There are 59 national parks in the United States — each more majestic and awe-inspiring than the next. But if you’ve ever visited one of the more popular ones on a weekend in June (we’re looking at you, Grand Canyon and Yosemite), then you know that no amount of natural beauty can ease the unnatural pain of overcrowding — especially if you have the kids in tow. Long bathroom lines, crowded trails, bumper-to-bumper traffic at entrance gates, and slim-pickin’ campsites are enough to turn any national park visit into a hellish family vacation.
It doesn’t have to be, though. While 84 million people visit national parks every year, over half descend on the same 10 parks. Which leaves 42 million visitors spread across the other 49. All of a sudden, your national park visit just got a whole lot less crowded. But which of those 49 are the most underrated, under-the-radar parks that you can enjoy — we mean, really, enjoy — this summer with your family. We asked Heather Balogh Rochefort, founder of Just A Colorado Gal, author of Backpacking 101, and mother of an avid 8-month-old hiker, Liliana, for her picks. Here are the 10 national parks she recommends you visit.
Wrangell – St. Elias National Park
Wrangell – St. Elias National Park is the least visited and largest national park in the U.S. In fact, it’s as large as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the entire country of Switzerland combined. It’s home to volcanoes, arctic tundra, glaciers, rivers, nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, and enough wildlife to remind you that the earth is still a wild place. Sometimes rugged locations can be intimidating for family outings, but there are plenty of ways to enjoy Wrangell – St. Elias without pushing your family’s boundaries. We recommend stopping off at the Copper Center Ranger Station and letting the kids do the junior ranger program to start off the trip. Then, check out the 14-story mill in Kennecott (arguably the coolest ghost town in America), where kids can learn about mining copper, before heading out into the wild! Just make sure to drive the McCarthy road into the thick of the park.
North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park packs some serious punch when it comes to scenery — and it’s far less trafficked (with less than a million visitors last year) than Mt. Rainier and Olympic National parks. Although there is a reason why people refer to Sloan Peak as the Matterhorn of America — these mountains are the Alps of the U.S. Head out on the 4.5-mile hike to Blue Lake, which passes through forests and alpine meadows, to soak in the best views of those dramatic, snow-covered peaks. Having a picnic and letting the kids splash around is the perfect afternoon before driving the North Cascades scenic byway down to Winthrop — one of the quaintest, cutest towns in the Pacific Northwest.
Great Basin National Park
No, Nevada is not just red rocks, desert, and Las Vegas. Great Basin National Park is Nevada’s oasis — with caves, sagebrush-covered hills, bighorn sheep, alpine lakes, and the 13,000-foot Wheeler Peak. Take a tour of Lehman Caves to check out the stalactites before driving the 12-miles Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive (which drops you off at the .25-mile Island Forest trail) to explore the diverse scenery of the Great Basin.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Beyond the Rocky Mountains and before the desert of the southwest is a canyon in Colorado that dives dizzyingly down to the Gunnison River. The Black Canyon was formed at an average rate 10 times steeper than the Colorado River could cut through the Grand Canyon — making it a site to behold now. Distracted by the nearby San Juan Mountains of Telluride and Ridgeway, not even locals take much time to pay attention to the Black Canyon. But this is a gorgeous place to introduce your family to the magic of cliffs and rivers. Camp at the Red Rock Canyon (which has the safest and least-steep of all your approach options), and teach your kids how to toss a fly. The Gunnison — and this canyon — are home to world-class trout fly-fishing waters.
Channel Islands National Park
Right off the California coast near Ventura ⏤ and accessible only by a quick boat ride ⏤ Channel Islands National Park is a treasure trove of undeveloped, isolated island beauty. Coves are perfect for snorkeling, waves are perfect for surfing, and camping on Santa Cruz Island is a once-in-a-lifetime experience where kids can live out their pirate dreams exploring beaches and sleeping under the stars.
Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park is the Midwest at its most wild. In fact, officials just announced plans to relocate 20 to 30 wolves inside the park. There is enough to do here to entertain everyone in the family: kayaking, hiking, scuba diving, and boating, to mention a few options. Check out the inland lakes of the island or get into the open water of Lake Superior to explore the most intact collection of shipwrecks in the National Park Service.
National Park of American Samoa
A trip to Hawaii’s National Park of American Samoa is the cultural opportunity of a lifetime. The park is a collection of three islands located 2,600 miles southwest of the Big Island. Almost all of the land area of these volcanic islands — from the mountaintops to the coast — is tropical rainforest, although an additional 4,000 acres of the park are underwater, offshore from all three islands. In addition to simply protecting the land, the park is also dedicated to protecting the customs, beliefs, and traditions of the 3,000-year-old Samoan culture. Visit secluded villages and consider staying with a Samoan family as opposed to checking into a hotel. You won’t regret it.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
While hordes of Texans crash Big Bend National Park, steer your clan in the direction of Guadalupe Mountains. This park is home to the world’s most extensive Permian fossil reef, as well as the four highest peaks in Texas. Plus, it has one of the best night skies for stargazing — nearly free of light pollution. Hike either the Smith Spring Trail (2.3 miles round-trip), the Devil’s Hall Trail (4.3-mile round-trip), and then plan to camp out under that Lone Star sky. There are no reservations required for campsites at this park, so you won’t have to fight to find a place to sleep 11 months in advance of your trip.
Mammoth Caves National Park
Mammoth Caves is home to the world’s longest cave system — more than 400 miles. A 1.5-hour cave tour should be enough though for the kids to adequately explore the huge caverns and rock formations that earned this park its name. But be warned, there are no strollers or child backpack carriers allowed in the caves — so be sure you have a Baby Bjorn-style carrier for infants and confidence in your older ones that they can stand on their own two feet for the duration of the tour.
Cuyahoga National Park
A national park within driving distance of Cleveland and Akron — who knew? This Midwest valley gem is home to plenty of meandering trails, beautiful waterfalls, and general countryside-style respite, year-round. In the winter, go sledding or skiing. In the summertime, hike to Brandywine Falls or kayak on the Cuyahoga River. This place may not be the most wild, but Cuyahoga National Park is a nature sanctuary that moves at the perfect pace for family fun.