America’s National Parks have never been more popular. The last few years were banner years for parks, with each year one-upping the last for the record of most visitors per year.
While this is great news for the support of our public lands, it also means the parks are becoming much more crowded, with places like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite seeing obscenely long lines at entrance stations and more often becoming the setting for news stories like “Idiot Tourist Gored by Bison While Taking Selfie.”
As a result, longtime nature lovers increasingly avoid the more popular parks overrun with human activity. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of parks, especially in the Western U.S., and especially after former President Obama’s run of National Monument creation before his end of term in 2016.
This means there are numerous parks to visit at which it’s rare to find tourist traps, traffic jams, and seas of selfie sticks.
To aid in experimentation with obscure National Park exploration, I’ve compiled a short-list of some of the West’s most underrated National Parks and Monuments. The only criteria for the parks on this list:
- West of the Front Range of the Rockies
- Receive less than 100,000 visitors per year
- Epic, in some shape or form (no dinky roadside historic sites here, but open to interpretation by the author)
And by the way, if you want a shortcut to the most pristine and empty wilderness in the country, I’ve got one word for you: Alaska.
This list features three Alaska parks, and I had to leave off at least three others just for the sake of variety. When it comes to epicness, everywhere else pales in comparison to the wildness of Alaska. On that note, let’s jump right in.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
In Alaska, Denali gets all the fanfare. And yet Alaska offers visitors an unlimited supply of frontier, and much of it filled with unbelievably massive mountains similar in stature to Denali.
Enter Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in south-central Alaska, the largest National Park in the US. This nearly endless wilderness of glaciated peaks and raging blue waters clocks in at 13.2 million acres.
That’s 11 times the size of the Grand Canyon, and nearly double the size of the next largest park — Gates of the Arctic National Park, also in Alaska.
Its centerpiece: Mount St. Elias, elevation 18,008 feet, the second tallest mountain in both the U.S. and Canada, not to mention the hundreds of high peaks within the park’s bounds.
With over 60% of the park covered in glacial ice, Wrangell-St. Elias is most definitely a mountaineer’s paradise. Expert level backpacking, mountaineering, and survival skills are a minimal requirement for getting out in the backcountry here.
However, with over 100 miles worth of highway traversing the park, there’s also plenty of room for scenic drives, day hikes, and other fare of the average tourist.
There’s something for everyone, and the dramatic wild of Alaska is awe-inspiring whether snapping a photo at a roadside overlook, or traversing a crevasse-ridden glacier on a two-week mountaineering expedition.
Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona
Floating like a ship on a sea of desert plains, the Chiricahua Mountains top over 9,000 feet, forming a literal island of cool forest above the arid lands below. Chiricahua National Monument is a relatively small 12,000-acre patch of scrub forest on the western slopes of the range.
Our grand prize winner of hardest name to pronounce, this is a gem of a park hidden away atop a remote “sky island” mountain range in southeastern Arizona.
Featuring an expansive garden of hoodoos (pillars of rock dozens of feet tall), Chiricahua is a geologic wonder, a perfect day-hiker’s retreat, and a summertime camping destination offering much-needed respite from the blazing-hot desert valleys nearby.
The approach to Chiricahua is via a long stretch of parched grasslands, an unlikely opening scene to lead to the wonderland of rocks and forest above. If you’ve spent much time exploring the west, however, you know that the look and feel of the landscape can change abruptly.
Grasslands give way to pinon-juniper woodlands, which then give way to a forest of volcanic spires, pointing to the sky like a monument to the heavens.
Make your way up to the observation station at Massai Point, and you’ll be treated to an expansive view of the hoodoo forest. Take it up another notch and hike to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain, the park’s highest point, where the views are second to none.
North Cascades National Park, Washington
Located a mere 3-hour drive from Seattle, North Cascades National Park, at first glance, seems like an unlikely addition to this list. Until you consider that it averages only 30,000 visitors per year (or about 1% of the visitation seen at nearby Olympic National Park).
The reason: about 93% of North Cascades is designated wilderness. Through the majority of the park, automobiles are not allowed, making this park none too friendly to car-bound sightseers. As such, the sedentary tourists go elsewhere, leaving North Cascades as a rugged, glacier-clad mountain range ripe for mountaineers and backpackers seeking solitude.
The caveat here is that North Cascades is bisected by Ross Lake National Recreation Area, which is much busier but is also a major point of access to the park via the busy North Cascades Highway.
Regardless, once you’ve left the highway in the dust and hiked your way up into the park proper, it’s an empty expanse of wilderness. Here you will find over 300 glaciers and an endless labyrinth of alpine peaks, boreal forest, sparkling lakes, and clear-running streams.
No joke, this is a paradise for backpackers, mountain-climbers, and fly-fisherman. Just looking at a topographic map of the park is mouth-watering for any Muir-minded outdoorsperson seeking a place to get lost for a week or three. For a park to be so wild, and yet so close to a major city, is almost unbelievable this day in age.
El Morro National Monument, New Mexico
In a desolate stretch of high-altitude scrub-forest in northwest New Mexico sits El Morro National Monument. The epicness of the scenery here is a bit subtle compared to the other parks on this list — its most dramatic scene is a 200-foot tall sandstone cliff.
Named Inscription Rock, this sandstone wall is the centerpiece of the park not because of its epic views, but the epic nature of the man-made carvings at the cliff’s base.
It features historic graffiti spanning nearly 1,000 years, ranging from petroglyphs carved by the Ancestral Puebloans a millennia ago, inscriptions by the Spanish Conquistadors dating back as far as 1605, then capped off with carvings drawn up by American settlers in the late 1800s.
El Morro (Spanish for “the headland”) is located along a civilization-spanning trade route. An ephemeral pool at the base of Inscription Rock provided a natural stopping point for travelers. Here the weary rested, rehydrated, and engraved their art in the soft sandstone walls.
Beyond the inscriptions, El Morro offers a trail system ascending the cliffs to access a set of ancient Pueblo ruins and expansive views of the surrounding plateau country.
The park is a nice mix of splendid scenery and rich human history, and its location in a seldom traveled corner of New Mexico makes it ideal for avoiding the crowds. The easy-to-navigate and user-friendly trail system make it doable for almost every walk of life.
Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska
In the far north of Alaska and consumed 100% by the Arctic Circle itself, Gates of the Arctic National Park occupies a broad expanse of mountains and tundra as the second largest National Park in the US. It also has the lowest visitation rate of any National Park, receiving about 10,000 visitors per trip around the sun.
As one should expect, this is a wilderness park that contains no roads, trails, or guest services within the park.
The best way to experience Gates of the Arctic is to strap on a big pack full of camping gear, grab some crampons and an ice axe, and rough it up through the most hostile elements of the Alaska bush. Pushing through the challenge of an off-trail mountaineering expedition will undoubtedly result in witnessing some of the most incredible scenery, and solitude, on the planet.
There is another option, however. Local guides companies offer air-taxis to fly in guided tours for daytrips and overnight camping trips for those without the know-how to pull off their own Arctic backcountry excursion. For those willing to pony up the money, even a short guided trip into the bush is a trip of a lifetime.
No matter the chosen means of access, Gates of the Arctic provides visitors willing to detour this far north with 8 million acres of unbelievably high mountains, raging whitewater, massive glaciers, and arctic wildlife. All of it with very, very few humans in the vicinity.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado
Just a stone’s throw from the much more famous and popular Mesa Verde, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument definitely holds its own as an archaeological wonder.
If Mesa Verde was the New York City of the ancient Puebloan Civilization, Canyons of the Ancients was its sprawling suburbs. The park now contains the highest known concentration of archaeological sites on the planet. And just like the other parks of the surrounding Four Corners region, Canyons sports an undulating wave of plateaus and canyons that provide a spectacular backdrop for the Native American ruins.
While the 114-mile long Trails of the Ancients Scenic Byway circumnavigates the fringes of the park, actual access to the canyon country is via a rugged network of dirt roads, hiking trails, and desert washes.
Put in a little boot-time, and you may find yourself standing next to a cliff dwelling tucked up underneath a sandstone overhang looking out across a tear-worthy desert vista. Just remember to leave the ruins as you found them so future visitors can enjoy them as well.
Oregon Caves National Monument, Oregon
Tucked along the Oregon-California border, Oregon Caves National Monument is a sweet little set of caverns set underneath a forest of coastal douglas fir.
Featuring about 15,000 feet (nearly 3 miles) of natural underground passages, the park’s ranger-guided tour leads through spectacular karst rock formations sculpted of limestone bedrock, with 190 million-year-old marine fossils visible along the way too. These caverns are absolutely a must-see for anyone on a leisurely road trip through southern Oregon.
Even if you suffer from claustrophobia and avoid caves like the plague, the park is still worth a detour to take a walk in the woods. Although it’s not a large park, it offers about 18 miles of pristine hiking trails traversing the beautiful coastal forests and mountain streams running off the nearby hillsides.
The park is also home to the historic Oregon Caves Chateau, a rustic lodge built in 1934 offering guests a fun place to stay the night, plus a local crafts and goods market supporting work produced by the surrounding community. For just a small patch of forest in the Klamath Mountains, Oregon Caves is one of the most unique National Monuments in the country.
Aniakchak National Monument, Alaska
This is no sight-seeing tour, as visiting Aniakchak is reserved for experienced backpackers well-versed in self-reliance and self-preservation. To even reach the general vicinity requires chartering a bush plane to fly out to the nearest village: Port Heiden, Alaska.
As such, the park is so hard to reach that it only sees about 150 visitors per year at best. Yes, that is not a typo, a hundred fifty visitors per year.
No roads or trails even come close to entering the park, so it’s a straight off-trail hiking and navigating experience to find a way from the outskirts of Port Heiden to the park boundary and the sharp, boulder-strewn rim of Aniakchak Caldera.
Upon cresting its 30-mile long rim, the Aniakchak Caldera is breathtaking, but makes no attempts to conform to the typical standards of a vacation destination. The terrain is a mix of tree-less tundra and recent volcanism (the last eruption was in 1931), making the beauty stark yet stunning.
One can’t rely on the weather to make any concessions either. Cold rain and constantly moving banks of fog are the norm, and sunshine only makes brief but spectacular appearances.
Perhaps the biggest concern is the park’s ungodly concentration of giant Alaska Peninsula Brown Bears, which are said to treat bear spray as only a minor irritation. Regardless of your opinion of the second amendment, packing heat is a necessity in this unforgiving version of bear country.Instead of hiking back out to Port Heiden, most Aniakchak backpackers opt to pack in inflatable kayaks and float their way down the steep and windy Aniakchak River, which blasts its way south through the rocky tundra out to the Pacific Ocean.
Here, the National Park Service offers a backcountry cabin providing respite after a week of exposure in the Alaska bush. Conveniently scheduled bushplanes swoop in and return the hardened travelers back to civilization.
The overriding theme among all of the parks on this list: no matter how popular our National Parks have become, there are still off-the-beaten-path places of world-class beauty for those willing to go the extra distance.
While some places like Aniakchak are limited strictly to backcountry enthusiasts, the fact is with a little extra research and effort, even the average traveler can experience our national parks without having to stand elbow to elbow with two hundred other people at a crowded viewpoint. Look for the underrated and the less-visited, you’ll be surprised by what you find.
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