5 Scenic National Park Units Off the Beaten Path

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The superstars of the U.S. National Park System, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, etc., are famous around the world, and draw several million visitors each year. But the National Park Service operates more than 400 official units, from the world-famous national parks, to monuments, recreation areas, battlefields and preserves. Many of these units aren’t that well known to people outside their region. In some cases, this is merely because the park is in a remote location. We’ve gathered five such sites that are a little out of the way, but all well worth a visit for their great scenery and fun activities.

 

5. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Kayaking is a great way to enjoy Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. © Andrew McFarlane

Kayaking is a great way to enjoy Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. © Andrew McFarlane

The best way to enjoy this park is by boat from Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Take a guided cruise tour, or visit a local outfitter to rent a canoe or kayak to explore the shoreline of this park, which features 15 miles of pictured rocks. These sandstone cliffs have been weathered through the eons, producing arches, caves, unusual shapes and stunning patterns of colors and textures. There are also more than 100 miles of trails to explore in the park, leading to waterfalls and great views of a hardwood forest and Lake Superior beyond. Lodging is available in Munising and other nearby towns, or you can try one of several drive-in campgrounds.

 

4. Little River Canyon National Preserve

Little River Falls in Little River Canyon National Preserve offers easy access from the highway. © Wayne Hsieh

Little River Falls in Little River Canyon National Preserve offers easy access from the highway. © Wayne Hsieh

Most people don’t usually associate the Appalachian Mountains with Alabama, but the mountain range stretches into the northeastern part of this state. The waterfalls, canyon views and several miles of forested trails in Little River Canyon prove this is indeed mountain country. In fact the entire preserve is located atop a peak, Lookout Mountain. This preserve is still a work in progress. There are few facilities. There is a great scenic drive along Alabama Hwy. 176, but it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s narrow, with some poor pavement and steep drop-offs. This park might be better off explored on one of the hiking trails.

 

3. Big Thicket National Preserve

Big Thicket National Preserve boasts a strange ecosystem that mixes eastern forest, swamps, desert and plains. © Larry Rana

Big Thicket National Preserve boasts a strange ecosystem that mixes eastern forest, swamps, desert and plains. © Larry Rana

This area covering more than 100,000 acres in southeast Texas lacks the waterfalls, towering cliffs and spectacular rock formations found at some of the other parks on this list. Big Thicket’s beauty is more sublime, and can be further appreciated when you realize the unique ecological and geographical aspect of the preserve. Dubbed by some as the “biological crossroads” of America, the preserve includes hardwood forest like that found in the eastern U.S., Southwestern desert-type land, swamps and plains. Such a diverse habitat brings incredible nature-watching opportunities. Two major bird migration pathways cross the preserve. There is an abundance of other wildlife, and more than 1,000 types of flowering plants can be found in Big Thicket. There are roughly 40 miles of trails here, but the best way to truly appreciate the park’s wonders is aboard a kayak or canoe exploring one of the preserve’s mysterious bayous. If you don’t feel up to it on your own, guided kayak and canoe tours are available.

 

2. Chiricahua National Monument

The Balanced Rock Trail in Chiricahua National Monument features some strange rock formations. © AlHikesArizona

The Balanced Rock Trail in Chiricahua National Monument features some strange rock formations. © AlHikesArizona

The odd rock pinnacles, or hoodoos, in this national monument are the eroded remnants of volcanic ash from an eruption of the Turkey Creek Volcano 27 million years ago. There is an 8-mile scenic drive, if you’re just passing through the area in Southeastern Arizona. But if you have a day or two, consider an overnight camping stay in the Bonita Canyon Campground, where you’ll find some truly dark skies for stargazing.

 

1. Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Black Canyon, near Gunnison, Colorado, is known for its scenic beauty. © John B. Kalla

Black Canyon, near Gunnison, Colorado, is known for its scenic beauty. © John B. Kalla

The spectacular canyon walls cut by the Gunnison River are so narrow and steep (up to 2,700 feet deep) they prevent sunlight from penetrating the depths; hence the “Black Canyon” name. As we mentioned in a previous Listosaur story, this picturesque park in western Colorado draws sparse crowds. The park averages about 175,000 visitors a year; that’s a fraction of the 3 million annual visitors who visit Rocky Mountain N.P., located about 150 miles away. There are plenty of opportunities for adventure here, from hiking and camping to rock climbing. Or, if you’re just passing through on your way someplace else, you can take in the wonders from a scenic drive.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.