With the popularity of U.S. National Parks at an all-time high, you may want to look beyond go-to sights like Old Faithful and Half Dome for a more intimate park experience. We’re not suggesting you skip the iconic stops, but maybe it’s worth planning your next national park trip around seeing one of the stunning locations below instead…
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1) Denali | Denali National Park, Alaska
The Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park has an outline of Denali etched into their glass windows. That’s because The Great One is cloudy and shy during summer’s prime-visitation months. Give it a week, and on your first clear day head to Stony Hill Overlook; this is the most accessible view of North America’s highest peak.
2) Otter Cliffs | Acadia National Park, Maine | Otter Cliffs
This park captures the rare beauty of a truly wild East Coast landscape. Acadia National Park’s defining feature is the North Atlantic pounding against the rugged shoreline. To get a front row seat, try rock climbing at the Otter Cliffs. This excellent climbing area is friendly for brave beginners. Your first belay from the top rope anchor is a nerve-wracking experience, but an incoming tide instills you with ample determination.
3) Tuolumne Trek | Yosemite National Park, California
The 28-mile Tuolumne Trek offers non-stop iconic Yosemite views of Half Dome, Bridalveil, El Capitan and more. It showcases why Yosemite has earned a reputation as the Disneyland of National Parks, but unlike the lower valley view, it provides a glimpse of the pristine Yosemite that enamored John Muir with its High Sierra magic away from crowds.
4) The Big Room | Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
This park is often over-looked as the above-ground attractions aren’t particularly eye-catching. However, just below the surface lies one of the greatest cave systems in North America. The Big Room is the fifth-largest subterranean chamber on the continent and visitors can spend hours wandering through the caverns exploring a whole new world beneath the desert.
5) Racetrack Playa | Death Valley National Park, Nevada
In a remote corner of the hottest place on earth is a mysterious place called Racetrack Playa. It’s a dry lakebed with infamous “sailing stones,” rocks that scoot across the desert leaving long trails behind them. No one has ever seen the rocks move, but maybe you could be the first.
6) Exit Glacier | Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska | Exit Glacier
Alaska does glaciers much better than the lower 48, and Exit Glacier is one of the most accessible and impressive glaciers in the state. The moderately strenuous hike switchbacks through forest and tundra, and has incredible views of the crevasses and the stunning blue chambers of ice. You’ll marvel at a glacier with a true depth still unknown, even to the experts.
7) The Hoh Rainforest | Olympic National Park, Washington
The Hall of Mosses in the Hoh Rainforest is a must-do trail in Olympic National Park. The short stroll showcases Bigleaf maples festooned with moss, towering Douglas firs, and one of the finest examples of primeval forest anywhere on earth. Go during a fall rainstorm to see the forest in its element.
8) Star Dune | Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
The main attraction at Great Sand Dunes is certainly the massive dune field, and among the dunes none are greater than Star Dune. At 750 feet tall, it is the tallest sand dune in North America. Hike out from the visitor center and cross Medano Creek as it snakes through its sandy channel. Then begin your climb up and up the loose sand until you reach the highest point with a dramatic view of the Sangre de Christo mountains behind you.
9) Lamar Valley Wolves | Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
To escape Yellowstone’s summer tourist hordes, go in winter and seek out the most visible wolf pack in the world. The Lamar Valley has the lowest elevation in the area, so herds of elk, bison, and wolves congregate there once the snow gets deep. The road is still open, so bring your binoculars and cross country skis for an up-close view of an apex predator at work.
10) Longs Peak | Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
If you’re visiting Colorado and have 14er fever, there’s no better cure than Longs Peak. It’s the only 14er in the park, so its lofty view lords a huge panorama over the glaciated terrain of the Rocky Mountains. The hike is strenuous, exposed, and potentially dangerous, but that’s what makes the summit all the more rewarding.
11) Nankoweap | Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The best way to grasp the massive scale of Grand Canyon is to hunt for the best viewpoints. While most tourists will stick to the rim of the Big Ditch, this view is reserved for the intrepid. Best accessed by rafters or river boaters, Nankoweap is reached by a short steep trail at river mile 53. The site has not only some of the most iconic views of Grand Canyon, but also Puebloan granaries that date to 1100 AD.
12) Triple Divide Peak | Glacier National Park, Montana
You’ll go for glaciers and be awed by waterfalls, but what you really need to see is Triple Divide Peak. Yes, it requires backpacking; and yes, it requires a scramble up a shale gully, but the rewards atop can’t be overstated. It’s the only place in the United States where water drains into three oceans—the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Arctic via Hudson Bay. Pour a drop from your bottle on the summit and speculate which ocean it will fill.
13) Wonderland Trail | Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
You can see the summit of Mt. Rainier on every license plate in Washington State, but there’s no better view of the peak than the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates the mountain. It’s great to do a multi-day trip, but if you want to bite off a day-hike, try the 9-mile Fryingpan to Indian Bar section. It’s like a Rainier greatest hits album that rocks waterfalls, alpine flowers, high views, and glaciers galore.
14) Green River Overlook | Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Less crowded than Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park is also much larger. In addition to gems like Mesa Arch, the park has a few viewpoints that allow visitors to grasp the grand scale and complexity of the landscape. Visiting the Green River Overlook during sunrise or sunset offers dramatic shadows and vibrant colors, a definite draw for photographers. From the overlook, a short section of the Green River is visible in the distance.
15) Halls Creek Narrows | Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Capitol Reef is lesser known than its neighbors Arches and Canyonlands, but if you’re looking for slot canyons, arches, and few crowds, then this is your place. Halls Creek Narrows has everything you want. Located on the southern end of the park, driving there can be a dusty adventure, but you’ll be glad you did when you’re swimming, scrambling, and trekking through this remote, lightly traveled slot canyon.
16) The Night Sky | Great Basin National Park, Nevada
For a window into our universe, step into Great Basin National Park on a clear and moonless night. Thousands of stars, five of our solar system’s eight planets, meteors, satellites, and galaxies all spin overhead with stunning clarity. It’s remote and dry so the stars truly shine to the naked eye in one of the darkest skies in America.
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Photos: WikiCommons, Anukrati Omar on Unsplash, James Kaiser, Dominik Schröder on Unsplash
*An earlier version of this post first appeared in January 2016 and has since been updated.