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5 Incredible National Parks You Haven't Heard Of (and When to Visit)

February 19, 2019

The United States is home to 60 national parks, each one filled with spectacular vistas, roaming wildlife, and the best of the country’s natural landscapes. While you’re probably familiar with heavy hitters like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon, it’s worth considering some of the lesser-known parks when planning your next outdoorsy vacation. The five national parks below might not be household names, but each one is home to show-stopping natural wonders that are well worth a trip. If you’re planning to travel in 2019, read on to discover more about each park—including the best time to visit.


1. Pinnacles National Park | California

California is home to the most national parks of any state, boasting a total of nine that includes big names like Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Redwood. While these popular parks are certainly spectacular to visit, they’re also likely to be packed with other travelers who have the same idea. If you’re headed to California in the near future, consider a stop at Pinnacles National Park instead.

One of the newest national parks, Pinnacles was established in 2013. Its 27,000 acres are notable for incredible rock formations—known as pinnacles—that are the remnants of an ancient volcano. These towering monoliths make the park a popular destination for climbers, but you can also explore 30 miles of hiking trails and the park’s cave systems if you’re not so keen on heights. While at Pinnacles, keep an eye on the sky for a sighting of the endangered California condor.

When to Visit: Scorching summer temperatures mean that spring, fall, and winter are the best times to visit Pinnacles. The park is especially beautiful in spring, when wildflowers bloom in abundance.

Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park. Photo credit: Brocken Inaglory / Wikimedia Commons

2. Mammoth Cave National Park | Kentucky

The official website for Mammoth Cave National Park calls it a “grand, gloomy, and peculiar place.” In fact, it may be the most unusual national park in the States. Located in south central Kentucky, Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known cave system, with over 400 miles (!) explored to date.

Naturalists are still discovering new parts of the cave system, and you can take a variety of tours throughout the portions that are already mapped. Within the caverns, you’ll find eerie rock formations, underground rivers, and subterranean animals including the Kentucky Cave Shrimp and several species of bats. Above ground, explore a rambling network of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.  

When to Visit: Winter or the “shoulder seasons” of late fall and early spring are the best times to visit Mammoth Cave. Summer is highly crowded, and the cave itself stays at a temperate of 54°F year-round, so there’s never a bad time to visit once you’re inside.

Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park. Photo credit: manuelsousa1955 / Flick

3. Petrified Forest National Park | Arizona

The alien landscape of Petrified Forest National Park is well worth a trip to northeastern Arizona. Petrified Forest takes its name from its most famous feature, the fossilized or “petrified” chunks of wood scattered across the southern portion of the park. Petrified wood is formed over millions of years as minerals replace the organic material of fallen trees, resulting in colorful, sculptural geological artifacts.

Petrified Forest is also an incredible window into the native cultures of the American Southwest. Drop by the Painted Desert Inn to see murals crafted by the Hopi people, or head to the center of the park to view the ancient petroglyphs carved into Newspaper Rock. As you explore the park, you’ll also spot the iconic topography of the southwestern desert, including buttes, mesas, and badlands.

When to Visit: Summer is the busiest season at Petrified Forest, and also the rainiest. Skip the crowds and enjoy more pleasant weather by planning your visit in October, when temperatures are mild and the native wildflowers are still in bloom.

Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park. Photo credit: Scott Black / Unsplash

4. Dry Tortugas National Park | Florida

One of the most remote parks in the country, Dry Tortugas National Park is located in the Gulf of Mexico around 70 miles beyond Key West. Covering 100 square miles, Dry Tortugas is mostly made up of open water, with seven small islands dotting the expanse. The park is accessible only by boat or seaplane; you can travel there in your own boat, or hop on the public ferry that runs from Key West.

Once you’ve reached the park, there’s plenty to see. The most notable feature is Fort Jefferson, a 19th-century fort built as a naval defense for the Gulf Coast. The crystal clear waters of the park are also ideal for snorkeling, fishing, boating, and kayaking; wildlife enthusiasts will be able to spot nurse sharks, sea turtles, and countless varieties of fish and corals. If you camp overnight on Garden Key, you’ll also get to take in a spectacular sunset and enjoy unparalleled stargazing; thanks to the remote location, the skies over Dry Tortuga are dark and clear.

When to Visit: Visit Dry Tortugas between April and June, which is the mild spring season on the islands. This allows you to avoid winter’s choppy seas and the potential hurricanes that crop up in late summer and fall.

Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo credit: NPS / Wikimedia Commons

5. Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve | Alaska

The final park on our list is for intrepid travelers only. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is America’s most remote national park, located in Alaska’s isolated Arctic Region. Only 11,000 visitors make the trek to Gates of the Arctic each year, arriving by air taxi or seaplane (there are no roads or trails in the park). The NPS describes the park as “one of the last truly wild places on earth,” and it’s best suited for experienced backcountry campers only.

For those brave enough to venture there, Gates of the Arctic offers 8.4 million acres of untouched wilderness, including the rugged mountains of the Brooks Range. Expect to see Alaskan wildlife like caribou, musk ox, and grizzly bears roaming through the park’s dense forests and rushing rivers. During some seasons, you may even spot the Northern Lights.

When to Visit: Gates of the Arctic is located entirely above the Arctic Circle, so summer is the best season to plan your adventure. The sun doesn’t set for 30 days during the peak of the season, offering a truly unique Arctic experience.

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Photo credit: NPS, Alaska Region / Wikimedia Commons

Written by Caroline Lees for Knockaround

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