Millions of people from around the world visit America’s most popular National Parks. You know the names: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains. Since COVID reminded everyone that life’s greatest joys occur outside, America’s national parks have been crushed under unprecedentedly high levels of guests. Not so at the underrated national park units around the country.
For every Grand Canyon, Zion, Rocky Mountain or Acadia, there are hidden gems national parks where you can (almost) have the place to yourself. Forget about lines and making on-line reservations for parking months in advance, the best underrated national parks still provide the quiet and remove they became beloved for.
An underrated national park often offers similar experiences to the “glamor” parks without the hassle of crowds. Many of these may even be close to where you live.
Best Underrated National Parks
LeapLocal.org passionately promotes sustainable tourism and encourages people to explore the great outdoors. The company compiled a list of the best underrated national parks in 2023.
Based on first-party data collected from thousands of travelers, the LeapLocal.org report ranks these great outdoor spaces by visitor satisfaction, natural beauty, and accessibility. The findings aim to encourage travelers to explore lesser-known parks and promote sustainable tourism, while also reducing overcrowding in the most popular national parks.
Here are the top hidden gems national parks according to LeapLocal.org:
|Rank||National Park||Visitor Satisfaction||Natural Beauty||Accessibility|
|1||Congaree National Park, SC||4.8||4.9||4.5|
|2||North Cascades National Park, WA||4.7||4.8||4.4|
|3||Great Basin National Park, NV||4.6||4.7||4.4|
|4||Isle Royale National Park, MI||4.6||4.6||4.3|
|5||Dry Tortugas National Park, FL||4.5||4.5||4.3|
|6||Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO||4.5||4.5||4.2|
|7||Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX||4.4||4.4||4.1|
|8||Channel Islands National Park, CA||4.3||4.3||4.0|
|9||Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, AK||4.3||4.3||3.9|
|10||Kenai Fjords National Park, AK||4.2||4.2||3.9|
LeapLocal.org Founder and travel expert Alex Kallen, also emphasizes the importance of traveling locally:
“By exploring local parks and attractions, we not only support local economies and communities, but also reduce our carbon footprint, contribute to conservation efforts, and foster a deeper connection with the environment. National Walk in a Park Day is a perfect opportunity to rediscover the beauty in our own backyard, and embrace the benefits of local travel.”
Our Favorite Underrated National Parks USA
I have personally visited over 100 units in the National Park System from the big – Everglades – and the popular – Gettysburg – to the small – Springfield Armory – and unknown – Ocmulgee Mounds. Surprising to most, the National Park Service has over 400 units including National Battlefields, National Memorials, National Monuments, National Seashores, National Rivers and more, but most people only think about the 63 National Parks.
I like the LeapLocal.org list of hidden gem national parks. I’ve been to Congaree National Park. I wasn’t blown away, but for a park 20 miles from a metropolitan area, South Carolina’s capital of Columbia, it gets the job done of bringing nature to people in need of it.
Dry Tortugas National Park, nearly 70 miles west of Key West, makes for a great day, but this recommendation should come with a warning. The park is only accessible by boat. The ride is over 2 hours, both ways.
Once on the Dry Tortugas, there is no water, hence, “dry.” That means no drinking fountains and no flush toilets. There are no gift shops or restaurants on the Dry Tortugas. There is nothing on the Dry Tortugas except for visiting an old 19th century fort. Nothing unless you’re a nature lover. The birding, shelling and beach combing is out of this world.
The heat can be intense and tour boats leave only so often. If you treasure creature comforts, pass on the Dry Tortugas.
I’m going to expand my list of the top underrated national park beyond strictly “national parks” to include national park units. I’ve visited all of them. Here they are:
130 miles south of Atlanta, Andersonville National Historic Site preserves the memory of the horrific Andersonville Confederate Civil War prison where some 13,000 men, mostly Union soldiers, died in squalor. Walk the grounds where prisoners were so numerous, men were counted by distance: 1 mile of men.
Andersonville starkly shares the non-romantic side of the Civil War and the site also houses the National Prisoner of War Museum which chillingly conveys the experience of being held captive during armed conflict.
Civil War buffs – as well as hikers and birders – will also enjoy Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. Also in Atlanta, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park is aces.
Art lovers and nature lovers will dig the bucolic setting at Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park in Cornish, New Hampshire. Augustus Saint-Gaudens is one of America’s most prominent sculptors.
Among the scores of National Park units, monuments and historic sites in Washington, D.C., Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, where Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, makes history remarkably intimate. Guests can stand just feet from where Lincoln was shot in the back of the head and imagine Booth leaping to the stage below through their own eyes.
Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming has the same great scenery as Mount Rushmore without the overwhelming white nationalism. Mount Rushmore sits on stolen land, you know that, right? It was carved by a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, you know that, right? Two of the four faces owned people, you know that, right?
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was filmed at Devil’s Tower, 130 miles from Rushmore, as well.
Crater Lake National Park in Oregon is hardly an underrated National Park, but in bang-for-your-buck, Crater Lake goes toe-to-toe with the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. One look at the blue of that water and whatever crowds you may experience on the way will have been well worth it. There’s no other blue like it in the world.
Be aware that during winter, much of the park and its access roads are closed by snow.