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10 underrated national parks to visit this summer

By Lacey Pfalz, TravelPulse
Published: June 8, 2024, 6:05am
5 Photos
Wild horses on the dunes at Assateague Island National Seashore is off the coast of Maryland and Virginia.
Wild horses on the dunes at Assateague Island National Seashore is off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. (Photos by National Park Service) Photo Gallery

National parks are incredible places for discovery, yet oftentimes we think about visiting only the most popular: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, and a few others. Yet the National Park Service maintains and protects hundreds of parks, national lakeshores and seashores, recreation areas, walking trails and more, all for you to take in and enjoy.

So before you book your reservation for a busy park this summer, check out this list of 10 underrated national parks to visit this summer instead.

Assateague Island National Seashore

Assateague Island National Seashore is in Assateague Island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. It’s a beautiful spot for nature lovers to hike, bike, camp, stargaze, fish and even go crabbing, but it’s most known for its special four-legged animals: wild horses!

Horse lovers will enjoy visiting the national seashore to view and photograph the majestic creatures, who, according to local legend, are descendants of shipwreck survivors in the late 17th century (but were more likely intentionally brought to the island for tax evasion purposes).

There are two herds — the Chincoteague ponies of Virginia and the Maryland herd.

Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area

Ever wonder what the Milky Way looks like? Travelers heading to Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area overnight might find out on a clear summer night.

The area spans Kentucky and Tennessee to offer 125,000 scenic acres within the Cumberland Plateau, and it also protects the Cumberland River. While there, campers can gaze at the Milky Way with Ranger-led dark sky programs, take photos of the region’s beautiful rock formations and natural beauty, go whitewater paddling down the river, climb the region’s signature sandstone cliffs and go horseback riding along scenic trails.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is a scenic gem in the far northern reaches of Wisconsin, along the coast of Lake Superior and the nation’s northernmost border. There, travelers can catch a glimpse of the northern lights at certain times of the year (especially during the winter) and much more.

There are 21 different Apostle Islands, accessible by boat or sea kayak. Travelers can easily purchase a ride on a water taxi or take a NPS-authorized Apostle Islands Cruise to get the most out of a trip to the islands.

Adventurers heading to the islands can take a guided kayak tour, bring their own boats to jet around, camp on one or a few of the islands or simply explore the 12 miles of lakeshore on the mainland.

Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park is another paradise of unspoiled nature. Located off the Michigan shoreline on Lake Superior it’s accessible by seaplane and a variety of ferries and boat options. Travelers can also visit the national park via the RANGER III.

Travelers can stay in the Rock Harbor Lodge or a campsite.

With over 400 islands across the park, travelers with boats or sea kayaks will adore sailing or paddling to these uninhabited gems, where great opportunities for photography await. Hikers will especially love climbing the park’s highest peak, Mount Dresor, which rises 1,394 feet in the air.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is often considered one of the most underrated of the American national parks. The North Dakota national park, named after the president who advocated for the establishment of more national parks, offers great opportunities for hiking, photography and encountering some of the nation’s coolest animals — including bison.

Travelers to the park can also fish, canoe, bike, horseback ride, camp and much more. Additionally, the park hosts the Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival each year and is a great destination from which to view the Milky Way in all its celestial glory.

Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park might just challenge your conception of the state of Nevada: It’s not all desert! The park offers ancient bristlecone pine forests, incredible night skies, scenic foothills covered in sagebrush, the stunning 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak and the mysterious Lehman Caves.

Here, travelers can partake in some unique adventure activities, from wild caving to pine nut gathering. The park offers a range of seasonal activities like wildflower viewing, but it also boasts year-round activities with its many hiking trails, nighttime beauty and bird watching opportunities.

Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve

Do you ever wonder what it would be like to walk on another planet? You won’t even have to use much of your imagination during a visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve.

Located in southern Idaho, the preserve is home to the remnants of ancient lava flows. The park is a great one to visit for a few hours, a half day or a full night, with many of the biggest attractions, like caves and trails, available along a 7-mile stretch of Loop Road.

It’s also an International Dark Sky area, making it a great destination for travelers looking not only to experience an otherworldly environment on land, but also the glories of the cosmos, without light pollution.

Capitol Reef National Park

Geologists will tell you that Utah’s scenic Capitol Reef National Park is special because of a wrinkle in the earth called the Waterpocket Fold, but the unique formation is only one of the park’s many attractions.

The fold extends nearly 100 miles, creating a landscape with natural cliffs, domes, bridges and canyons that hikers, horseback riders, canyoneers and bikers love to explore. Travelers with accessibility considerations or those simply driving through the region to head somewhere else can take an hour and a half scenic drive, which offers over 10 stops featuring some of the park’s most incredible geological wonders, such as the Moenkopi Formation, which looks out of this world.

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Big Thicket National Preserve

You might just forget that you’re in southern Texas during a visit to Big Thicket National Preserve. The preserve boasts nine unique ecosystems across its 113,000 acres, from pine forests to cypress-lined bayous, offering guests a truly wondrous experience.

Big Thicket offers nearly 40 miles of hiking trails and six waterway corridors, as well as opportunities for back country camping, paddling, fishing, bird watching and much more.

The park offers a selection of developed regions, offering amenities like restrooms, and more primitive units, ensuring that new campers and seasoned park professionals will be able to get the most out of their visit.

San Juan Island National Historical Park

San Juan Island National Historical Park lies at the southern tip of the island. It’s home to incredible natural beauty, with a gorgeous rocky coastline, nearby pods of orcas, quiet forests and one of the last native prairies in the region, but it’s a nationally designated historic park for one particularly strange reason: it’s the site of a near beginning of war between the U.S. and Great Britain, started over the death of a single pig.

Travelers will love hiking, photographing the beautiful island, foraging mussels and seaweed, and exploring all its natural riches, but they’ll also learn about the so-called Pig War, and how peaceful arbitration finally put an end to the incident and led to the creation of the current border between the U.S. and Canada.

Guests can visit the park via the Washington State Ferry system, by plane or by private boat. One important note is that no one is allowed to camp on the island, and the only food that is available is the food you bring yourself, so prepare accordingly.