Outdoors

National Park Bucket List: 5 Lesser-Known National Parks You Need to See

If you’ve ever visited Yellowstone in July, you know what it’s like to fight the crowds. Tourists from all over the world flock to the park’s main attractions to get a glimpse of its rare beauty.

While Yellowstone is beautiful, and worth braving some crowds for, it’s not your only option when it comes to beautiful national parks.

The US has 58 national parks spread all over the country, from Alaska to Hawaii. Although many of the parks don’t share the international fame of Yellowstone and Yosemite, they all offer up their own brand of natural beauty.

Escape the crowds this year and visit some of those places that just miss the national park A-list. Here are 5 lesser-known national parks you can’t miss in 2019.

1. Big Bend National Park – Texas

Santa Elena Canyon

If you’re looking for a park that’s not swamped with tourists, Big Bend National Park is what you need. Because of its remote location, it brings in less than 300,000 tourists in a year. But it’s worth the drive out to west Texas to check it out.

Big Bend gets its name from the Rio Grande River. It’s located in the heart of the “big bend” in the river as it meanders down from El Paso to the Gulf. The park prides itself on its scenic isolation.

This desert landscape offers you vast, scenic views of Mexico’s Chihuahuan Mountains, just across the Rio Grande River. It even has a border crossing within the park’s boundaries. So be sure to bring your passport.

The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is a 30-mile drive through the park. It brings you through stunning views of the mountain range. The road is dotted with scenic pull-offs and information stations. Learn about the geological and historical points of interest in the area.

The drive ends up at Santa Elena Canyon, a steep limestone canyon cut into the mountains by the Rio Grande. You can take a day hike down to the canyon floor and along the rim. And float trips down the river through the canyon are also a popular attraction.

2. Badlands National Park – South Dakota

Badlands at Sunset

What could be bad about something called the “Badlands?” Badlands National Park is south of the I-90 corridor on your way to Rapid City, SD.

The name is derived from a Lakota phrase, “mako sica” meaning “land bad.” The native people called it this because of its large temperature swings, dry climate, and rugged landscape. It’s an area rich in paleontological and Native American history.

The most popular way to explore this park is to take Loop 240 from I-90. The loop takes about 60 minutes to drive if you don’t make any stops. But you’ll want to make stops.

All through the loop are scenic overlooks that lead to hiking trails. Get your hiking footwear ahead of time at any Gander Outdoors location.

You’ll see how land gives way to erosion with the sharp drop of the buttes from the grasslands on the north side to the valley on the south. The terrain mixes with tall cliffs and pinnacles that offer spectacular views.

The area is a hotspot for fossil hunters. Inside the main visitor’s center, you can check out the fossil prep lab to watch the paleontologists at work.

Highway 240 loops through the park and comes out in the city of Wall, SD. You may have heard about the city’s famous drug store, Wall Drug. And if you haven’t, you’ll surely know about it after the drive out there.

Signs for Wall Drug start to appear hundreds of miles outside of the park in all directions. And they continue every few miles until you reach the city of Wall. Visit Wall Drug for some homemade donuts, a plethora of souvenirs, and free ice-cold water. You can even have your picture taken with a giant Jackalope.

And only 55 miles west of Wall, SD is Rapid City, SD and the entrance to the beautiful Black Hills National Forest. A visit to Badlands National Park offers you a ton of other great experiences within a few hundred miles.

3. Dry Tortugas National Park – Florida

Fort Jefferson Moat

Headed down to the Florida Keys? You must pay a visit to Dry Tortugas National Park. It’s one of the most unique national parks in the country.

The park consists of 7 remote Keys about 70 miles west of Key West. It gets its name from the first Spanish explorers who grounded there hundreds of years ago. The islands were full of giant turtles (Tortugas in Spanish) that the explorers took with them as meat on board their ships. The area was later deemed “dry” because of the lack of fresh water.

But the islands make up only a tiny part of the park, as most of the area is underwater. You’ll find almost every type of underwater interest here. There are colorful coral reefs, hundreds of shipwrecks just below the surface, and a host of marine life. All lying below the clear, turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Dry Tortugas is only accessible by boat or plane. You can take a ferry the 70 miles from Key West to Fort Jefferson, located on Garden Key.

The fort was built in 1846 and contains over 16 million bricks, the largest brick structure in the country. It encompasses 16 acres within its walls.

Throughout the park, you’ll find beautiful swimming beaches. Snorkeling and scuba diving are popular too because of the hundreds of shipwrecks that surround the islands.

Only tent camping is allowed in Dry Tortugas. And you must bring all your stuff with you because there’s no store or shops near the campsites. But if you love to camp in beautiful, rural areas, this is a great option.

4. Capitol Reef National Park – Utah

Capitol Dome

Southern Utah is a camper and hiker’s dream. The area has 5 national parks within just a few hundred miles of each other. It’s bookended by Moab, UT and Las Vegas, NV so there’s plenty to do outside of the parks too.

Most people know Utah for uber-popular tourist destinations like Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. But Capitol Reef National Park flies under the radar.

It gets its unusual name from the abundant rock domes found throughout the park. They reminded early visitors of the dome of the US Capitol building. And “reef” means barrier in nautical terms. This domed landscape served as a barrier to early settlers trying to make their way out west.

Two rivers run through the park. And where they meet, there are orchards that contain over 2,700 trees of all different types of fruit.

One of the most beautiful features of the park are the petroglyphs—ancient Native American drawings that adorn the cliff walls. Binoculars are a must. Check out our selection of binoculars before you make your trip.

The main scenic drive takes you below the Reef, winding along the bottom part of the valley. It’s unique from other national park drives in that it goes under the cliffs, not on top of them.

There are incredible hikes through the gorges. They take you between the cliffs, through narrow passages, and under rock arches. Cathedral Valley has 500 ft spires that rise up like the ceilings of a cathedral.

All told, Capitol Reef brings you to the canyon country of Utah at about ¼ of the tourists you’ll find in Zion National Park.

5. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks – California

The General Sherman Tree

Last on our list is actually two parks: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Otherwise known as the Land of Giants.

They butt up against each other in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. These two parks give you the same grandeur as Yosemite National Park at about ¼ the volume of tourists.

Sequoia has the distinction of being California’s first national park. It’s named after the famous trees that call it home. The giant sequoias are the largest trees in the world.

Visit The General Grant and General Sherman Trees to see the two largest of all. Not only are they tall, but they’re BIG! The General Sherman Tree is over 275 feet tall and 36 feet in diameter at the base. Sherman is old too. Over 2,000 years!

And it’s not only the trees that are tall in these parks. The tallest peak in the contiguous US is the 15,000 ft Mount Whitney, located in Sequoia National park.

The park also drops deep into the ground. There’s an extensive cave network beneath the park. Crystal Cave is one of the best highlights of a trip to Sequoia. Stock up on the layers you’ll need to keep you warm inside the caves by visiting our outdoor clothing page.

Kings Canyon National Park is home to Kings Canyon, the deepest canyon in America. It’s deeper even than the Grand Canyon. Most of the park is accessible only by foot or horseback. So you’ll get find amazing hikes through the Sierra Nevadas.

And Kings Canyon has its own grove of giant sequoias if you’re looking for more of these beautiful trees. One tree, called the Fallen Monarch, fell hundreds of years ago and was used as a shelter for Native Americans. You can hike through the tree and see just how big it really was.

Try These Lesser-Known National Parks

Hit the road in 2019 and visit some of these lesser-known national parks. You’ll find that they’re just as beautiful and fun to explore as their more famous, and often over-crowded counterparts.

Big Bend National Park offers you stunning views of the Chihuahuan Mountain Range. The park has excellent roads to bring you almost anywhere you want. And even has its own border crossing to Mexico.

The Badlands of South Dakota have their own unique beauty as the grasslands plunge into the canyons below. They’re a haven for dinosaur fossils. And they lead right into other great attractions like Wall, SD and the Black Hills.

One of the most rural parks in the National Parks system, Dry Tortugas is almost all underwater. It gives you a spectacular old fort, lighthouse, and plenty of swimming and snorkeling area to explore.

Capitol Reef National Park offers you some of the best views of the southern Utah Canyonlands with a fraction of the crowds you’d find in Zion. And it sports one of the most scenic drives in the US, winding through the base of the reef’s red cliffs.

Visiting Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is getting two for the price of one. They’ll give you stunning canyon views and tall mountain peaks. Along with a breathtaking cave system and the largest and oldest living organisms in the world, the giant sequoia trees.


Ready to start your national park adventure? Check out Gander’s entire line of camping and outdoor gear. We’re here to help you get out into nature and enjoy the parks!

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