6 national parks you've never heard of (but absolutely have to visit)

March 15, 2016                 7m read time
Emily Hackeling

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service, so a celebration of these national treasures is in order. We’ve collected six of the least-explored—and most amazing—national parks, along with cinematic gems to help you prepare for the journey.

Everyone and their mother jostles for time at the glorious big guys: Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite… We know. We’re right there with you. The #struggleisreal when it comes to eking out reservations—or even a parking spot at one of these popular national treasures. 

In light of the U.S. National Park Service’s centennial anniversary this year, we’ve compiled a list of six havens even the most avid adventurers might have overlooked, along with a movie recommendation to go along with each location. So pop some Orville Redenbacher’s, queue up Netflix, and get packing: From dark, dripping caves to million-year-old logs, these national parks are underrated and overflowing with reasons to visit. 

1. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona Michael Kappel

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona

Michael Kappel


If you traveled back in time 225 million years to Arizona, you’d find a lush, volcanic oasis ruled by dinosaurs, not the Arizona Cardinals. Today, the saguaro-dotted Southwest is the polar opposite of its former self, but remnants of its past remain in plain sight. Just a 25-minute drive east of Holbrook, the Petrified Forest National Park stretches more than 42,000 square miles with vast desert plateaus, badlands and wildflowers. Discover fossils of plants and reptiles, ancient Puebloan petroglyphs dancing across rock walls, and of course, the park’s main attraction: petrified forests. Produced by volcanic eruptions that buried the surrounding trees in layers of sediment, followed by millions of years of erosion and petrification, the forests gradually metamorphosed into bizarrely beautiful stone logs. Strewn across the desert, their marbled innards dot the landscape with shocks of color: swirls of rusty red, deep orange, milky gray and rich magenta.

Get in the right frame of mind: Watch the 1936 black-and-white film "The Petrified Forest," set in an isolated diner on the forest’s edge. A notorious gangster played by Humphrey Bogart shows up and causes a ruckus, holding a bored waitress and broke writer hostage.

2. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota Amanda Scheliga

Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota

Amanda Scheliga


Go from petrified forest to petrified silly at Wind Cave National Park, where the most thrilling (and sometimes eerie) attraction lies beneath Earth’s surface. Live out your own version of Chapter 31 from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” with some exhilarating spelunking in Wind Cave, one of the world’s longest and most complex subterranean systems. Within this dim and chilly 130-mile labyrinth, rare geologic formations with goofy names like popcorn, frostwork and boxwork animate the rocky walls with textural character. Strong winds rushing through the cave’s entrance often trigger a spine-tingling whistling noise, adding to the otherworldliness of the atmosphere. Be smarter than Tom and Becky by touring the caves with a ranger (safety in numbers, yay). Or, up the spooky ante with a guided candlelight excursion that leads you through pitch black areas where man-made infrastructure like stairs and rails is less prevalent.

Prep for your trip: Try "The Vanishing Prairie," a 1954 Disney documentary filmed in Wind Cave National Park. Narrated by nature documentarian James Algar, it tells the story of the American prairie before Europeans’ arrival. Learn more about the struggle of endangered species who call the area home, including buffalo, prairie dogs and the whooping crane. 

3. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Dry Tortugas National Park in the Gulf of Mexico Evangelio Gonzalez

Dry Tortugas National Park in the Gulf of Mexico

Evangelio Gonzalez


One would think Key West is the westernmost key in Florida. But venture out another 70 miles, and our next off-the-radar destination unveils itself in the form of an archipelago consisting of seven islands in the Gulf of Mexico. Named for its freshwater scarcity and a large population of sea turtles, Dry Tortugas doesn’t disappoint in the reptile department.

Hop in a seaplane or ferry to get there, and don’t forget your fins: The snorkeling scene rivals what you’d find at Molokini Crater or Grand Cayman, minus the typical year-round schools of tourists. Slip into these remote emerald waters, where a kaleidoscope of green sea turtles, sharks, lobsters, octopi, crocodiles and goliath grouper fish glide in and around living coral reefs. Up on dry land, time warp to the Civil War era with a tour of Fort Jefferson—once a harsh, disease-ridden fortress where a 16-million brick wall crushed any hopes of escape. But enough history for now—the present is vying for your attention. Sprawl out with plenty of space on a white sandy beach beneath swaying palms, surrounded by bright blue sea and sky for miles: This place is basically your computer’s desktop background in real life.

Get paradise-ready: "Paradise Reef: The World is Watching," is coming to theaters in May 2016, just in time for a summer stay. See the beauty of Dry Tortugas on the big screen in this documentary featuring a man who stationed 36 artificial reefs off the coast of southwestern Florida, with zero government funding.

4. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Rock Harbor Light House in Isle Royale National Park Joe Ross

Rock Harbor Light House in Isle Royale National Park

Joe Ross


Not to be outdone in obscure island awesomeness, Isle Royale National Park is perched at the tip-top of the country, just below Canada. Isolated and rugged, this archipelago in Lake Superior offers the kind of unparalleled solitude sought by serious nature enthusiasts like Thoreau, Ron Swanson and the like. More than 165 miles of trails and 36 campgrounds are scattered throughout 893 square miles of wooded wilderness, appealing to a wide variety of recreational enthusiasts who share a common goal: Fewer humming RV motors...and fewer people...and fewer screaming kids who wake up at 6am to ride their bikes around the campground. Ahhhh...there we go.

There’s even something for hardcore scuba divers who aren’t intimidated by the exceptionally frigid waters of Lake Superior: Its floor is littered with the remains of 6,000 mysterious shipwrecks—many in excellent condition; some dating back to the 1600s. The only thing that could top wreck diving? Consider a visit to Ryan Island in Isle Royale’s Siskiwit Lake. It’s the largest island, on the largest lake, on the largest island, on the largest freshwater lake in the world (go ahead, re-read that sentence, we’ll wait). Mind blown? Ours too.

Get the wildlife low-down: Cuddle up with "Fortunate Wilderness: The Wolf and Moose Study of Isle Royale." Two wolf biologists (coolest job ever?) explain the intricate relationships between Isle Royale’s harsh climate, moose and wolves.

5. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park in South Carolina Miguel Vieira

Congaree National Park in South Carolina

Miguel Vieira


Paddling down creeks beneath arching tree canopies strung with Spanish moss is just a regular day’s work in South Carolina’s Congaree National Park. A creek and two rivers wind through the landscape, serving as a conduit for endless swampland exploration—27,000 acres, to be exact. Snag a kayak at Adventure Carolina or take a guided river trip to learn about bald cypress and loblolly pines. These towering trees form the largest tract of old-growth hardwood forest in the country, and one of the highest natural canopies in the world. Also, how’s this for a random trivia fact to keep in your back pocket? Congaree has cattle mounds, built so livestock can escape to higher ground during floods. These humble humps of earth—which nobly prevent thousands of bovines from floating away during seasonally rainy weather patterns—are now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Set the stage: Take a gander at Civil, a short war drama filmed in Congaree. It’ll whisk you back to 1865 with the story of a Confederate soldier whose loyalty is tested by the Union.

6. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado Tim Hamilton

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado

Tim Hamilton


Ever considered carving your own house in the side of a rocky cliff? Most people just opt for a realtor—which is why destination No. 6 earns a spot on our list. Thousands of years ago, Ancestral Pueblo people of modern-day Colorado did exactly that. Hand-carved into the Mesa Verde cliffside using stone masonry, this indigenous group inhabited boxy cliff dwellings for more than 700 years. While some pueblos have only a few rooms, the park’s most famous attractions (Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House and Long House) are practically cliffside castles, containing more than 100 rooms in each.

Today, more than 600 dwellings still stand in Mesa Verde National Park, where nearly 5,000 archeological sites throughout the area harbor ancient farming terraces, mesa-top pueblos, towers, reservoirs and dams. Stop in the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum to check out prehistoric artifacts found in the dwellings, five of which are open for tours. Limber up before you go: At 7,000 feet above sea level, the route there is steep and uneven with rocky steps and ladders. The rare chance to witness an authentic snapshot of prehistoric life, however, makes the trek totally worth the finale.

Download before you go: The 1992 documentary "Baraka" features stunning locations across the globe—and Mesa Verde is one of them. Using expert photography and zero verbal narration, it exposes you to the progression of Earth and humanity over time, from volcanoes and forests to ancient ruins and mass grave sites.

We'd never tell you to avoid a national park, but we're definitely in favor of avoiding the lines. Find inspiration with perfect park-and-a-movie pairings to entice history buffs, nature lovers and anyone else who just can't wait to get out there. 

Emily Hackeling

Emily is the production associate at ZOZI. She's a Tar Heel basketball die-hard who enjoys corny jokes, planning trips, and forcing others to taste her cookie experiments. @EmilyHackeling

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