America has 63 main national parks in all corners of the country. When we hear Yosemite, we immediately picture majestic mountains and captivating waterfalls. Zion conjures images of narrow sandstone canyons and interesting rock formations. About 4.5 million people flock to see these geological anomalies each year. Yellowstone makes us think of Old Faithful shooting up its geyser and large mammals roaming freely on open meadows. Yet, there are underrated national parks that are just as beautiful as the popular ones but without the crowds.
At Road Scholar, we love our national parks — and our participants do, too! Our learning adventures to national parks have always been among the most popular. We offer amazing tours of the most popular national parks in the world, but what about those lesser-known gems? Have you ever gazed at the stars in an International Dark Sky Park, explored underwater trails, or visited the tiniest national park in America? Venture off the beaten path with our top picks for the most underrated national parks.
1 | Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is proof that good things can come in small packages. Hot Springs National Park stands out for being one of the lesser-known national parks and the tiniest of the country’s 63 national parks.
At only 5,500 acres, Hot Springs National Park is the only national park located in an urban area. In 1832, 40 years before Yellowstone became the nation’s first national park, President Andrew Jackson set aside the 47 hot springs as a special reservation. By the time the land became a national park in 1921, people had already been flocking to its soothing thermal waters, seeking healing and relaxation. So many, in fact, that a whole city sprung up around these natural springs. Experience the 143 F thermal waters for yourself!
2 | National Park of American Samoa
What’s not to love about a tropical paradise in the heart of the South Pacific? Located about 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii, the National Park of American Samoa is one of the most underrated national parks. This exotic oasis includes three volcanic islands — and 4,000 acres of the park are underwater. Trek through rainforests, snorkel in pristine water teeming with marine life and learn about “fa’asamoa,” the customs and traditions of the 3,000-year-old Samoan culture.
3 | Gates of the Arctic, Alaska
Gates of the Arctic is the northernmost national park with the second-largest land mass, spanning 8.4 million acres. This dramatic arctic landscape is not your typical national park — you won’t find roads or even trails. You will find solitude and fascinating ecosystems where humans have lived in harmony with the land for thousands of years. Prepare to be awed by the forces of nature: Glacier-carved valleys, untamed rivers and migrating caribou. This lesser-known national park is an untouched wilderness that offers no amenities, no cell service, and no citizens. Road Scholar offers several educational tours through Alaska’s national parks, from Denali to Kenai and more.
4 | Biscayne National Park, Florida
Sitting pretty in the northern Florida Keys, Biscayne National Park features an amazing array of marine ecosystems, including mangrove forests and coral reefs, which are 95% underwater. That means plenty of opportunities to spot diverse wildlife, like dolphins, crocodiles, manatees and peregrine falcons.
Visitors to this underrated national park love to snorkel, boat, camp and fish. But here’s the exciting part: The park’s Maritime Heritage Trail is the only underwater archaeological trail in the National Park System. Road Scholar offers spectacular tours of Florida’s most famous national parks, like the Everglades and other lesser-known national parks.
5 | Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
California has no shortage of amazing national parks, from the high desert topography of Joshua Tree to the redwood forest of Sequoia National Park. Tucked in the awe-inspiring landscape of central Northern California is one of the best lesser-known national parks called Lassen Volcanic National Park. Lassen is the least-visited national park in the state, with 500,000 visitors per year.
Lassen Peak is an active volcano that hasn’t erupted since 1917, so it’s most likely a safe hike to take to the top to enjoy the Cascade Range. There is also the beautiful crystal blue Manzanita Lake and a hydrothermal hot spot for relaxing spring water. Road Scholar would like to take you on one of the many learning adventure tours through California’s national parks to experience the natural environment at its finest.
6 | Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
This national park is a must for stargazers! In 2013, Chaco Culture National Historical Park became an International Dark Sky Park, which means the park’s naturally dark night skies are protected with strict lighting guidelines — perfect for admiring the beauty of the night sky. It should also be high on your list for the archaeological treasures you will find.
Chaco’s high-desert landscape is home to the extensive and fascinating ruins of ancient civilizations that thrived thousands of years ago. Learn about the Chacoan people and the amazing engineering feats that went into creating this ancient urban center.
7 | Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Petrified Forest National Park is tucked away in northeastern Arizona along Route 66. The park gets its name from the boulder-sized petrified logs dotting the desert landscape.
About 200 million years ago, the area was a tropical forest. Today, what remains is petrified wood made of solid quartz and minerals. Hiking trails are short, but they pack a wallop of wow as you get up close and personal with these prehistoric gems.
Road Scholar takes you on a journey through the well-known and lesser-known national parks of Arizona as a solo traveler, a senior traveler and even those traveling with families.
8 | Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Well, Mammoth is certainly an apt name for this one. The park boasts the longest cave system in the world, with 400 miles of explored and mapped caves. Visitors can find various geological treasures, like 300-million-year-old fossils and well-preserved artifacts from ancient civilizations. This park might be best known for its Frozen Niagara section, a sight to behold! You have to see it to believe it.
9 | Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Did you know Ohio has ancient rock formations, cascading waterfalls and 20,000 acres of natural wonders? Oh yes, there are, and I recommend venturing out to Cuyahoga Valley to experience this for yourself. Hike to the top of Brandywine Falls, a 65-foot waterfall that cascades down rocks carved by the Brandywine Creek. It’s an especially beautiful place to enjoy in the fall, with the vibrant changing leaves. Train buffs will enjoy this park, too. Learn about the region’s history and culture on a train trek along the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
10 | Shenandoah National Park
What a fantastic retreat from the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C.! This underrated national park is home to waterfalls, mountains, forests and meadows. It features more than 500 miles of wooded trails, the spectacular Skyline Drive and 200,000 acres of protected land. Shenandoah National Park trails even include part of the famed Appalachian Trail. Hoping for some wildlife sightings? More than 50 species of mammals call Shenandoah National Park home. It’s also a great place for bird watchers!
11 | Congaree National Park, South Carolina
One of America’s most underrated national parks is Congaree National Park in South Carolina. The park is known for its diverse wilderness shaped by its old-growth floodplain, scenic waterways and rich biodiversity. There are several reasons why this lesser-known national park is one of our favorites. Some of the top attractions you can enjoy in Congaree National Park include:
- Boardwalk Loop Trail: This is an easy 2.6-mile loop from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center throughout the bottomland, where you walk through graceful bald cypress trees emerging from the water. Bottomlands are described as a river swamp, typically found in the floodplains of rivers, with a wide range of trees like oaks, cypress and tupelos. This trail is also perfect for birdwatchers and nature lovers, as you can spot a wide array of plant and animal life.
- Harry Hampton Visitor Center: This serves as the park’s primary information hub, where you can learn about the park’s natural and cultural history through immersive exhibits, park ranger programs and educational displays. Here, you can also speak with staff to learn about trails, safety and activities going on in the park.
- Cedar Creek: To fully immerse yourself among the bald cypresses, oak and gum trees, venture off to Cedar Creek, where you can rent a kayak and paddle your way through the swamp. Underrated national parks like Congaree National Park allow you to explore the area with fewer crowds to enjoy the sights and sounds the landscape offers.
12 | New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia
Another one of the most underrated national parks is New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia. As one of our most popular national parks, New River Gorge National Park brings program participants to the Appalachian Mountains in southern West Virginia to take in the stunning landscapes defined by the New River Gorge Bridge. Here are some of the top highlights of this lesser-known national park:
- New River Gorge Bridge: Contrary to what the name might suggest, New River is considered one of the oldest rivers in the world. One of the best ways to view this river is by traversing the New River Gorge Bridge, one of the highest bridges in the United States. There are daily tours of the bridge, where visitors can walk from one end of the catwalk to the other while wearing a safety harness attached to a safety line. There are also several vantage points across the park where you can marvel at the engineering of this bridge as it cuts through the landscape.
- Whitewater Rafting: For outdoor enthusiasts, embarking on a whitewater rafting tour brings you through New River’s challenging rapids. Guided rafting tours cater to a variety of skill levels, ensuring everyone can partake in a whitewater rafting adventure. All of our most popular travel programs have exciting activities, and at New River Gorge National Park, whitewater rafting is a top pick.
- Canyon Rim Visitor Center: Some of the best places to visit in all national parks are the visitor centers, and the Canyon Rim Visitor Center in New River Gorge National Park is no different. Here, you can learn about the park’s history, geology and recreational opportunities, as well as take in the stunning views of the gorge and the bridge.
13 | Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Another one of America’s most underrated national parks is Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. On our New Mexico travel tours, you can cross Carlsbad Caverns National Park off your list. This National Park is located in the Guadalupe Mountains in southeastern New Mexico and is renowned for its underground caverns, unique geological formations and diverse cave ecosystem. Here’s what makes this lesser-known national park so special:
- The Big Room: The most visited area of Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the Big Room, which is the largest and most famous cave chamber in the park, with a 1.25-mile trail bringing you throughout this chamber. Whether you take a self-guided or expert-led tour, you can discover stalactites, stalagmites, columns and other unique cave formations.
- Natural Entrance Trail: Another 1.25-mile trail is the Natural Entrance Trail, which is extremely steep and more intensive than the Big Room, with 750 feet of elevation lost. If you’re up for the challenge, this trail consists of several switchbacks with unique perspectives of the geological features and the ability to make stops at spots like Devil’s Spring, Iceberg Rock and the Whale’s Mouth.
- Bat Flight Program: This program allows visitors to witness Brazilian free-tailed bats emerge from the cave entrance at dusk for their nightly endeavors while learning about these fascinating animals from park rangers.
14 | Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
We have Isle Royale National Park in Michigan to complete our list of the most underrated national parks. Isle Royale National Park is in the remote and pristine wilderness along the northwest corner of Lake Superior and is known for its rugged landscapes, diverse ecosystems and opportunities for solitude and exciting outdoor adventures. Here are some top highlights of one of America’s most underrated national parks:
- Hiking: Isle Royale National Park offers an abundance of day hikes and backpacking adventures. Top day hikes include going to Suzy’s Cave, found on the eastern end of the park with a stunning inland sea arch and the Stoll Memorial Trail, an easy hiking trail offering sweeping views of Lake Superior. Some top backpacking trips include the 40-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail or the 30-mile Feldtmann Loop.
- Wildlife viewing: Isle Royale National Park is home to a large collection of wildlife species, including gray wolves, moose, red foxes and various bird species.
- Water activities: There are numerous water activities you can enjoy in this national park, including circumnavigating the island by boat, kayaking and scuba diving to discover well-preserved shipwrecks.
Enroll in Your National Park Adventure With Road Scholar
Our national park educational tours allow travelers to discover the world’s most iconic destinations. From group national park tours rafting down the Colorado River to exploring Denali National Park in Alaska, Road Scholar has unique learning experiences through travel to offer.