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8 Coolest under-the-radar National Parks in the US

By: The Outbound Collective + Save to a List

Google searches lead you to the most popular and well-known National Parks. It takes digging to find the lesser-known gems unless you know someone who’s been and has given you a personal recommendation. Consider us your friend in-the-know! 

Lesser-known national parks are less crowded, less overdone photo-wise, and have more untouched wilderness! You probably won’t be waiting in lines or bumping elbows with anyone on trips to these 8 under the radar National Parks.

Once you visit, help make these places more accessible and less mysterious to a community of explorers by sharing your photos and experiences on the Outbound app

1. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

A woman and a young girl paddling in a canoe on blue water. There's two people in a canoe ahead of them. Green trees lie in the background of this Voyageurs National Park landscape.
Photo: Jess Curren

Voyageurs National Park in Northern Minnesota is adjacent to the Canadian border. The name commemorates voyageurs, or French and Canadian fur traders, who were among the first European settlers in the area. This park is definitely one that flies under the radar, but we can’t figure out why! It’s a dreamland for water lovers with activities like kayaking and fishing on all the lakes and rivers. 

The park also has a large expanse of forest. Voyageurs National Park was officially certified as an International Dark Sky Park and is a great spot to see the Northern Lights! Your best chance to see aurora borealis is during the winter. Night photographers should consider visiting for a chance to view this potentially once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.

Closest major cities:

International Falls, Minnesota (~8 miles)

Minneapolis, Minnesota (~300 miles)

Favorite adventures:

Hike Blind Ash Bay

Canoe or Kayak Lake Kabetogama

2. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Large sand dunes with several people standing on different levels of the dunes in the distance of Great Sand Dunes National Park. There's a bright blue sky and a mountainous backdrop.
Photo: Madison Sankovitz

When you think of Colorado, your mind might immediately picture rocky mountain peaks. That's not the only stunning park in the state! Great Sand Dunes National Park is a stunning outdoor escape in Southern Colorado known for huge sand dunes– the tallest in North America! The iconic Star Dune rises roughly 755 feet! 

Aside from these large, majestic features, you’ll also have access to trails that lead to forests, wetlands, and alpine lakes where you can fish for trout. Who would have thought you could pair water and a mountain backdrop with dunes that look like they’ve come from the middle of a desert? Try sandboarding and sand sledding for a unique experience and stick around for an incredible sunset!

Closest major cities:

Denver, Colorado (~235 miles)

Favorite adventures:

Hike to Star Dune

Mosca Pass Trail

Sandboard in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Hike High Sand Dune

3. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

A green forest with smoke rising from a light blue body of water in the center surrounded by rocky terrain in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Clouds hang overhead in a blue sky.
Photo: Matthew Chang

Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California has an abundance of hydrothermal sites and mud pots. There are four types of volcanoes here - shield (Prospect Peak), plus dome (Lassen Peak), cinder cone (Cinder Cone), and composite (Brokeoff Volcano).

There’s nothing like feeling like you’ve been transported to another world, which you may experience as you hike to the summit of Lassen Peak Volcano. Here, you can see the surrounding wilderness including scattered lava rocks left behind from the last eruption! There’s no shortage of mesmerizing trails to choose from whether you’re looking to explore hydrothermal sites/volcanoes, meander through the forest, or hang out by clear mountain lakes.

Please check for updates on closures before visiting the park. Some areas have been affected by the 2021 Dixie Fire.

Closest major cities:

Redding, California (~47 miles)

Reno, Nevada (~151 miles)

Sacramento, California (~180 miles)

Favorite adventures:

Seven Lake Loop

Lake Helen

Lassen Peak

Bumpass Hell Trail

4. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Tall Saguaro cacti in a desert landscape with green vegetation in Saguaro National Park. There's a mountainous backdrop and a cloudy blue sky.
Photo: Lucas Bremer

Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona is cacti paradise. The park is named for its impressively large saguaro cacti (the largest in the nation!), which thrive in the desert landscape. The Giant Saguaro cactus is a classic symbol of the American West for many people. This is the place to be if you want to feel like a rugged wild west explorer! 

The park is divided into two sections on either side of Tuscon, Arizona– the western and eastern sides. The park is an exceptional place to view wildlife like roadrunners, horned lizards, and collared peccaries and spot cool vegetation like you’ve never seen before!

Closest major cities:

Tucson, Arizona (~13 miles)

Phoenix, Arizona (~104 miles)

Favorite adventures:

Valley View Overlook Trail

Hugh Norris Trail

Signal Hill Trail

5. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Two brown bison grazing in the field in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There's a small hill in the background and a cloudless blue sky.
Photo: Joe Whitson

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Western North Dakota is one of the most underrated and least crowded national parks in the country. Here, the Great Plains and Badlands intersect with the Little Missouri River. The park is home to wildlife like prairie dogs, elk, and bison. 

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the US and an avid protector of our nation’s natural resources, once temporarily resided in the Maltese Cross Cabin located in the park. Take one of the most scenic drives in the country and discover why President Roosevelt decided to live here.

Closest major cities:

Bismarck, North Dakota (~133 miles)

Billings, Montana (~347 miles)

Favorite adventures:

Camp at Cottonwood Campground

Drive the Scenic Loop

Hike up Buck Hill

6. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

The sun is setting or rising over a calm body of water. The surface of the lake reflects the blue and orange sky.
Photo: Joe Whitson

Situated near Michigan’s Canadian border in Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park is a remote cluster of islands home to only 19 mammal species. The relatively untouched wilderness area featuring peaceful lakes and forests and no cars are allowed, so the sounds are all natural. Don’t be surprised if you encounter moose or wolves here!  

To reach the park, you’ll need to take a ferry ride that lasts roughly 3.5 hours. Don’t let that deter you from making the trip! Oftentimes, the greater the journey, the greater the reward! 

The window to visit Isle Royale National Park is from April 16 thorough October 31, as it closes during other times of year due to extreme weather. Come in the summer to experience the miles of hiking and backpacking trails, fishing, boating, historic lighthouses, ancient copper mining sites, and shipwrecks!

Closest major cities:

Duluth, Minnesota (~176 miles)

Minneapolis, Minnesota (~300 miles)

Favorite adventures:

Backpack Isle Royale Eastern Half Loop

Greenstone Ridge Trail

Hike to Huginnin Cove

7. Great Basin National Park, Nevada

A calm body of water next to a rocky shore in Great Basin National Park. There are green trees surrounding the body of water and a mountain backdrop with scattered patches of snow.
Photo: Jared Beeler

Great Basin National Park is located in Eastern Nevada by the Utah border. It's home to some of the longest living trees on Earth, is part of the Great Basin Desert and also features the South Snake Mountains. Long ago, much of the Great Basin was carved by glaciers, leaving behind a unique landscape. With beauty at every turn, take your time exploring the mountain peaks, deep limestone caves, ancient bristlecone pine trees, and many lakes and streams.

Closest major cities:

Salt Lake City, Utah (~234 miles)

Las Vegas, Nevada (~296 miles)

Carson City, Nevada (~386 miles)

Reno, Nevada (~387 miles)

Favorite adventures:

Hike the Alpine Lakes Loop

Wheeler Peak via Alpine Lakes Trailhead

Wheeler Peak via Upper Lehman Creek

Hike to Baker Peak

8. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

A large brick fortress right by the water at Dry Tortugas National Park. A person looks out at the water in the distance. There's green vegetation in the foreground.
Photo: Jess Curren

For those who love beach life, this is the perfect escape by the water! Dry Tortugas National Park includes 7 islands and protected coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico to the west of Key West, Florida. As the name suggests, there have been plenty of sea turtle sightings here since the marine animals annually nest on the gorgeous sandy beaches. 

Swimming and snorkeling are popular activities here since picturesque turquoise waters are the main attraction of this park. Water fanatics and divers love viewing the remains of an old 1875 ship at a popular dive site. While visiting, check out Fort Jefferson, a former US military coastal fortress covering 16 acres! To get to Dry Tortugas, you’ll need to take a ferry, which is about a 2-hour ride.

Closest major cities:

Key West, Florida (~70 miles)

Fort Meyers, Florida (~303 miles)

Favorite adventures:

Camp and Explore Dry Tortugas National Park

Download the Outbound app for offline navigation assistance, adventure ideas, and to share your thoughts and photos from exploring these parks. We love hearing from you and other explorers can benefit from your images and reviews.

Cover photo: Hike Signal Trail in Tucson Arizona by Lucas Bremer

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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