You’ve spotted geysers in Yellowstone, hiked to waterfalls in Yosemite, and pedaled the Cades Cove Loop in the Smoky Mountains. Good for you. That means it’s time to visit some of America’s lesser-known national parks—places that draw smaller crowds but are equally astounding. At these hidden gems, from Alaska to South Carolina, you’ll hike through watery caves, examine ancient cliff dwellings, and ride a bush plane to Arctic sand dunes.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
The longest-known cave system in the world isn’t located is some far-flung, exotic locale. It’s in south-central Kentucky. At Mammoth Cave National Park, more than 400 miles of caverns have been mapped—with more on the way. Sign up for an underground ranger-led hike, mountain bike more than 20 miles of trails, or float the Green River in a kayak. The park features three developed campgrounds, but we suggest the Kentucky Grand Hotel in nearby Bowling Green for its historic rooms, free breakfast, and new speakeasy-style bar in the lobby (from $259). The White Squirrel Brewery, a short walk away, has chicken and waffles and good microbrew.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
History buffs will love Mesa Verde National Park, located in southwestern Colorado, a 90-minute drive from Durango, where you can visit some 5,000 archeological sites once home to the Ancestral Pueblo people. Take a self-guided tour of the famous cliff dwellings, and don’t miss the panoramic views from Park Point Lookout, a functioning historic fire lookout tower. Thanks to the park’s low-key vibe, you won’t have any trouble getting a last-minute campsite at Morefield Campground (from $30), four miles inside the park’s entrance. Fuel up with the all-you-can eat pancake breakfast at Knife Edge Café in Morefield's village.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Located 30 minutes outside Columbia, South Carolina, Congaree is home to the country’s largest swath of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest. Take in some of the park’s tallest trees by foot from the seven-mile round-trip Oakridge Trail or by canoe on Cedar Creek. The more adventurous can commit to a multiday backpacking trip into the park’s 21,000 acres of wilderness. Go in early summer to catch the exceptional synchronous fireflies that light up the night sky for a week or two each year. The park has two campgrounds, or you can book a stay in a rustic log cabin at Poinsett State Park, 45 minutes away. Little Pigs Barbecue in Columbia is well worth a visit afterward.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Who knew hiking in remote West Texas could be this diverse? At Big Bend National Park, you can stroll through cacti and limestone canyons in the Chihuahuan Desert, walk along the edge of the Rio Grande, or climb the 7,825-foot Emory Peak in the Chisos Mountains. Bring your passport—the park straddles the border, and you can ferry over to Mexico for a short international trip. The Chisos Mountains Lodge (from $147), located within the park, has stone cottages, RV sites, and overlanding tours. Drop by the Starlight Theatre, in nearby Terlingua, for massive burgers and nightly live music.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
There’s not much near Great Basin National Park, in eastern Nevada. It’s nearly four hours from both Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, which makes it the perfect place to get away and stargaze. Reserve a ranger-led tour of Lehman Caves, summit the 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, and hike 60 miles of trail through bristlecone pine forests. The park has five campgrounds (from $15), and the Stargazer Inn, five miles away in Baker, has ten rooms (from $75) and an accompanying restaurant called Kerouac’s, which opened in 2017 as a welcome pit stop for weary travelers.
Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
Getting to Kobuk Valley National Park is no easy feat. You’ll fly from Anchorage to Kotzebue (population: 3,266), then hop a chartered air taxi into the roadless Kobuk Valley, where fog, wind, and heavy rain often delay flights. But once you’re there, you’ll have the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes—towering, 100-foot drifts that look more like the Sahara than Alaska—practically to yourself. Bring a pack raft to float the Kobuk River, or venture to Onion Portage, a National Historic Landmark where indigenous people have gathered for 9,000 years to harvest caribou. The Kobuk River Lodge has three guest rooms (from $175), serves three meals a day, and offers guided fishing packages and a hike-and-boat tour of the dunes.