Six Great Unsung Parks

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Park Places, Summer 1998

Six Great Unsung Parks
By Bob Howells


National Pastimes
A visit to these parks is right up there with baseball, hot dogs, and the Fourth of July

Six Great Unsung Parks
Lesser-known marvels that lack nothing in beauty

Here's looking at you, kids

Only 54 plots of American soil have earned the designation "National Park," so it's little wonder that high-season elbow room is at a premium in many of them. Better to investigate the lesser-known marvels that lack nothing in scenic beauty-they're only bereft of tram systems, computerized reservations, and traffic jams. Herewith we sing the praises of some of our unsung national parks.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Teddy's badlands may get overlooked by the hordes bound to see his visage at Mount Rushmore, but these buttes, gorges, gullies, domes, cliffs, and spires are every bit as ornery as their southern cousins. The deeply corrugated landscape lies 135 miles west of Bismarck. On a short visit, do the scenic loop drive just out of the Medora South Unit Visitor Center near I-94-you'll spot bison, elk, and prairie dogs-and mount up for a trail ride at Peaceful Valley Ranch. The hot tip is to head into the North Unit, 52 miles north of the interstate; even the shortest walks off the North Unit scenic drive lead to splendid solitude. Speaking of which, if the SUV's in good shape, ask for directions and clunk your way to Teddy's Elkhorn Ranch: an isolated spot of spacious beauty that no doubt fired Roosevelt's conservationist zeal. (Check with a park ranger about washouts before you go.)

There is one campground in the park's South Unit and another in the North Unit; they both have flush toilets, grills, picnic tables, and water. There is also backcountry camping; get a free permit at either of the visitor centers. For additional information contact Theodore Roosevelt National Park at 701-623-4466.

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

If only to see the most worthless military facility ever built-Fort Jefferson, on Garden Key-it's worth a seaplane or boat trip to this archipelago of bone-dry islands and coral reefs 70 miles west of Key West. The massive red-brick fort was obsolete long before it was finished, though it came in handy as a more-foreboding-than-Alcatraz prison in the 1860s. Today you can camp on the key, snorkel here (the park lends out masks and fins) or at neighboring keys such as Loggerhead (you'll need your own boat), and wreck-dive a sunken windjammer.

Above ground is an astonishing array of migrating birds, including 100,000 sooty terns that nest on Bush Key from February through September (alas, the key is closed to visitors during this period). You can boat down from Key West for $85 round-trip ($50 for ages 2-16) with the Yankee Fleet (800-634-0939) or fly down via Seaplanes of Key West for $299 per person round-trip ($205 for ages 7-12; $149 for ages 3-6; call 305-294-0709). There is a primitive campground on Garden Key; bring your own water. Call the park at 305-242-7700.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

As intriguing as forests of conifers gone to stone may be, it's the multihued glory of the Painted Desert that's most memorable here. To ogle Medusa-ized logs, head to Rainbow Forest in the south part of the park. A short loop trail leads to the one known as Old Faithful, 9.5 feet in diameter, and to others as long as 120 feet. Then head up the northbound park road to see The Tepees-conical mounds of red and blue mudstone. En route, hike the one-mile round-trip Blue Mesa Trail for the best views of the park's colorful sandstone, clay, and mudstone badlands. North of The Tepees is the Puerco Pueblo, a semi-excavated Anasazi village where, during the weeks around the summer solstice, rangers demonstrate an ancient solar calendar at work. There are no accommodations in the park, but backcountry camping is allowed (permits are free). Call Petrified Forest National Park at 520-524-6228.

North Cascades National Park Service Complex, Washington

That 90 percent of this park's visitors merely drive through on the North Cascades Highway (Washington 20) is hardly a crime-it is, after all, one of the world's great scenic drives. Plus it leaves to the more adventurous a mostly wilderness realm of sheer, serrated peaks, wildflower meadows, old-growth forests, 245 lakes, and 318 glaciers: America's Alps.

The park complex comprises a north and south unit as well as Ross Lake and Lake Chelan national recreation areas. A great way to experience the backcountry without a long, laden schlep is to hop a water taxi ($20 one-way for up to six passengers) at Ross Lake Resort and ask to be dropped at Big Beaver. There you can set up a base camp for hikes amid a remote realm of beaver ponds and old-growth forest.

Accommodations include three campgrounds along Washington 20, housekeeping cabins at Ross Lake Resort (bring your own food), and sites throughout the south part of the complex at Stehekin. For more information, call North Cascades National Park Service Complex at 360-873-4500.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

West Texas's greatest relief is this rocky massif that rises abruptly from the Chihuahuan desert, harboring lush, steep-walled canyons, pi-on and Douglas fir woodlands, and the highest peak in Texas: Guadalupe Peak, at 8,749 feet. The mountains are part of the same limestone fossil reef that houses a more famous neighbor, Carlsbad Caverns. The don't-miss hike here is the Permian Reef Geology Trail (eight miles round-trip), which enters McKittrick Canyon, the park's heart and soul-a deciduous-tree-shaded, 3,000-foot cleft in the limestone that's enjoyable even in summer, cool and spectacular in fall. On all but the hottest days, take the Smith Spring Trail, a 2.3-mile round-trip hike to Smith Spring, a ferny, oak-shaded desert oasis.

There are two vehicle-accessible campgrounds in the park with restrooms, tent pads, and picnic tables ($7 per site per night). There are also about ten backcountry camping areas with two to eight sites; permits are free but must be obtained in person. Contact Guadalupe Mountains National Park at 915-828-3251.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Bryce and Zion have no monopoly on Utah's red-rock wonderlands: Capitol Reef National Park, in fact, is larger, just as compelling, and far less visited. Its defining feature is the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long maze of lifted and bent parallel ridges. Among them are an especially dazzling array of formations: slickrock, cliffs, spires, monoliths, arches, and labyrinthine canyons.

A traverse of the park via its main and best road, Utah 24, is over all too soon, but you can still get a feel for the Waterpocket Fold. Be sure to visit the remnant Mormon orchards at Fruita-you can stop here to pick some apples, apricots, peaches, pears, and cherries, depending on the season.

Afterwards, proceed to Hickman Bridge for a two-and-a-quarter-mile hike (one-way) on the Rim Overlook Trail, which leads to a vertiginous view of Fruita and the Fremont River Valley 1,000 feet below. For a taste of some of the park's really remote reaches, head south on unpaved Notom-Bullfrog Road to Burr Trail Road, where you'll find access to four-wheel-drive routes and canyoneering; check with the park headquarters for updated advice on these.

The park has just one developed campground in Fruita ($8 per site) with 70 sites, restrooms, and running water. There are also two primitive campgrounds with five sites each that have pit toilets but no water; pick up free permits at the visitor center. Call Capitol Reef National Park at 435-425-3791.

Copyright 1998, Outside magazine

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web