National Parks Nobody Knows

Everybody loves Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon, and with good reason. Those and other icons of the National Park System are undeniably spectacular, and to experience their wonders is well worth braving the crowds they inevitably draw.

Zion is home to 207 species of birds. Bird checklists are available at the visitor centers. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion is home to 207 species of birds. Bird checklists are available at the visitor centers. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the big names are not the whole story.

The National Park System also features less known destinations that are beautiful, historic, or culturally significant—or all of the above. Some of these gems are off the beaten track, others are slowly rising to prominence, and a few are simply overshadowed by bigger, better-publicized parks.

But these national parks, monuments, historic places, and recreation areas are overlooked by many, and that’s a mistake you don’t want to make. For every Yosemite, there’s a lesser-known and less crowded park where the scenery shines and surprises.

The National Park Foundation, the official charity of America’s national parks, released its third special edition in the popular Owner’s Guide series, “The Places Nobody Knows.”

“Our latest Owner’s Guide, ‘The Places Nobody Knows,’ invites Americans to take time to explore and enjoy some of the most spectacular, but perhaps less known, landscapes, monuments, and memorials America has to offer while taking an active role in preserving their parks,” said Neil Mulholland, President and CEO of the National Park Foundation, in a news release.

Profiled are 25 national park destinations paired with higher-profile counterparts. So, for instance, if you love the Grand Canyon, consider a visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado for spectacular canyon scenery. If traffic inching along the thoroughfares leading into Great Smoky Mountains National Park has you stymied, the verdant valleys of Cuyahoga National Park in Ohio could be a smart substitute.

Not all the matched parks are worlds apart, either. For instance, the dramatic red rock spires seen in Utah’s popular Bryce Canyon National Park are also found in Canyonlands, about five hours away.

The guide helps readers discover new parks to explore by revealing the similarities that well-known national parks share with lesser-known parks.

Two examples follow.

The South Rim Drive offers the most dramatic vistas, ending at the most spectacular viewpoint, the overlook of Spider Rocks—twin 800 foot towers of rock isolated from the canyon walls, © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The South Rim Drive offers the most dramatic vistas, ending at the most spectacular viewpoint, the overlook of Spider Rocks—twin 800 foot towers of rock isolated from the canyon walls, © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you love Zion National Park…you will also love Canyon De Chelly National Monument

Known for sheer sandstone cliffs and red slot canyons contrasted against a bright blue Utah sky, Zion National Park evokes the wonder and allure of Southwest adventure, and its proximity to other popular parks—including Grand Canyon to the south and Bryce Canyon to the north—makes it a can’t-miss.

Another park should be added to this list to fulfill a grand tour de force of canyon country. Canyon de Chelly lies east of the Grand Canyon. Here, Navajo people have lived for thousands of years, finding the canyons to be prime real estate for farming and homebuilding.

Today, roughly 40 Navajo families still live within the park boundaries. Canyon de Chelly is managed through a partnership between the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation, and many areas, including the backcountry, are accessible only with a permit and an official Navajo guide. Start a visit to Canyon de Chelly at the visitor center to learn more about the history and rules at this unique place.

Similar to the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly can be viewed from both the South Rim and North Rim. Drive and stop at several overlooks along the way, and get on foot for the short hike to White House Ruin. To see more, sign up for a guided tour.

While Canyon de Chelly will definitely be a shorter visit than Zion or Grand Canyon, the park does offer a campground where you’re bound to get a spot.

When you find yourself surrounded by twisted, spiky trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, you will have met the park's namesake: Joshua tree. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you find yourself surrounded by twisted, spiky trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, you will have met the park’s namesake: Joshua tree. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you love Joshua Tree National Park …you will also love Saguaro National Park

Sometimes, a plant so special comes along that a whole park is made to preserve it. That’s the case in both Joshua Tree and Saguaro National Parks.

The former and more often visited of the two—Joshua Tree—lies a short drive from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Palm Springs, California, in the Mojave Desert. While aging these trees, actually members of the yucca family, is difficult, scientists estimate some in the 3,000-year-old range.

Over the border in Arizona, the Giant Saguaro, North America’s largest cactus, has a park of its own. Nestled around Tucson (the city splits the park into two districts), Saguaro National Park celebrates its namesake cactus and unique Sonoran Desert ecosystem.

What makes the Giant Saguaro so special? This native of the Sonoran Desert has a presence like a tree, standing tall on the desert landscape, and can live to 250 years, a far cry from the Joshua Tree’s life span but no slouch for a cactus.

The Sonoran Desert is one of the most unique regions in the country, with many other plant and animal species found nowhere else: roadrunners, horned lizards, Gila monsters, kangaroo rats, and several other cactus species among them.

Enormous cacti, silhouetted by the setting sun, for most of us the Giant Saguaro is the universal symbol of the American West. And yet, these majestic plants are only found in a small portion of the United States. Saguaro National Park protects some of the most impressive forests of these sub-tropical giants, on the edge of the modern City of Tucson.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enormous cacti, silhouetted by the setting sun, for most of us the Giant Saguaro is the universal symbol of the American West. And yet, these majestic plants are only found in a small portion of the United States. Saguaro National Park protects some of the most impressive forests of these sub-tropical giants, on the edge of the modern City of Tucson.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A springtime visit promises wildflowers galore as March and April rains hydrate and paint the landscape. The park offers more than 165 miles of trails to explore.

Get your national park fix without the crowds

Check out the photo gallery of these lesser-known gems and go online for a free copy of The Places Nobody Knows.

The National Park Foundation, the official charity of the national parks, also offers a free trip-planning guide to all 400 national park entities.

Please Note: This is Part 3 of a 3-Part series on lesser known National Parks

Part 1: National Parks without the Crowds

Part 2: Lesser Known National Park Gems

Worth Pondering…

There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of this great human principle.

—Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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