America’s Best Secret National Parks
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.
National Park of American Samoa
Samoa translates to “sacred earth,” and this park, comprising 13,500 tropical acres (4,000 acres of which are marine ecosystems) over three volcanic islands in American Samoa, protects the ecosystems and traditions of Polynesia’s oldest culture. The only park in the Southern Hemisphere (in fact, it’s closer to New Zealand than the U.S. mainland), it relies on Samoans for the management of its stunning rainforest, beaches, and coral reefs. On Tutuila, American Samoa’s largest island, towering volcanic ridges hang over the azure waters of Pago Pago Harbor, while on Ta’u, the easternmost island, visitors can scale rainforest-shrouded Lata Mountain, the territory’s highest peak at 3,000 feet, from which the views of the sea are unbeatable. Among the cherished fauna on this island is the endangered flying fox—a fruit bat with the wingspan of a barn owl, responsible for pollinating the island’s copious fruit trees and shrubs. But the park’s real gem is the hardest to get to: Ofu beach, on the eponymous island 60 miles east of Tutuila. The waters off this jungle-backed stretch of sand protect one of the finest coral reefs in the Pacific—a snorkelers’ paradise.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Copper Center, Alaska
Four mountain ranges—the volcanic Wrangell, the Alaska, the Chugach and the coastal St. Elias—and more than 150 glaciers converge in this 13.2 million–acre wonderland, our country’s largest national park (it's larger than the entire country of Switzerland). This is pure mountain wilderness, pierced by just two winding dirt roads. One of those roads terminates in the quirky mining town of McCarthy, the last bush community inside a national park, at the foot of the Root and Kennicott glaciers. Strap on the crampons and explore deep ravines cut by glacial streams that cascade into the glacier’s icy depths. A dazzling waterfall tumbles off of Donoho Peak, separating the two glaciers; rising beyond it, the perennially snowcapped, 16,390-foot Mount Blackburn is one of the park’s most spectacular volcanic massifs. Anglers—and foodies—know all about delicious Copper River red salmon, and sockeye, coho, and king salmon can be plucked from the braided Copper River every summer. Or hike up one of the river’s countless tributaries to a backcountry lake where Dolly Varden, lake, cutthroat, and rainbow trout thrive, along with burbot and grayling.
Channel Islands National Park in Channel Islands, California
Looking for empty beaches within 100 miles of Los Angeles? Hop a catamaran and cross the Santa Barbara Channel to this gorgeous archipelago of eight islands, stretching from Newport Beach to Santa Barbara. Despite their proximity to the SoCal metropolis, the five northern islands (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara) that make up the 250,000-acre park are among the system’s less visited—all the better for a beach picnic at Santa Cruz’s Scorpion Anchorage, a scalloped, pebbly cove from which you can snorkel through kelp forests or kayak along craggy cliffs. For an even more isolated experience, make the trip to San Miguel Island, the westernmost 9,500-acre island-plateau above the Pacific. The journey to this wild, windswept island pays off in a 16-mile hike to Point Bennett over a wildflower-strewn expanse—gum plant, buckwheat, poppies, and verbena remain in bloom through the summer. Point Bennett is one of the most isolated beaches in the world and a sanctuary for harbor seals, northern fur seals, northern elephant seals, and California sea lions.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Gunnison, Colorado
The snow atop Colorado’s towering West Elk Mountains melts into the roaring Gunnison River, which plunges west toward the mighty Colorado River, carving this 53-mile chasm—one of the deepest and narrowest canyons in North America. Reaching depths of 2,722 feet, this canyon is an (expert) rock climber’s dream; Painted Wall is the tallest vertical rock wall in the state at 2,250 feet, and even seasoned climbers struggle with the North Chasm View Wall at over 2,000 feet. The park offers plenty of action for the less-extreme adventurer: The hike to the canyon’s bottom is exhilarating, and the Long Draw trail accesses one of the narrowest parts of the canyon. The Oak Flat Loop Trail wanders along the rim through Gambel oak before ascending through Douglas fir and aspen to an unmarked overlook peering down the Gunnison into the abyss. Winters are also wonderful here; the park rents snowshoes free of charge for guided treks over Devil’s Lookout, where white snowdrifts contrast brilliantly with the canyon’s black walls.
Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, Michigan
Step off the seaplane or Park Service-operated ferry onto this splendid 132,000-acre archipelago protruding from the depths of the world’s largest freshwater lake, and you’re on your own in an untamed wilderness of lakes and boreal forest. Well, maybe not entirely on your own—the park is a haven for moose and endangered gray wolves, which circle each other in a fascinating prey-predator dance. Scientists believe moose swam to the island from the mainland at the beginning of the 20th century and, with no predator in sight, quickly began to overrun the archipelago. As the ecosystem teetered on the edge of destruction, Mother Nature found a way to save it in the 1940s, when gray wolves began crossing winter ice bridges to reach the islands’ veritable moose buffet. Vehicles aren’t allowed, and you have to pack in and pack out everything you’ll need to survive. If stomping through foggy, muddy forest isn’t your bag, bring a canoe or kayak on the ferry for miles of paddling along the rocky coastline of some 450 isles. Scuba diving in the frigid waters is also popular; the park protects a variety of shipwrecks in outstanding condition.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Peninsula, Ohio
Ohio’s only national park protects the 33,000 acres and countless cultural and natural treasures along the Cuyahoga River between Cleveland and Akron. The waterway, dubbed the “crooked” river by its first Mohawk residents, has supported hemlock forest, farming communities, and even the Industrial Revolution, as the Ohio and Erie Canal once sliced through the landscape in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The hike to Brandywine Falls is an extremely popular jaunt, especially in the fall. Or stay far from the madding crowd and hike to Blue Hen Falls, a 15-foot waterfall over a protruding shale plate. For more isolation, take the Buckeye Trail for a picnic in a pristine stand of hemlocks. The park’s Beaver Marsh is a reminder of how nature’s majesty can flourish when simply left alone. In 1985, the park acquired a dump that was a remnant of the Ohio and Erie Canal with plans to turn it into a parking lot. Before it could be paved over, however, a resurgent beaver population built a series of dams that flooded the area, restoring it to a wetland teeming with birds, otter, and, of course, beaver.
Congaree National Park in Hopkins, South Carolina
Don’t call it a swamp. Spreading northeast from the Congaree River, this 27,000-acre park is a floodplain forest, the largest intact tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood in the country. Eight to 12 times each year, the nutrient- and sediment-rich waters of the Congaree and Wateree rivers flood the park, rejuvenating the landscape for the bobcats, deer, and river otters it houses. Bird-watchers flock to the park to witness the grandeur of yellow-bellied sapsuckers by day and barred owls by night—in fact, the park’s ranger-guided Owl Prowl is one of the most popular programs. There are more than 25 miles of hiking trails and a 2.4-mile boardwalk loop trail to explore, but one of the best ways to see this unique American ecosystem is by canoe or kayak. Rent your rig in nearby Columbia, and paddle the marked Cedar Creek trail, an almost mystic journey over water teeming with turtles, snakes, and even alligators and through Spanish moss draped over bald cypress and water tupelo trees.