10 Unique National Park Service Sites You Haven't Visited Yet
We have plenty of love for the National Park System’s heavy hitters, but with 418 sites spanning more than 84 million acres across the country and its territories, there are a ton of lesser-known gems just begging to be explored. Here are 10 extraordinary protected lands that deserve a place on your bucket list.
1. Chaco Culture National Historical Park: New Mexico
From the mid-800s until the mid-1200s, the Chaco Canyon’s high-desert environs was a social and economic hub for the ancestral Pueblo culture that called it home. Chacoan architecture was particularly impressive, featuring huge, multi-floor, multi-room dwellings called great houses, built over the course of decades and incorporating canny design elements in the process. More than 3,000 of the massive stone structures have been preserved, and most of the cultural landmarks are open for self-guided exploration year-round. Take in the five major sites along the 9-mile Canyon Loop Drive, sign up for a ranger-led tour of the great houses, or hike the backcountry trails for ancient petroglyphs and stunning vistas. For a special treat, visit at night, when the Milky Way puts on an unbeatable show. Designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2013, Chaco’s Night Sky program roster includes weekend lectures and telescope viewings at the observatory. Stargazers, mark your calendars: Biannual star parties are usually held in May and October, and an astronomy festival happens each September.
7-day pass, $25 per car; nps.gov/chcu.
2. Glen Echo Park: Maryland
With a children’s discovery museum, a dance hall, and a fully functional carousel dating to 1921, it’s safe to say Glen Echo Park, located about eight miles from Washington, D.C., is not your average federally protected land. Originally established in 1891 as a Chautauqua, a non-denominational Christian summer camp–like phenomenon, it became a proper Coney Island-style amusement park in 1911. During the next three decades, Echo Park added bumper cars, a pool with a capacity of 3,000 swimmers, the Spanish Ballroom, which hosted pop stars like Bill Haley and His Comets, and more. It closed in 1968, the National Park Service took over in 1971, and the historic district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Today, Glen Echo counts half a million annual guests for classes and performances, though few of its original attractions remain: Its entrance is still visible, but the pool itself is in ruins; the bumper-car pavilion remains intact, albeit without its steel floor; the carousel, fully restored, operates from May through September, and the ballroom can be rented out for special events. Pack a picnic lunch, go a few rounds on the carousel, and bask in the nostalgia.
Park entry, free; carousel rides, $1.25; nps.gov/glec.
3. Effigy Mounds National Monument: Iowa
Throughout the Upper Mississippi River Valley, in parts of what’s now Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois, Native American earthen mounds of varying shapes and sizes dating to pre-Columbian times proliferate. You’ll find 206 of them in northeastern Iowa, from linear ceremonial mounds to more animal-shaped effigy mounds than anywhere else in the world. Just don’t expect to leave with a full understanding of these ancient structures: Archeologists speculate that they could be territorial markings, while tribal descendants say they’re sacred sites. Stop at the visitor’s center for a map of the park’s 31 bird and bear shapes, then wander its 14 miles of trails, including short accessible stretches and steeper hikes, to see how many you can spot.
4. Manhattan Project National Historical Park: New Mexico, Washington, and Tennessee
The world’s first atomic weapons were developed through a top-secret government project involving hundreds of thousands of scientists, mathematicians, and members of the military, spread across three massive sites: uranium-enrichment and plutonium plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; nuclear reactors and chemical separation plants in Hanford, Washington; and the remote complex at Los Alamos, in northern New Mexico, where Robert Oppenheimer notoriously led the team that designed and built the bombs. All three sites are open to visitors, though some areas of each remain under the Department of Energy’s purview and may not be accessible to the public. Still, there’s plenty to see: Walk through historic downtown Los Alamos on a self-guided tour, sign up for a free guided tour of the B Reactor in Hanford, or, for a small fee, book a bus tour through the Oak Ridge site with the Department of Energy.
Park entry, free; nps.gov/mapr.
5. New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park: Louisiana
From L.A. to New York, America boasts a dizzying array of jazz venues, but where better to get a feel for the form than the place it was born? At the New Orleans Jazz Museum in the city’s National Historic Park, near-daily concerts range from solo acts to traditional quartets to a band made up of park rangers and civilians alike. There are also ranger-led demonstrations and lectures on the history of jazz that often have a live-music component as well. But there’s more to the park than these performances. Drop in for a free yoga class and practice your downward dog as a park ranger provides the improvisational-piano soundtrack, take a self-guided audio tour of 11 historically significant sites around the city, or visit the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University to watch hundreds of oral histories from local musicians.
For a schedule of park events, including concerts, talks, and ranger-led demonstrations, visit nps.gov/jazz.
6. Wind Cave National Park: South Dakota
In the Black Hills of South Dakota, below a square acre of prairie and pine forest, there’s an extremely complex cave—one of the oldest and longest in the world. Wind Cave is so spacious it has its own internal air-pressure system, taking its name from the gusts emanating from its natural entrance: The Lakota referred to the cave as the “hole that breathes cool air,” and the brothers credited with its discovery in the 1880s were drawn to it by the sound of the wind across its mouth. Subterranean expeditions during the next 130-plus years revealed a staggering geological display, from cave formations like the commonly seen popcorn and frostwork to the much rarer boxwork—and there’s more of that here than in any other caves in the world combined. It’s free to explore the 33,851 acres of parkland above ground, but you’ll need to sign up for a guided tour to see the cave itself. Options range from easy (the Garden of Eden tour, which enters and exits via elevator) to extremely strenuous (the Wild Cave tour, which comes with a warning that crawling is involved). Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis; they go quickly during the peak summer season, and reservations are only available for specialty tours, so visit early to avoid a wait.
Cave tours from $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and kids ages 6-16, and free for kids 5 and under; nps.gov/wica.
7. Manzanar National Historic Site: California
Eastern California’s Owens Valley has seen its share of tragedy. In the early 1860s, 1,000 members of Paiute tribal groups were forcibly removed by the military after miners and homesteaders arrived on the scene. And almost 80 years later, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government rounded up 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry—including natural-born citizens—and herded them into internment camps for the duration of the war. Manzanar was one of 10 relocation centers built in seven states, and it’s said to be the best preserved of the bunch. A National Historic Site established in part “to serve as a reminder to this and future generations of the fragility of American civil liberties,” it offers visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the 11,070 Japanese Americans interned here from September 1942 until November 1945. The grounds feature exhibits, reconstructed barracks, and excavated gardens, ponds, and building foundations, which you can explore on foot or via a 3.2-mile self-guided drive.
8. Saguaro National Park: Arizona
Flanking Tucson to the east and west, the two districts of Saguaro National Park are best known for their namesake plant: The saguaro is the largest cactus in the country, and it's been heavily protected here since 1933, when Herbert Hoover designated the area a national monument. Congress bumped it up to national-park status in 1994, and it’s been welcoming the cactus-curious ever since. There are more than 25 types of succulents on display, but the giant tree-sized saguaro is the star. Native to the Sonoran desert, it's an anchor for the area's diverse southwestern ecosystem, providing nesting space for birds and serving as food for bats, mammals, and reptiles too. Both park branches combined have more than 165 miles of hiking trails, from accessible walks to seriously strenuous treks; there’s also backcountry camping, cactus gardens in each district, and a petroglyph site boasting more than 200 of the prehistoric rock carvings. Visit from late April to early June to see the saguaro in bloom, and be sure to stay in the park to catch a sunset—between the vibrant sky and the stark desert landscape, it’s a spectacular show.
1-day pass, $20 per car; nps.gov/sagu.
9. Blue Ridge Parkway: North Carolina and Virginia
Running 469 miles through the Appalachian countryside, the Blue Ridge Parkway links Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The outcome of a Depression-era public works project that began in 1933, it’s the longest American road conceived as a single stretch. As a "museum of the managed American countryside," the meandering road juxtaposes mountain-top views with lush stretches of forests and streams, passing by rustic log cabins and millionaires’ vacation homes. Construction took decades—the majority wasn’t completed until 1966, and the last 7.7 miles finally opened in 1987. By design, it’s the ideal setting for a leisurely road trip: Speed limits top out at 45 miles per hour, and the route combines stunning natural beauty (alongside opportunities for hiking, kayaking, biking, and more) with history (a center devoted to the region’s traditional old-time music, a working early-1900s mill, a textile magnate’s grand estate) and whimsy (Dinosaur Land!). Check for road closures before you go, and bon voyage.
10. Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve: Colorado
Colorado is home to the tallest dunes on the continent, and people have been answering their siren song since nomadic Stone Age hunters and gatherers first made their way into the San Luis Valley 11,000 years ago. Modern Native American tribes like the Ute and the Navajo, Spanish and American explorers, Gold Rush hopefuls, homesteaders, and Buffalo soldiers followed in succession, before fears of destruction via mining and industry prompted President Hoover to declare it a national monument in 1932. In 2004, it was expanded into a national park and preserve, and the diverse activities on offer today are a big draw. There are two accessible areas at the edge of the dunes, and the visitors’ center has two sand wheelchairs available to loan. Most of the park and preserve is open for exploration on horseback, and you can sign up for a guided ride or bring your own animals. Rent sandsleds or sandboards from an area outfitter and take to the dunes or hit the road for a fat-bike ride; other options include, but are not limited to, swimming, fishing, hunting (in season), and four-wheel driving. Regardless of how you spend your day, stargazing is a required nighttime activity.
7-day pass, $25 per car; nps.gov/grsa.
Shutdown Threatens National Parks
In a matter of days, the partial shutdown of the federal government has turned “America’s best idea” into every traveler’s worst nightmare. As reported by the PBS News Hour, the Washington Post, and other major news sources, some national parks have been left with minimal or no supervision, leading at least one California local to characterize the situation as a “free-for-all,” with overflowing garbage containers, visitors taking their vehicles illegally off-road and damaging fragile ecosystems, and human waste in, um, places you just don't ever want to find it. NATIONAL PARKS IN CRISIS Because hundreds of thousands of federal employees deemed “nonessential” are currently furloughed, meaning they are not being paid and are not expected to show up for work, many national parks, which are already underfunded and in need of repairs, are now largely unstaffed. And because, unlike during other government shutdowns in recent years, the Trump administration has decided to keep national parks open to visitors despite the lack of proper staffing, we are now seeing a “nightmare scenario,” John Garder, senior budget director of the National Parks Conservation Association, told the PBS News Hour. Public toilets in many parks are either closed or overflowing, visitors have been reported arguing over campsites because rangers are in short supply to help resolve disputes, some visitors are taking advantage of free admission and understaffing to drive their vehicles off the road onto land that is typically off-limits, and there are reports of visitors urinating and defecating in the open and allowing their dogs to run off-leash into areas where wildlife, including bears and mountain lions, abound. SAFETY TIPS FOR NATIONAL PARK VISITORS Avoid camping in national parks during the shutdown. If you’ve booked lodging at a hotel in or near a national park, contact the hotel directly for on-the-ground advice about how the shutdown may affect your visit. But most importantly, we seriously urge every traveler to carefully research and consider postponing most national park visits during the shutdown—not just for your safety but for the good of the parks themselves. Park advocates and news reports have made it clear that the Trump administration’s decision to keep the parks open while understaffed is a direct threat to the safety of visitors, wildlife, and ecosystems. SOME NATIONAL PARKS ARE OPEN AND STAFFED But there is some good news. A few states are pitching in to keep some of their NPS attractions up and running during the shutdown: The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island remain open to visitors thanks to $65,000 per day from New York state. The Grand Canyon remains open thanks to support from the state of Arizona. Utah is keeping the visitors’ centers open at three of its Mighty Five parks, Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. And remember that state parks across the U.S. are completely unaffected by the partial federal government shutdown, and in some cases state parks deliver virtually the same gorgeous natural beauty that their neighboring national parks do.
Great Gear for National Parks Fans
With the specter of budget cuts, climate change, and the removal of wildlife protections looming overhead, America's great public spaces are in peril, and there couldn’t be a better time to show your support. Whether you're on the road or in nesting mode, we found plenty of good stuff that benefits our National Parks, from pins, posters, and personal attire to books, games, and even candles. 1. Put a Pin on It (Courtesy National Dry Goods) For parks enthusiasts who prefer to advertise their allegiance with a whisper, not a shout, these antiqued-brass pins from National Dry Goods make an understated point. The company’s designs range from a pair of binoculars and an adorable pink flamingo–adorned vintage camper to a roll of film and a Canon AE1, but we're big fans of the National Park series, which includes conservationists Teddy Roosevelt (above center) and John Muir as well parks like Acadia, Yellowstone, and the Rockies. The pins are sold individually, but we recommend the four-piece set, which includes the Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, and Yellowstone—perfect for those whose appetite for exploration is as wide-ranging as the natural wonders themselves.4-Piece Parks Series gift set, $40; natdrygoods.com. 2. Let Your Imagination Run Wild (The Quarto Group) Stoke the wanderlust of young (and young at heart) travelers with this captivating, info-packed tome. Engagingly written by Kate Siber and charmingly illustrated by Chris Turnham, the book is organized by region—east, central, Rocky Mountains, southwest, west, Alaska, and the Tropics—and full of engrossing details that allow you to easily imagine, say, paddling through the thick, humid air of the Everglades, spotting plate-sized turtles and listening for the bellows of crocodiles, or trekking through Death Valley at 134 degrees in the shade, searching for animal tracks in the sand dunes and crunching across the salt-crusted surface of the lowest point in America. It's a playful, educational look at our country’s protected lands.National Parks of the U.S.A., $19.50; amazon.com. 3. Bring the Outdoors In (Courtesy Good + Well Supply Co. and UncommonGoods.com) Whether you’re a tree-deprived city dweller or an outdoor adventurer eagerly awaiting your next excursion, there’s nothing like an aroma to evoke powerful memories. Trigger that sense of nostalgia with a scent that reminds you of your favorite park. Packaged in sturdy pint or half-pint tins, the small-batch soy candles from the Seattle-based Good + Well Supply Co. are a rugged option, perfect for tossing in a suitcase to make a generic hotel room feel like home without worrying about breakage—and they’re created sans animal testing, petroleum, lead, phthalates, and GMOs to boot. Fragrance preferences are highly personal, but we fell for the Great Smokies and its subtle blend of sandalwood, laurel, and red maple; Zion is another delicate option, with notes of lavender and sage. For something a bit more bold, Big Bend conjures the magic of a campfire with a smoky combination of charred wood, embers, amber, and spice. On the more genteel end of the scale, maker Laura Reid visited Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Redwoods to nail down the blend of essential oils (think bay laurel, wild strawberry, and thermal moss) that would best conjure a sense of place, and her hand-poured, coconut-wax candles come in glass jars, with packaging emblazoned with a watercolor rendition of each park. Redolent with granite, cedar, and black sage, her interpretation of Yosemite is our favorite of the three.National Park candles, from $24; goodandwellsupplyco.com. Great Outdoors National Parks candles, $40; uncommongoods.com. 4. Dress the Part (Courtesy Parks Project) Sure, cutting a check is an effective way to give back, but you can lend even more bang to your buck by placing your purchasing power with a company that’s actively engaged with the organization it benefits. As an official partner of the National Parks Foundation, the Parks Project directly funds initiatives that support things like habitat restoration, youth education, and wildlife conservation, so your dollars go where they’re needed the most—and their stuff is really cute too. From beanies and sweatshirts to jewelry and accessories, you could outfit yourself in head-to-toe (non-embarrassing!) NPS regalia if you really wanted to. In addition to a wide selection of t-shirts and knickknacks like key chains and sticker sets, we highly recommend the enamel mugs, both for camping trips and for cold, pre-dawn workday mornings when we’d rather be camping.Joshua Tree Out There tee, $36; National Parks Are For Lovers enamel mug, $18; parksproject.us. 5. Deck Your Walls (Courtesy Fifty-Nine Parks) There are plenty of vintage-looking replicas of classic WPA-era posters floating around, but for something more contemporary, the Austin-based Fifty-Nine Parks offers a unique, high-quality alternative. A project of the National Poster Retrospecticus, a traveling show that highlights the artistry of the hand-printed broadside, the parks series celebrates our public lands in sublime, full-color fashion, with timed releases of large-scale limited editions as well as smaller, more affordable 18” by 24” prints. With the goal of getting “poster fans into the parks and parks fans into posters,” the series features the work of a different artist for each park, from Dan Mumford’s fiery, sunset-hued Haleakalā to Elle Michalka’s more subdued, five-color rendering of North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They're all fantastic, so it's tough to narrow it down to one, but we particularly love Glenn Thomas's sweeping, light-filled Sequoia edition. Really, though, you can’t go wrong with any of them: Each poster is screen-printed here on domestic shores, and the organization donates 5 percent of purchases directly to the National Parks Service, raising $10,000 in its first two years alone.Sequoia National Park poster, $40; 59parks.net. 6. Plan Your Next Adventure (Courtesy Lonely Planet) A more straightforward take on the National Parks Service’s roster, this book from Lonely Planet (Budget Travel's parent company) documents the bounty of our country’s park system in all its glory. With vivid photography, suggested itineraries and accommodations, tips on how get around, and notes on what wildlife to look for where, it’s a one-stop trip-planning shop.National Parks of America: Experience America's 59 National Parks, $30; amazon.com. 7. Test Your Knowledge (Courtesy USAopoly) Quick, what’s the name of the world’s tallest granite monolith? How many species of bees were discovered in national parks by 2014? And which notorious island was once known for being home to the first lighthouse on the West Coast? Find the answers to these questions—and 597 more—with Trivial Pursuit: National Parks, a travel edition with categories including Natural Wonders, Battlefields and Historic Sites, Cultural Heritage, and Wildlife. It even comes with a six-sided die and a hard-plastic carrying case, complete with carabiner, for playing on the go.USAopoly Trivial Pursuit: National Parks Edition, $20; amazon.com.
Don't Miss This National Park's Live BearCam
Want to escape to Alaska without leaving home? We've been having a blast checking out the live BearCam at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska. THE COOLEST WEBCAM IN THE NPS? Each fall, Katmai's live web camera sends streaming video of Alaska brown bears (gigantic relatives of the grizzly) as they visit Brooks Falls to catch salmon. An ever-growing body of fans are apparently as ravenous for up-close views of the bears as the bears themselves are for the fresh fish they catch at the falls. OTHER GREAT NPS WEBCAMS We heartily recommend that you check out the BearCam at Explore.org, but we also want to pass on some links to webcams at other national parks that we've come to love. More than any reading material, the images available from these national parks may make you want to fill a backpack and hit the trails. Here's a starter kit for anyone interested in diving into as many parks in the shortest possible amount of time.Glacier National Park provides views of Apgar Lookout, an overview from Apgar Mountain of the North Fork area of the park; Apgar Village, with its visitor center, shops, and restaurants; and Lake McDonald, allowing you to stand at the pebbled shore and look out at the park's highest peaks, which are sometimes reflected in the lake and sometimes shrouded in clouds. (nps.gov/glac)Yellowstone National Park links to a collection of webcams offering a view of Old Faithful Geyser from the spectacular visitor education center, which opened in 2010; a view of the Upper Geyser Basin, including the geyser itself; and Mount Washburn, a view that is used to track fires (this camera is typically turned to a default view at the end of fire season). (nps.gov/yell)Yosemite National Park provides images of a number of the park's most popular sites, including Yosemite Falls, which is actually a combination of three falls (Upper Yosemite Fall, Middle Cascades, and Lower Yosemite Fall); Half Dome, including a view of the Yosemite Valley from nearby Yosemite Village; and Half Dome from 8,000 feet, taking in the High Sierra as well. (nps.gov/yose)Grand Canyon National Park links to just one webcam of the park, which is currently undergoing maintenance, but it's worth checking back for the amazing view when the camera is back online. The camera is meant to provide weather and air quality information, but also serves to whet the appetite of future visitors and to remind former visitors of what makes this place like no other on earth. In addition, the site provides links to live webcams of the San Francisco Peaks and other vistas in nearby Flagstaff, Arizona. (nps.gov/grca)Great Smoky Mountains National Park provides images of iconic spots in this popular park, including a view from Purchase Knob to the northeast; and Look Rock, at the western edge of the park. (nps.gov/grsm)
Celebrate National Park Week 2018!
National Park Week 2018 is April 21 through 29, and we have good news, not-so-good news, and not-so-bad news for national park lovers. The good news is: Free admission on Saturday, April 21! The not-so-good news: Park fees will rise on June 1. The not-so-bad news: Fees will not rise as much as had been proposed and discussed earlier this year; they’ll rise only $5 at 66 National Park Service sites. Here’s what’s happening: FREE ADMISSION ON APRIL 21 National Park Week 2018’s theme is “Park Stars” - including the night skies overhead, iconic park landmarks, and “superstar volunteers.” The day that will attract the most attention and visitors is a fee-free day on Saturday April 21. National Park Week also overlaps with National Volunteer Week and the 48th annual Earth Day (April 22), making this coming weekend an excellent time to get to know a national park, forest, historical park, or other NPS site better. NATIONAL JUNIOR RANGER DAY Saturday April 21 also happens to be National Junior Ranger Day, allowing kids to participate in hands-on learning and activities and earn a Junior Ranger badge and ranger hat. The Junior Ranger program is actually available just about any day that a park is open, and it's one of the finest examples of the National Park Service mission at its best: Rangers engage with kids to teach them the basics of park ecology, wildlife, geology, and Native American history and culture, often inspiring a lifetime love of the national park experience. GOOD NEWS ABOUT PARK FEES On June 1, entrance fees (7-day entry per vehicle) at 66 parks will rise by $5. While park lovers, including Budget Travel, are relieved that fees will not rise to the $70 that had been proposed earlier this year, we do appreciate that park fees alone, no matter how high, cannot possibly fund the NPS’s backlog of repairs and upgrades and support the growing popularity of our national parks. FIND YOUR PARK We love the Find Your Park program (findyourpark.com), a collaboration between the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation. We also unblushingly recommend our own coverage, including national park guides, photo galleries, and news that we hope will inspire and empower you to get out there and discover all the NPS has to offer.
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