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The Forgotten National Parks (And Why They Deserve a Visit)

Every year over 6 million visitors flock to Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. For a more intimate trip with nature, here are 10 forgotten national parks that deserve a visit.

Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Claim to fame: No roads or trails exist anywhere within park boundaries. Virtually untouched by civilization, people here have lived off the land here for centuries.

The park was named by explorer Robert Marshall who visited this rough terrain from 1929-1939. The inspiration for the name came when Marshall spotted two peaks (Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain) that guarded the way into the vast arctic north.

Visitors can expect to see majestic caribou, moose, wolf, and wolverines. 6 National Wild and Scenic rivers, 145 species of birds, and an Inupiat village call the park home.

Getting there: The only way to get here is to fly or walk. From Fairbanks you can catch a flight to Anaktuvuk Pass. From Anaktuvuk Pass the park is within hiking distance. Alternatively, you can air taxi from Coldfoot, Ambler, or Bettles/Evansville.

Lake Clark, Alaska

Claim to fame: The perfect blend of smoldering volcanoes, rain forests, alpine tundra, giant bears, salmon, and clear mountain water.

On December 1, 1978, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed Lake Clarke to be a national monument. In 1980, congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, effectively making the monument a national park.

Because of the many different ecosystems inside the park, opportunities for outdoor activities continue year round. Visitors enjoy bird watching, bear viewing, biking, boating, river rafting, and visiting the famous Dick Proenneke's Cabin.

Getting there: Lake Clark National Park is 120 air miles southwest of Anchorage. No roads lead up to the park, so the best way to gain access is by small plane from Anchorage, Homer, or Kenai.

Isle Royale, Michigan

Claim to fame: Remote car free island surrounded by Lake Superior. Home to numerous historic cabins and 3 active lighthouses.

In prehistoric times, indigenous people mined copper from the Keweenaw Peninsula. Douglass Houghton (the first state geologist) helped push Michigan into a copper boom in the 1840s. As a result the first modern copper mines opened directly on the island.

The lighthouses were built in the early 1900s due to the many small surrounding boulders that caused ships to sink. After the miners left, entrepreneurs quickly went to work establishing multiple resorts on the island between 1890 and 1920.

Today, the park boasts perfect terrain for backpackers, kayakers, divers, and fishers alike.

Getting there: 4 passenger ferries give visitors access to the park. Ranger III travels between Houghton, Michigan and Rock Harbor on the northeast end of the park.

North Cascades, Washington

Claim to fame: Over 300 glaciers, numerous mountain waterfalls, backcountry trails, pristine lakes, and red cedar trees at least 1,000 years old.

According to NPS data over 260 prehistoric sites have been identified within park boundaries. Northwest Coast Indians used this area to find food, shelter, and furs or pelts for trade with white trappers.

The first documented trapper to visit the Cascades was most likely Alexander Ross in 1811. He was primarily interested in finding trade routes from interior Washington to the Puget Sound. After failing to reach the Puget Sound, it was not until 1853 that another exploration party arrived.

Under the direction of U.S. Army Captain George B. McClellan, a large party searched for possible routes to build a railroad through the region. The party was unsuccessful, citing the rugged terrain and mountain peaks as obstacles for train routes. However, McClellan was able to correct earlier faulty maps and find many water sources.

It was not until 1968 that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the North Cascades Act, officially making the region a national park.

Getting there: The most popular way to access the park is by car via the North Cascades Highway.

Katmai, Alaska

Claim to fame: Thousands of black bears, sockeye salmon, rainbow trout, moose, wolverines, and sea lions. 9,000 years of human history, 3.4 million acres of designated wilderness (roughly the size of Wales), and the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.

Travelers first documented their encounters with the Katmai region in the 1760s. By the 1780s, Russian fur traders advanced far enough north up the Alaskan Peninsula to establish a base camp in Katmai. The Crimean war in the 1860s forced the Russians to sell Alaska to the United States in 1867 for 7.2 million dollars.

Critics called the deal ‘Seward’s Folly’ (after Secretary of State William Seward) due to the largely unexplored and unknown territory at the time. Discoveries of gold in the 1880s helped prove the territories worth.

On June 12, 1962, Novarupta erupted. Villagers from all surrounding towns evacuated and by a miracle no one died from the incident.

Getting there: Katmai is situated NW of Kodiak Island and SW of Homer, Alaska. The only way to gain entrance is by plane or boat. Air taxi flights are popular from surrounding Alaskan cities. Boats take travelers to the Naknek village.

Dry Tortugas, Florida

Claim to fame: Seven small islands 70 miles from Key West, over 16 million bricks used to build the unfinished Fort Jefferson, magnificent coral reefs and accompanying marine life, and hundreds of exoctic birds.

Fort Jefferson took 30 years (1846-1875) to construct and was never fully finished. Positioned strategically between Florida and Cuba, the fort’s intended purpose was to guard the Gulf of Mexico. During the Civil War, Union ships used the fort to block Confederate ships from shipping supplies further north.

Getting there: This park lies 70 miles west of the Florida Keys. Because it’s inaccessible to cars, visitors can arrive by ferry, seaplane, charter, or their own private boat. Yankee Freedom III departs from the Keys to Fort Jefferson and back with guided tours of the fort. 

Wrangell-St. Elias, Alaska

Claim to fame: Listed as America’s largest park at 13.2 million acres, it’s easy to get lost in vast mountain glaciers, winding rivers, or snow capped mountains. It would take 6 Yellowstones to cover this park. Home to 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, one active volcano, and historic gold mines.

If you’re feeling up to the challenge, Mt. St. Elias(18,008 ft) is the second highest peak in the United States. Just over 50 souls since the first hikers reached the summit in 1897 have completed the hike.

Getting there: Located just 10 miles south of Glennallen, Alaska, the Wrangell St. Elias Visitor Center sits just off the Richardson Highway.  

Congaree, South Carolina

Claim to fame: The oldest old growth bottomland hardwood forest in America (many trees well over 100ft tall) and plenty of opportunities to hike, camp, or kayak.

Although many people consider this park a swamp, Congaree lies in the middle of a flood plain. Bowfin, catfish, and alligator call the Congaree river home. Diverse species of birds use the tall trees for perfect nests, including the belted kingfisher, roseate spoonbill, peregrine falcon, and american goldfinch to name a few.

Getting there: The park is easily accessed by car by following directions to 100 National Park Road, Hopkins, SC.

Great Basin, Nevada

Claim to fame: Fantastic views of the Milky Way, exotic tours of Lehman Cave, a six-story limestone arch (Lexington arch), ancient pictograph caves, and multiple pristine mountain lakes.

At 13,063 ft, Wheeler Peak offers some of the best views in Nevada.

Getting there: The park is located 5 miles outside of Baker, Nevada, and is car accessible.

Guadalupe Mountains, Texas

Claim to fame: Located in the exotic Chihuahuan Desert, this park offers some of the best hiking trails nationwide. Guadalupe Peak stands proud as the tallest point in all of Texas at 8,749 feet.

From the summit hikers can see the famous El Capitan, the strange rock formation that helped guide wagon companies across the west. Inside of McKittrick Canyon just off the beaten trail visitors can spot Wallace Pratt’s vacation home. Wallace Pratt donated the land for the park. The canyon comes to life in the fall as the leaves turn yellow.

Frijole Ranch, the first ranch house in the area and acting post office from 1916-1942, has been restored to a museum open for public viewing.

Getting there: The park is located along US Highway 62/180. It sits 65 miles SW of Carlsbad, New Mexico.


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