Travelers of all stripes have developed a new appreciation for nature-focused getaways—the kind of adventures that facilitate social distancing as well as a break from busy modern life. But the world’s best and most popular national parks bring in the sort of crowds many are trying to avoid.
And while places like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon will always warrant inclusion on anyone’s bucket list, in-the-know types are seeking out the most underrated parks and hidden gems around the world. These under-the-radar spots are just as beautiful and unique as the big names, minus the crowds.
While Hawaii and Fiji attract throngs of visitors, this underrated Polynesian island also offers tropical rainforests, untouched beaches, and pristine coral reefs. The National Park of American Samoa—spanning three islands—preserves and protects these natural features, the species living within them, and the Samoan culture that stems from them. The park is home to diverse marine life, such as sea turtles and more than 950 species of fish. It’s the only American National Park unit south of the equator, and it’s worth the journey to enjoy rugged hiking, snorkeling, and whale watching.
More people visit Yellowstone in a single day than Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park might see in a year. A 45-mile archipelago in the middle of Lake Superior, Isle Royale is accessible only by boat or seaplane. Given the low visitor numbers, the beauty of the island is well-preserved, and the adventures are many: hiking, camping, kayaking, scuba diving, and exploring rocky coastlines, as well as observing the majestic wildlife, including moose and endangered gray wolves.
Unique wind patterns of southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley have formed towering sand dunes—at around 700 feet, the tallest in North America—within the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Great Sand Dunes National Park offers amazing views as well as the opportunity to do some impressive sandboarding and sledding. Aside from the dunes, the park includes scenic Medano Creek, alpine lakes, glacial falls, and the primitive Medano Pass that winds through a canyon toward the mountains.
Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park.
While Mount Rainier and Olympic National Park typically get all the glory, the less-visited “American Alps” of North Cascades National Park offer a stunning experience just two hours from Seattle. North Cascades National Park is mostly designated wilderness, home to wolverines, wolves, and grizzly bears. Dense forests hold treasures like ice caves, alpine lakes, and towering waterfalls. One of the snowiest places on earth, here you’ll find nearly half the glaciers in the continental U.S. A total of 400 miles of trails cut through ancient pines, towering peaks, and in warmer months, fields carpeted with wildflowers.
One of the most remote of the 62 U.S. National Parks, Voyageurs National Park straddles the Minnesota-Canada border. Intrepid types who make the trek to the 218,000-acre park are rewarded with four large lakes and 26 interior lakes. (The aptly named Voyageurs is a paradise for boaters and paddlers.) The mirrorlike lakes teem with abundant wildlife and breathtaking beauty, sans the crowds. At night, the skies burst with stars, and occasionally, the Northern Lights. In the winter, frozen lakes offer cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling.
Southern Alaska is home to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, a huge expanse that covers a wide variety of ecosystems. Accessible by float plane or boat, Lake Clark offers world-class fishing, bear watching, and backcountry activities. Ecosystems protected within the park include rainforests, alpine tundra, glacial lakes, two volcanoes, and salmon-bearing rivers. The Kvichak River is teeming with sockeye salmon, attracting large populations of bears. Step into the wilderness and enjoy hiking, backpacking, fishing, and more. Keep an eye out for the park’s two volcanoes, Mount Iliamna and Mount Redoubt, the latter of which is active, having erupted in 1989 and 2009.
While not nearly as visited as its famous Southern Utah neighbors—namely Zion and Arches— Capitol Reef National Park provides a backdrop that’s akin to visiting another planet. Red-rock formations, slot canyons, certified dark skies, and few visitors make for an otherworldly experience. The 22-mile scenic drive includes breathtaking viewpoints, and a sprawling trail system allows day-hikers and backpackers to wander through the stunning landscape. See cliffs, domes, and a 100-mile wrinkle in the earth. Capitol Reef is also home to a rich history dating back to archaic hunter-gatherers and the prehistoric Fremont Culture.
The rock formations at Capitol Reef National Park are awe-inspiring.
A view of Cathedral Valley in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park.
British Columbia’s Kootenay National Park is a place of extremes. The scenic drive, which takes about an hour, offers something new at every turn, from mountains and canyons to waterfalls and icy rivers, plus hot springs galore for soaking. For adventurous hikers, the 35-mile Rockwell Trail winds along limestone cliffs, alpine meadows, and larch forest, plus Helmet Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in the Canadian Rockies. This trail is especially attractive in the autumn, adorned with changing leaves. With all that space and varied terrain, there’s something for everyone in Kootenay.
The North Island’s Tongariro National Park, declared New Zealand’s first national park in 1887, has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status for both its cultural significance to the Maori people and its stunning natural beauty. Trails of varying lengths take hikers past diverse volcanic features, such as lakes, old lava flows, craters, silica terraces, and alpine gardens. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing affords incredible views of Lake Taupo and Mount Taranaki. Lodges, cabins, and huts cater to multiday visitors. The park also offers climbing, biking, skiing, and an array of cultural programming.
Tongariro National Park in New Zealand.
Slovenia’s only national park, Triglav National Park—one of the largest national reserves in Europe—is centered around Triglav Mountain, Slovenia’s highest peak. Visitors can marvel at stunning blue lakes, green Alpine forests and meadows, canyons, rivers, caves, and waterfalls. Within this hidden gem is a Slovenian jewel—the Martuljek waterfalls, located under Špik Mountain. The upper and lower falls are accessible with a littleeffort and offer breathtaking views.
Much lesser known than Brazil’s other natural wonder (Iguaçú Falls), Lençois Maranhenses National Park offers an even more dramatic landscape to admire. The name of the park means “bedsheets” in Portuguese, reflecting the smooth, rolling, gleaming white sand dunes. Explore on foot, by horseback, or by four-wheeler. During the rainy season, from February to May, torrential rains create thousands of crystal-clear lagoons in the valleys between the dunes. After trekking through the sand, a plunge in the cool waters is an extraordinary experience.