Our Favorite Under-the-Radar National Parks to Visit

Our Favorite Under-the-Radar National Parks to Visit

With Great American Outdoors Day right around the corner, it got me thinking about what National Park I should visit next.

Never heard of Great American Outdoors Day? Me either -- until I saw it on the list of Free Entrance Days for the National Parks.

Free Entrance Days fall on the same holidays year over year. Here's this year's dates:

2023 National Park Free Entrance Days

January 16 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day  
April 22 – First Day of National Park Week  
August 4 – Great American Outdoors Day  
September 23 – National Public Lands Day  
November 11 – Veterans Day  


So, what is Great American Outdoors Day? Quick history lesson. 

In 2020, a bipartisan act was signed into law called the Great American Outdoors Act, providing funding for maintenance and repairs of infrastructure within the over 85 million acres of parks and programs overseen by the National Parks Services.  (You can read the nitty gritty of it here.)

To celebrate the act becoming law, August 4th was named Great American Outdoors Day and is celebrated each year with a free entrance day to National Parks. And there you have it. (Told you it'd be quick.) 

We'll take any reason to get outdoors!

But how do you decide which park to visit?

Did you know that of the 63 US National Parks, 52% of all recreational visits were to the 10 most visited parks?

Top 10 Most Visited National Parks 2022 in order of popularity.
  1. Great Smoky Mountain
  2. Grand Canyon
  3. Zion
  4. Rocky Mountain
  5. Acadia
  6. Yosemite
  7. Yellowstone
  8. Joshua Tree
  9. Cuyahoga Valley
  10. Glacier

Them are some busy parks!  For good reason. They're stunning! If you haven't been, you should plan on it. BUT...

If you want to avoid the crowds and find a hidden gem . . . then read on for some equally beautiful, under-the-radar National Parks you're sure to love.

I polled the OE team and here are a few suggestions of spectacularly surprising and stunningly serene National Parks you've gotta go see.

Alrighty! Brace yourself for a list of National Parks that will blow your mind and soothe your soul. 


Redwood National Park in California

 Redwood National Park
image courtesy www.nps.com
"We walked through a grove of trees that were over 2000 years old. They touched the heavens and it felt sacred. Just think of the history these giant redwoods endured! It also felt like I was visiting Jurassic Park with giant banana slugs and massive ferns.
Standing on a fallen tree in Redwood National Park Holding a banana slug in Redwood National Park 
My eldest daughter standing on a fallen tree & then holding a banana slug in Redwood National Park
Morning run in Redwood National Park
Morning 5 mile with my bride and our eldest daughter in Redwood National Park


"As my bride, Noelle, and our eldest daughter, and I went for a 5-mile morning run (with exactly zero people in the park the whole time we were running), Noelle was worried about bears, but I may have turned my head looking for a velociraptor a couple of times. 

Family tree hug in Redwood National Park
Group hug! 
"Fun Fact: While the sequoia is the largest tree in the world in volume and has an immense trunk and very small taper to the top; the redwood is the world's tallest tree and has a slender trunk…but I still couldn’t get my family of 6 to collectively get around a redwood for a full hug. This is my kids favorite National Park. It’s hard to disagree. Plus, a drive to the ocean beach is just a few minutes away." -Mike 




Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park
image courtesy www.nps.com
"Three and a half years ago, I ran a 50-mile race around the Bryce Canyon NP area. There is nothing like it. This park represents much reflection and self-discovery. The red hoodoos pressed against the evergreen backdrop are breathtaking. I have not seen anything like it.
Just a glimpse of hoodoos at the Bryce Amphitheater in Bryce Canyon
Picture taken in Bryce Amphitheater of Bryce Canyon - it's a must see! Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon
Hoodoos in the background. Bryce Canyon has the greatest concentration of hoodoos in the world!


"At Bryce Canyon, the hoodoos range in size from 6-foot to heights exceeding a 10-story building. Below is Thor's Hammer...I knew I was not worthy of it, so I did not grab it. It gets pretty cold here as it rests at an elevation of 7,664 feet above sea level.

 Thor's Hammer hoodoo in Bryce Canyon

Thor's Hammer in Bryce Canyon


"If you are visiting you must take the short 1.5 miles Navajo Loop that begins at Sunset Point and goes down into Bryce Amphitheater through a slot canyon where a large Douglas Fir tree appears to have defied all odds growing between massive rock structure and stretches into sunlight high above.


Douglas Fir grows out of rocks in Bryce Canyon Gotta hug this tree out of respect for its perseverance
So much respect for this fir's example of perseverance!


"Once I saw it and realized the life lesson, I had to give it a hug. …I was not the only one hugging this evergreen. It might be the world’s most hugged tree." - Mike 

 Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
image courtesy www.nps.com
"I haven't yet visited this park, but it is definitely on my list! Sand sledding in the tallest dunes in North America looks ridiculously fun! And as an International Dark Sky Park, the view of the stars is said to be incredible, especially on a moonless night.


"The image above by the National Park Service doesn't show the park justice with the incredible diversity of the nearby surroundings including the Colorado mountains in the background, and forests, wetlands and alpine lakes nearby. Just scroll through their site and see so many stunning images.


There's also this recent write-up of 10 Extraordinary Facts about Great Sand Dunes NP by OutThere Colorado that really showcases the wonders of the park. The dunes look intriguing. Can't wait to visit!" - Joe

Canyonlands National Park in Utah

Canyonlands National Park
image courtesy www.nps.com.


"Hiking, four-wheeling, horseback riding, mountain biking & river trips. Need I say more? So much to do and so much to see! 

"Canyonlands is more than 300,000 acres of high desert. There are four districts in the park divided by the Green and Colorado rivers: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze and the rivers themselves. Each area is unique.


Rock art in Horseshoe Canyon within Canyonlands National Park
image courtesy www.nps.com/Neal Herbert

"And if the buttes and canyons weren't enough, the archeology in the area is fascinating as well. Stunning Native American rock art of ancestral Puebloans within Horseshoe Canyon displays among other things, life-sized figures painted on and etched into the rock. And there's so much more, including cliff dwellings and other ruins.

"Canyonlands offers views into the past and vast views beyond the horizon in all directions. Breathtaking." -Joe 


Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New MexicoCarlsbad Cavern National Park

image courtesy www.nps.com

"For years we've driven the highways from Utah to Texas to visit family for the summer. One year on our drive back, we added a day to our travels to take in Carlsbad Caverns.

"Carlsbad was off the beaten path for us but well worth the trip. This is the cave of caves. With huge rooms and crazy, fascinating formations throughout the cave, there's so much to gawk at. Living art!

bats exiting Carlsbad Caverns
image courtesy www.nps.com
"Bonus the caves are downright cold! So refreshingly cold -- a stark contrast to the soaring New Mexico heat. I suggest bringing a light jacket or long-sleeve shirt. Oh, and be sure to stay for the night show. You don't want to miss the bats flying out of the caves at dusk. Absolutely mesmerizing!"  - Maylynn

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park
image courtesy www.nps.com

"Our family drove to Mesa Verde, not really knowing what to expect. Each stop along the loop was like stepping back in time. We walked in and around cliff dwellings as well as excavated mesa-top villages built more than 700 years ago by people of the Pueblo tribe.

While at Mesa Verde, a thunderstorm rolled in. I'm telling you -- lightning is no joke when standing on top of the mesas! Word for the wise: stay safe in your car until the storm passes.

Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park
image courtesy www.nps.com
"Once the storm cleared, we took in amazing sites like Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. The ingenuity and perseverance of those that came before astounds me." -Maylynn  
Here's a wishlist of more Under-the-Radar National Parks that caught our attention but we haven't yet been to. Looks like we got some more traveling to do!
Have you been to any of these? If so, share deets of what you loved best about them! 


Congaree National Park in South Carolina

Congaree National Park


Isle Royale National Park in Michigan

Isle Royale National Park



North Cascades National Park in Washington

North Cascade National Park



Capitol Reef National Park in Utah 

Capitol Reef National Park


Whatever your destination, Explore with Confidence. We'll see you on the trails!
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What National Park will you visit next? Got one we should add to our list?

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