The United States proudly contains 60 national parks. These are natural or historic areas designated for the enjoyment of all for years to come. Creating a national park requires a majority vote in Congress—no small feat—which comes only after extensive evaluation and planning by multiple federal agencies. Therefore, you can be sure that our country's national parks each preserve an exceptionally unique environment, so unique that Congress believes every American should have the chance to experience it.
Yet, the majority of attention falls on just a handful of our national parks. Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Smoky Mountains, Zion, etc.—you know the names that steal the limelight and get the crowds. However, there are surely some national parks that you've never given much thought to, maybe even one in your state that you've never heard of!
See our list of favorite underrated national parks in the U.S., then get out there and find a park of your own.
What most people don't know about South Carolina—even most people who live there—is that they have a national park. An expanse of old-growth forest in the midland swamp country contains more record-sized trees per acre than anywhere in the world. You may not be able to tell the record holders from the rest as you walk through this shady land of giants, but you can see an incredible diversity of birds, wildflowers, and other forest life that you might not expect in this part of the country.
One of the earliest national parks to be established (year 1903) remains unknown to most people. This is Wind Cave in South Dakota, a remarkably huge network of caverns that are among the longest in the world. They also contain some of the most unique water-sculpted rock formations to be found anywhere. Above ground roam herds of bison and elk in the beautiful rolling hill country. Another odd and underrated landscape, Badlands National Park, is not far away, making the journey to southwest South Dakota a must-do for lovers of the otherworldly.
This was the first national park established specifically to protect an archeological site, which set a precedent for more historic parks in the 12 decades since Mesa Verde's designation. To this day, Mesa Verde endures as an exceptional relic of Anasazi culture that flourished in the Southwest 1,400 years ago. Here they built large and intricate cities into high cliff walls, and with such skill that the structures still stand today. In the national park you can hike and climb ladders to reach the spaces where these mysterious people once lived.
Though located barely 100 miles from Seattle, North Cascades is actually the least-visited national park in the contiguous United States. This may surprise anyone from Washington who's driven along the Skagit River to Ross Lake, and witnessed the craggy range on either side. The fact is, you must leave the state highway on trails to exit Ross Lake National Recreation Area and enter North Cascades National Park. Within awaits the most geologically rugged and most extensively glaciated terrain anywhere south of the Canadian border. Endless backpacking and mountaineering opportunities await the determined few who enter.
Big Bend is familiar to many residents of the Lone Star State, but few others make the journey to this solitary corner of Far West Texas, on the border with Mexico. What awaits are many more activities than you would expect this desert wilderness to offer. There are of course sandy, cactus-laden expanses, but also high mountain peaks, deep river canyons, hot springs, rare wildlife, and brilliantly starry skies.
California is well known for its natural beauty. The state has an astonishing nine national parks, but not all of them get the attention they deserve. Lassen Volcanic is perhaps the most underrated of them all. The park gets only a fraction of the visitors that the heavy hitters like Yosemite and Joshua Tree receive, but the landscape and activities in Lassen are nearly as diverse. Here you can hike, paddle, and camp among geothermal vents and mountain forest in the shadow of a huge volcano that last erupted only a century ago.
If you're inspired to discover more, check out these additional parks that you didn't know you had to see.