America’s most iconic national parks—such as Glacier, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon—have certainly earned their stripes. Head off the beaten path, however, and you’ll find a handful of reserves that are less readily accessible but no less impressive. In honor of the National Park Service’s centennial celebration this year, here’s a closer look at five little-known gems from coast to coast.
Dry Tortugas National Park
With a colonial history spanning more than 500 years, Dry Tortugas—a remote island about 70 miles west of Key West and due north of Havana—is a snorkeler’s paradise. In fact, the majority of the park’s 100 square miles are actually underwater. Visitors can take a boat, ferry or seaplane to Dry Tortugas, where they’ll discover shipwrecks, a 19th-century fort, myriad coral species, sea turtles and nearly 300 types of birds. (40001 SR-9336, Homestead, Florida; 305-242-7700; nps.gov; admission, $10 a person for seven days; kids 16 and under, free)
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
A 16-year-old ranch hand accidentally discovered the subterranean labyrinth that makes up Carlsbad Caverns in 1898. Composed of more than 119 limestone caves—including the mile-long Big Room walk inside the main cave, Carlsbad Cavern—the park is set along New Mexico’s quiet southern border. Make time to also explore the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert, home to the most diverse collection of cactus species in the world’s deserts. Come summer, visitors can watch half a million Brazilian free-tailed bats fill the evening skies from the outdoor amphitheater. (727 Carlsbad Caverns Highway, Carlsbad, New Mexico; 575-785-2232; nps.gov; admission, $10; kids 15 and under, free)
Channel Islands National Park
Just off the coast of Ventura, the five Pacific Channel Islands offer 160 miles of pristine coastline, a host of archaeological and paleontological sites filled with pygmy mammoth fossils, and a glimpse of the California wilderness as it once was. You can reach the islands by boat or plane. Once there, spot gray whales, Risso’s dolphins and elephant seals while on a whale-watching excursion, or hit the trails in search of rare native species such as island foxes or night lizards. (1901 Spinnaker Dr., Ventura, California; 805-658-5730; nps.gov; admission, free)
Isle Royale National Park
Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin first insisted Isle Royale be included as part of the United States after the Treaty of Paris, in 1783. Franklin may have been after copper deposits, but this 570,000-acre island in the northwest of Michigan’s Lake Superior is a treasure unto itself. Each summer, visitors flock by ferry or seaplane to explore the isle’s 19th-century shipwrecks, cast for trout and whitefish or paddle the plentiful waterways by canoe or kayak. (Lake Superior, Michigan; 906-482-0984; nps.gov; admission, $4; kids 15 and under, free)
Gates of the Arctic National Park
Set within northern Alaska’s Brooks Range, the Gates of the Arctic isn’t just isolated; it’s untamed, with no roads, visitors’ centers or campsites (Fairbanks-based travelers must hike or fly in and attend an orientation at one of the park’s visitors’ centers). But for experienced outdoor enthusiasts with a thirst for adventure, this unspoiled wilderness—an immense 8.4 million acres of it—rewards with sights that few ever see: aurora-lit skies, glacier-carved valleys and hikes along age-old caribou trails. Summer is the time to come for rich wildlife viewings, including prehistoric-looking musk oxen, Dall’s sheep and 145 species of birds. (Bettles, Alaska; 907-692-5459; nps.gov; admission, free)
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: September 2016