When Fred and Debbie Koegler told friends they were taking their two boys to spend Christmas in a national park, everybody assumed they’d be surrounded by rocky peaks and pine trees in some snowbound mountain lodge. Quite the contrary. Instead, they spent the holiday south of the equator on a deserted jungle-backed beach, snorkeling amid one of the Pacific’s most pristine coral reefs in the National Park of American Samoa, one of America’s least-visited national parks.
“The island of Ofu was spectacular, and we had the beach all to ourselves,” Fred says. “The beach was just beautiful, with crystal-clear waters and a reef just off shore.”
For part of their weeklong tour through the three-island, 13,500-acre national park, the Koeglers were guests of a local family, a homestay made possible by the fact that Samoans play an integral role in the park’s management and visitor experience.
“Our hosts took us through the jungle to a cave where the fruit bats live—it was an amazing sight, for sure,” said Debbie.
The National Park of American Samoa is just one of the hidden-gem national parks ready to be explored this summer. Of the 400 national parks, the big four (Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Great Smoky Mountains) attract the most visitors while many of the parks like American Samoa, Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison, California’s Channel Islands, and Michigan’s Isle Royale remain largely empty.
“Oh, those are beautiful, beautiful parks,” Debbie says of the big four. “But there are so many exquisite, unexpected landscapes to enjoy in our national parks that if you only go to the big ones, you’re missing out.”
And the Koeglers would know. The retired Los Angeles teachers have spent more than 40 summers in California’s Yosemite National Park, where Fred works as a seasonal horse patrol ranger, and over the last 20 years the couple has visited more than 400 parks, monuments, seashores, recreation sites, and historical sites operated by the National Park Service. In total, there are over 2,500 separate units in this category, spread across the country from the Arctic Circle to below the South Pacific and the California coast to the Caribbean Sea.
“We love our parks,” Debbie says. “We started this adventure in 1995 and have enjoyed every moment.”
Recently, the Koeglers accepted the National Park Travelers Club’s Platinum Lifetime Achievement Award for their accomplishments at the group’s annual convention. While few will see all of the country’s parks, many share the couple’s passion for them, said John Giorgis, the club’s president emeritus.
Today, membership exceeds 1,400. "Most of our members’ favorite parks are the ones most folks have never heard of,” says Giorgis.
Indeed, while the masses migrate to the biggest, most popular parks, smart travelers can have the lesser-known (not necessarily smaller: Wrangell-St. Elias is bigger than Switzerland) parks all to themselves. Many offer comparable scenery and interpretive ranger programming, Giorgis says, and you can avoid traffic, lines, and other impediments to enjoyment.
On a trip to Cleveland, Giorgis took his two-year-old son on Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s scenic railroad. “Most people don’t even realize there’s a national park in Ohio,” he says. “We had a great time—my son loves trains, so I think it’s now his favorite park.”
Exploring the lesser-known national parks doesn’t just make for a great long weekend or vacation; it also helps protect these landscapes and heritage sites for future generations, said Marjorie Taft Hall, director of communications for the National Park Foundation, the congressionally chartered charity supporting the National Park Service.
“Our parks are more than the sum of their beautiful scenery—they’re living classrooms of our natural and cultural heritage,” she says. “They’re the birthright of every American, and they belong to us, so the more we enjoy them responsibly, the more we ensure they’ll be around for future generations.”
Ready to find your new favorite national park? Check out our list of hidden gems, and begin planning your getaway.