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As you all know, or in case you don’t, I love visiting and exploring the national parks. There are some that get tons of love and are some of the most famous national parks like Yellowstone, Zion, and the Grand Canyon, but I want to share a little bit about some of the more overlooked national parks I’ve been to over the last year and a half. There are a few in here that I just think are underrated, too, but still, get quite a few visitors. Note that all the numbers for visitors per year will be from 2016. I would highly recommend getting an America the Beautiful national park pass if you plan on visiting more than three. Also, this is just from parks I’ve visited so far.
What to bring camping in the national parks
Hiking poles – These will be helpful on longer hikes that are on the steeper side. They’ll be good if you have bad knees for when you’re going downhill and will give you something to lean on going up the hills.
Snacks – These are more important for long hikes, but you never know when you’ll get hungry! I like EPIC bars (kind of like beef jerky but different), Sahale nut mix things, and Moon Cheese. There’s always the good old Clif Bars and trail mix, too.
Cozy Sweatshirt – I have a few different Patagonia sweatshirts and love them all. They’re great for layering in cold weather. I have two Re-tools, a Better Sweater, and a Synchilla. Sometimes you can find them on sale on REI or Backcountry. I also like to keep an eye out for them on Poshmark (use code REDAROUNDWORLD for $10 off your first purchase) and Mercari (you can save $10 with that link as well!) I’ve found some really good deals on both.
Sleeping pad – Gotta make the tent comfy! The one I have isn’t available anymore but this one is similar. It’s self-inflating and just needs a little help filling all the way. Buy the sleeping pad here.
Pillow – If you’re just driving, I’d just bring a regular pillow, but if you’re flying then renting a car, you might want a smaller pillow. This is a good non-inflatible option. Here is a good inflatable option.
Lantern – I love having a lantern for in the tent at night, reading in the dark, or going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The LuminAID is my favorite and you can charge your phone on it. Buy the LuminAID lantern here.
Where: Mosca, Colorado
How much: $15
Visitors per year: 388,308
What not to miss: Rent a board in town to go sandboarding or sledding down the dunes. If that’s not your thing, just climb up the dunes for a good workout and awesome views. And if that sounds terrible, too, don’t worry. You can go hiking in the mountains and overlook the dunes from there.
Pro tip: Wear sunglasses or something to keep sand out of your eyes. It can be pretty windy there. Also, wear shoes in the summer as the sand gets really hot.
Where: Gunnison, Colorado
How much: $15
Visitors per year: 238,018
What not to miss: A trip down to the bottom of the canyon to admire the emerald river below. Hike along the south rim and admire the cliffs. If you have the time, head to the north rim to do some hiking and get even more awesome views.
Pro tip: Don’t listen to everyone saying the drive into the canyon is terrible or difficult. It was easy, just steep. Still, be cautious and watch for rocks on the road, but it’s not as bad as they make it seem.
Where: Torrey, Utah
How much: $10
Visitors per year: 1,064,904
What not to miss: Pick fruit in the orchards, drive and hike Capitol Gorge, see Hickman Bridge, and slosh through Sulphur Creek. There is so much to do. You can do a few hikes over a day or do all of Sulphur Creek in a day, or do part of it (starting from the visitors center) and a few other hikes. Cohab Canyon, Cassidy Arch, and Headquarters Canyon are three other awesome hikes in Capitol Reef.
If you don’t hike, there are still plenty of things to do in Capitol Reef.
Pro tip: If you do Sulphur Creek, the hike is 5.5 miles then there is another three-mile walk back to the trailhead. Keep that in mind. Either have a bike for one person to go get the car, hitchhike (we got a ride from some awesome strangers) or hoof it. Also, stay hydrated, it gets real hot here.
Where: Interior, South Dakota
How much: $20 per vehicle
Visitors per year: 996,263
What not to miss: The notch trail is perfect for getting into the Badlands and having views over them as well. There are tons of awesome overlooks along the scenic road and make sure to keep an eye out for bighorn sheep and pronghorn! If you’re feeling a little adventurous, consider visiting the Badlands in winter.
Pro tip: Definitely get out and hike in the park. I haven’t done as much there as I’d like, but it’s such a cool place. It can also get surprisingly hot here, so keep that in mind and dress in layers.
Where: Hot Springs, Arkansas
How much: Free!
Visitors per year: 1,544,300
What not to miss: Take a hike in the hills around the town, then spend an afternoon wandering between the shops and historic bathhouses. If you want to splurge, consider a spa treatment or two. ANd make sure you try some of the spring water. There are a few spigots to fill waterbottles around the park.
Pro tip: Eat at the Colonial Pancake and Waffle House for breakfast and head over to Kollective Coffee for a delicious cup of joe.
Where: Hopkins, South Carolina
How much: Free!
Visitors per year: 143,843
What not to miss: The boardwalk loop is a great way to see the park if you only have a few hours. There are a few other trails to get away from the already low crowds.
Pro tip: Keep an eye out for bugs and wildlife along the boardwalk and other trails. And don’t forget to pack your bug spray, especially in the summer!
Where: Baker, Nevada
How much: Free!
Visitors per year: 144,846
What not to miss: Lehman Cave is a must-see. Take a hike along the Alpine Lake Loop and take a side trip up to see the Bristlecones before heading back down. If you’re feeling really ambitious, climb Wheeler Peak, the highest peak in Nevada.
Pro tip: Book tickets for the cave tours on here or at the visitors center. If you want to do the longer cave tour, I would recommend booking in advance. Campgrounds are first-come, first-serve. The Upper Lehman Creek Campground is really nice. And finally, eat at Kerouac’s in Baker. It is so good!
Where: Carlsbad, New Mexico
How much: $10 per person
Visitors per year: 466,773
What not to miss: Do a self-guided tour through the Big Room or take a guided tour and squeeze through passageways in the Hall of White Giants. You can do hiking aboveground as well.
Pro tip: I would take a guided tour to see more of the cave. They need to be booked 48-hours ahead of time and can be booked on the same website as Lehman Cave. If you’re in the area, visit Roswell, too!
Hopefully, this has inspired you to see more of the parks, well known or not, and enjoy what they all have to offer. Don’t forget to stay hydrated and wear plenty of sunscreen during your hikes. And make sure you get to some of the more underrated national parks in America.
Have you been to any of these parks? What is your favorite underrated national park?