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It’s always a good time to get outside – especially now! National parks are some of our favorite destinations for outdoor exploration, incredible views, encounters with nature, fascinating history, and even a little luxury. With more than 423 national parks across the United States, the options are nearly endless.

Five Favorite Off-the-Beaten-Path National Parks

Yosemite and the Grand Canyon are gorgeous, which makes them popular destinations for millions of tourists each year. That’s why we prefer some of the lesser-known national parks for their bounty of natural beauty and plentiful room to explore. Opt for a smaller park to avoid long entry lines, crowded viewing areas, and large tour groups. Here are five of our favorites:

1. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

This is one of the most ecologically diverse of the least-visited national parks, with unique geography that creates a magical feeling for every visitor. With more than 25 miles of hiking trails, you’ll want to experience this astonishing natural area on foot. Take a guided walking tour, and you won’t miss a single thing. Also be sure to glide along the Cedar Creek canoe trail, where you can paddle the mystical waterways before you head back to your rustic camping site for dinner and rest. There are three campgrounds to choose from, all of which require a free overnight permit from the park.

Must-see:

  • Take a lovely hike along the easy 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail to see some of the oldest trees in the park.
  • Congaree is two hours from Charleston, so it pairs well with an overnight stay to see this historic port city.

Favorite accommodations: Hotel Trundle Columbia, southern hospitality with Art Deco glam; Chestnut Cottage, a charming bed-and-breakfast

2. Arches National Park, Utah

Located in eastern Utah, this park is adjacent to the Colorado River, four miles north of Moab. More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches are located in the park, including the well-known Delicate Arch, and a variety of unique geological resources and formations. The park contains the highest density of natural arches in the world. It’s beyond beautiful.

Must-see:

  • Explore the Landscape Arch and Double-O Arch.
  • Don’t miss the dinosaur tracks and petroglyph panels!

Favorite accommodations: Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa, with mountain and river views; Moab Springs Ranch guest cabins exude rustic refinement

3. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Also near Moab, Canyonlands preserves a colorful landscape eroded into numerous canyons, mesas, and buttes by the Colorado River, the Green River, and their respective tributaries. This park is a great alternative to the Grand Canyon! Bonus: You can visit both the Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park within the same trip, because they are near each other.

Must-see:

  • Don’t miss the Mesa Arch, a spectacular sight just a half mile hike from the road.
  • To see the most remote areas of the Canyonlands, try a helicopter tour.

Favorite accommodations: Our picks for Arches National Park are great options for Canyonlands, too!

4. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

This park contains 12 miles of the 48-mile long Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, which carved the canyon’s 2,000-foot-tall walls. The park itself contains the deepest and most dramatic sections of the chasm, many of which are accessible by ranger-led boat rides offering up-close views of the inner canyon. Other areas are so narrow they only receive 33 minutes of sunlight a day, giving the Black Canyon its name. The best views of the park can be seen from hiking trails along the rim that range from one to five miles long. Or simply sit back with a fishing pole next to the Gunnison River or relax at one of two developed campgrounds.

Must-see:

  • The Gunnison River boasts a Gold Medal Waters designation, with outstanding angling opportunities for large trout.
  • Black Canyon is an International Dark Sky Park perfect for stargazing; it offers many chances for night-sky viewing and constellation tours, including some with telescopes.

Favorite accommodations: LeRoux Creek Inn and Vineyards in nearby wine country; Uncompahgre Bed & Breakfast in a former schoolhouse

5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Open year round, you’ll find that there’s always something to discover in the Great Smoky Mountains, no matter the season.

Make sure to check out the ¾-mile Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, push bigger miles and chase a couple of waterfalls on the Deep Creek Trail, or stroll the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail to see the Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. (Hint: Walk behind the 25-foot-high Grotto Falls via the Trillium Gap Trail.) There are even historic log cabins and the remains of a mountain village, the Roaring Fork Cemetery, and an array of wildlife from birds and deer to black bears.

Must-see:

  • Take a scenic steam train ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
  • The Sugarlands Visitor Center has a museum, a free 20-minute film about the park, and trailheads just outside.

Favorite accommodations: Blackberry Farm, a chef-driven resort; cozy safari tents at Under Canvas

The Travel Team is here to help make the most out of a national parks vacation close to home or clear across the country. Our travel advisors can offer tips on:

  • The best times to view wildlife, wildflowers, and other attractions
  • Local tour guides and custom itineraries full of unique experiences in each park
  • Hotels, bed-and-breakfasts lodges, camping expeditions, and other accommodations near the parks. (Pro tip: Lodging is usually limited, and those closest to park entrances fill up early. Booking far in advance is smart!)
  • All the resources you need to prepare for your adventure, including packing lists, travel plans, entrance costs, maps, and points of interest nearby

Whether you’re looking forward to fun with the whole family or a romantic trip for two, let’s get together and plan a national parks vacation customized to what you would like to see and do.

Plan Your Escape

Begin your adventure by filling out the form below or calling 1 (800) 245-8326 to contact one of our dedicated travel experts.
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