Each year, the national parks across the US are filled with adventurers, photographers, hikers and more, all keen to soak in the natural wonderland.
There are the national parks you’ve heard of: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion … but these parks can often be packed with eager tourists (there were 318 million visitors to US national parks in 2018!), so here are the top five underrated parks to visit in the US, and as we can’t travel right at this moment, we’ve added in some virtual inspiration to keep your mind travelling, while you can’t.
Red Rock Canyon, Nevada
Visiting Las Vegas? While all the bustling crowds are heading west to the Grand Canyon, drive a mere 30–40 minutes east from the Strip, and head from neon into nature at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.
It’s an easy day trip with alluring scenery, famous landmarks, and exciting attractions begging to be explored. There are so many scenic hikes, ranging from beginner to experienced. And, if you want to see the great outdoors without being in the great outdoors, you can take in the stunning views from the Red Rock Canyon Backcountry Byway – a 13-mile loop that winds through the incredible public lands in and around Red Rock NCA. The one-way scenic drive is completely paved and features self-guided trails, picnic areas and vista pull-outs. The visitor centre has audio programs and scheduled interpretive activities about the natural history of the canyon.
Keen for more? Continue south for a short five-minute drive to Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. The same natural springs that attracted weary pioneers to this lush valley in the 1860s – not to mention chinchilla ranchers and a few celebrities – continue to capture the attention of modern-day visitors and locals alike. Actually located within Red Rock Canyon NCA, this state park gets up close and personal with the same stunning scenery, but with a fraction of the crowd, making it at least as enjoyable (if not more) than its better-known neighbour, no matter the season.
From here, you can continue southeast along NV-159 and catch NV-160 back to Las Vegas. Or, if you feel like capping off your Red Rock experience with a well-earned sagebrush saloon visit, make your way to I-15 S for a 30-minute side-trip to the Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings. It’s well worth it.
Can’t wait? Take a virtual hike through Red Rock Canyon.
Wyoming is a state that’s meant to be driven. With so many incredible sights to be seen and can’t-miss stops along the way, it’s best to pack your favourite snacks, fine-tune your playlist and take to the roads. If you’ve got the time, follow the Park-to-Park Highway, a popular early 1900s auto route connecting 12 national parks; it is one of the most memorable you could take. Start in Wyoming’s lively capital city and then venture into quaint small towns that move at a refreshingly slower pace. Drop a fishing line in one of the West’s most renowned fishing destinations, revel in prehistoric and natural wonders, and pick up perfect Wyoming mementos – like cowboy boots and local wine – to remember your journey. The drive ends at the gates of Yellowstone National Park.
Our pick along the way is Thermopolis and Wind River Canyon. Take the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway and wind your way through this historic landscape. The byway ends just north of Thermopolis, home of the world’s largest mineral hot spring in Hot Springs State Park. Needless to say, this town is worth a stop. Here you can enjoy hot springs facilities, cooling ponds, a swinging foot bridge across the Big Horn River, hiking paths and a chance to see wild buffalo. The drive ends at the gates of Yellowstone National Park.
Need some inspiration? Take a virtual tour of the Wind River Range.
Mount Rainier, Washington
Just because you’ve only put big cities into your itinerary doesn’t mean you can’t visit some spectacular natural wonderlands. From Seattle, make a day trip to the icon looming on the horizon – Mount Rainier. It’s a 2.5-hour drive to the active volcano, and there is something for every level of adventurer here. Mount Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous USA, spawning five major rivers. There are wildflower meadows that ring the icy volcano and the slower slopes are cloaked by dense forest. With so much going on, we recommend the Paradise visitor area as a great place to start. There are trailheads that are both beginner-friendly and suited for expert climbers, and from here you can also take in the alpine meadows abloom with wildflowers in the summer, or embark on a snowshoe excursion in winter.
Keen to check out Mount Rainier from all angles? Take a look at these year-round webcams.
Monument Valley Tribal Park, Arizona
Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley Tribal Park is quite well known, but not as often visited as it’s a bit of trek – it’s about 320 miles from Phoenix. It is considered to be of the most majestic points on earth, boasting sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1000 feet, framed by scenic clouds casting shadows that graciously roam the desert floor. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations, providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.
The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colours of the valley. A camera, and a backup battery is a must-bring on this trip.
The great thing about this park is that it is self-drive. Sure, you can book onto guided tours or explore it by horseback, if you wish, but the 17-mile long loop road is completely achievable for the average visitor and has 27 very clear viewpoints along the way to make sure you capture the total beauty of this park.
There are no virtual experiences at this park as they follow strict tribal law, so you’ll have to book a trip to see it! If you’re in the mood for an Arizona-induced adrenaline rush, watch this Grand Canyon Skydive.
San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Ah Colorado, the state of endless calm. The scenery, the pace of life and the culture all lull you into the most relaxed state. If you’re in need, then add a long weekend in Colorado to your USA trip. Visit the San Juan Mountains and the quiet Colorado mountain towns of Ouray and Ridgway that are an easy two hours from Grand Junction.
This area is known for incredible summer activities such as Jeep tours, canyoning, hiking, mountain biking and more, but locals and visitors don’t head inside during the winter either! There is year-round fishing, snowshoeing and even world-class ice climbing. In town, you’ll find cafes, restaurants and some great breweries to help you refuel. And to top it all off, this area is home to five natural hot springs, with some open 24 hours a day. It’s a blissful, easy long weekend escape surrounded by nature.
The world famous Colorado Music Festival is a virtual event this year and is on now.
Shannon is passionate about all things travel, and has worked in the industry for over 12 years across aviation, hotels, cruising and more. In her free time, Shannon loves to hike, attempts to learn French, and explore as much of the world as possible!
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