giving way to massive expanses of swamplands. The forests are some of the biggest and oldest old-growth in America and offer great opportunities for recreation of all kinds.
The park offers summer travelers the chance to canoe through swamp-filled backwoods, camp, and hike through deep forests. While we’re not talking the trees as big as the Redwoods, we’re talking the biggest trees on the Eastern seaboard. And that’s worth taking in at least once in your life.
Summer vibes: Chill. Just think, this time next week you could be floating along a river through ancient forests communing with nature in a whole new way. Throw in an awesome bowl of South Carolina shrimp and grits and you’ve got a damn near perfect summer holiday going.
Buffalo National River, Arkansas
The 153 mile long Buffalo River in northern Arkansas is America’s first national river. The river flows from the very underrated Ozarks as it winds through drastic canyons and forests (which are home to the state’s only elk herd).
The river makes an absolutely perfect place to recreate in the summer. You can spend at least a week just camping at various sites alongside the steep canyon walls. Then there’s the rock climbing, fishing, canoeing, and hiking all waiting for you to savor.
Summer vibes: Wet. If you love the outdoors and getting in the water, Arkansas and the Ozarks, in general, are a great corner of the country for summer vacation fun. It might be time to finally check out this oft over-looked corner of the country.
Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Where to start with this park. Well, for one, it’s bigger than all of Switzerland. For another, Wrangell-St. Elias is a massive swath of nearly untouched wilderness full of an amazing array of florae and fauna. Think ancient, virgin forests and bears and wolves chasing down salmon and elk. It’s literally like a BBC Planet Earth episode come to life when you step into this park. It’s that wild.
This is one of the largest patches of untouched wilderness in America and therefore one of the wildest. So, proceed with respect and caution regarding the wildlife.
Summer vibes: Adventurer Level 10. No one can question your heartiness if you manage to survive a summer exploring this place.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Isle Royale sits on the northern American reaches of Lake Superior (originally called Lake Gitchi-Gumi by the indigenous population which is a way better name than “superior”). Anyway, the park consists of over 400 small islands all centered around Isle Royale which stretches 45 miles long but it only nine miles wide.
The islands are largely rocky outcrops, with dense forests springing to life atop each of them. There’s abundant wildlife and you might even come across a moose swimming between the islands. It’s a great spot that has a much milder climate than, say, the Lousiana swamplands. So, this park might be ideal for those of us for whom high humidity is a deal breaker.
Summer vibes: Northern Exposure. The Great Lakes are a fantastic summer vacation destination in general, with great places to camp, explore a little history, and enjoy a sunset sail.
North Cascades National Park, Washington
Washington State, much like most of the West, has a lot of open spaces to get lost in. North Cascades is one of those parks that often gets outshined by bigger parks simply in proximity: Rainier, St. Helen’s, and Olympic. That’s a shame because North Cascades is a stunning park full of great opportunities to recreate amongst some amazing wilderness.
What’s interesting is the feel of this park. There’s a definite Alpine vibe with idyllic lakes dotting mountainous valleys and lush forests. There’s also an ancient vibe to the whole place. Native Americans had been living in the park for at least 10,000 years and their presence is still felt. It’s a fascinating place.
Summer vibes: Old School. It’s perfect for an off-the-beaten-track camping trip in a living postcard. Add in a little mysticism, ancient history, and the Pacific Northwest’s amazing food and drink scene and you’ve got the perfect summer holiday lined up.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
The tallest sand dunes are in Colorado. Who knew? Great Sand Dunes in Colorado is a prime example of what makes the national parks system so fascinating: drastic geographic diversity.
These sand dunes — which actually get covered in snow in the winter — take up 50 square miles. There’s a mass of biodiversity in the area with an abundance of wild animals and birds calling the place home. Plus, the dunes are backed up against huge Colorado mountain ranges, offering an almost other-worldly feel. This is a bucket list destination full stop.
Summer vibes: Rocky Mountain High! There are few places this unique in the whole country. It’s time to check them out.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Lassen Peak is the southernmost of the Cascade Mountains’ 15 volcanoes. The mountain famously erupted from 1914 until 1921 and largely changed the landscape to what you see today around the Cinder Cone. But the park is more than just a volcano. It’s a set of peaks surrounded by a lush wilderness.
The park is a great place to get away from it all in Northern California — not that Northern California isn’t already place to get away from it all. The area around the mountains is very alpine with a high desert vibe creeping in on the eastern reaches of the park. It’s a great place to get lost, see a volcano, and find some peace and quiet away from the masses.
Summer vibes: Stoked. As chill as that Northern Cali weed. This park is a laid-back spot with great camping and volcanic landscapes right next to verdant forests. Maybe check the USGS volcanic warnings before booking your trip though.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia provide the backbone to Shenandoah. It’s thick forests, wetlands, craggy peaks, and some of the best hiking on the East Coast. The park provides a long section of the famous and massively time-consuming Appalachian Trail.
Shenandoah is a great weekend getaway park. It’s easily driveable if that’s your jam. Or, you can get lost in the maze of trails in those deep forests and tick off a section of the A.T. this summer.
Summer vibes: Cruisy. Convertible time. Seriously, fly into DC, rent a convertible, put the top down, and cruise through Shenandoah for a couple days. It’ll be dope.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Chaco Culture National Park is a collection of some of the oldest ruins in North America that sit north of the Mexican border. The park is really a few cities and towns spread out over the New Mexican desert with Pueblo Bonito at the center of it all. That site is a two-acre complex with over 650 rooms in the main ruins. The whole area and ruins are a testament to the cultures that rose and fell over the last 10 millennia.
The park has a lot of restrictions since it’s historical ruins with structures and ancient art everywhere. So, camping is your best bet. Maybe plan a trip around a bigger trip to northwest New Mexico, too. Just, please, don’t throw a pizza on someone’s roof if you’re in Albuquerque.
Summer vibes: History Buff. You can take a trip back in time and learn a little of the oft-ignored Native history just beneath the surface of all that history we’re taught in school. Plus, you’ll be in New Mexico’s high desert surrounded by beautiful mountains, great food, and amazing nature. All wins.