10 Overlooked National Park Service Attractions You Can Visit
In honor of the National Park Service's 100th birthday on August 25, America’s national parks are getting a lot of attention—but there’s more to the NPS than parks. The organization oversees national monuments, historic sites, historical parks, and national preserves that offer new and lesser-known ways to explore America. So if you’re looking for places to visit in addition to the most popular sites, here are a few suggestions.
1. PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK // ARIZONA
With an average of 4.5 million annual visitors (and over 5.5 million in 2015 alone), Grand Canyon National Park is the second most visited National Park in the United States. While the Grand Canyon is undeniably a must-see destination, there are plenty of other places to explore within the state while avoiding the crowds. Petrified Forest National Park, located just under a three-hour drive east of the Grand Canyon, welcomes an average of nearly 654,000 visitors each year. The area features one of the world’s largest collections of petrified wood as well as the Painted Desert. Hiking through the landscape is one of the most popular activities, but you’ll need to plan ahead to obtain a permit to hike to the park’s Devil’s Playground [PDF].
2. CANYON DE CHELLY NATIONAL MONUMENT // ARIZONA
If you’re looking for a day trip away from Petrified Forest, take a 90-minute drive north to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Access to the floor of the canyon is limited, yet Canyon de Chelly remains one of the country’s most visited national monuments. (No need to worry, though—the 813,686 total visitors in 2015 is far below what you’ll encounter at the Grand Canyon.) Drive the North or South Rim Drive to see some of the monument’s ancient ruins, and keep an eye out for Spider Rock.
3. LITTLE ROCK CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE // ARKANSAS
If you’re visiting Hot Springs National Park—a bustling location with an average of 1.3 million visitors annually—and are looking for a brief but educational break, consider a 56-mile drive northeast to Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. In 2015, nearly 126,000 people learned more about the Little Rock Nine at the site of one of the country’s most historic moments in desegregation. Tours of the still-active school are available with a reservation, as are streetscape tours when the school isn’t accessible. Across the street is a Mobil gas station that has been restored to its retro look from 1957 and holds a unique place in history.
4. AND 5. PORT CHICAGO NAVAL MAGAZINE NATIONAL MEMORIAL AND JOHN MUIR NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE // CALIFORNIA
There’s no denying the incredible popularity of Yosemite National Park. With its stunning waterfalls and granite cliffs, over 4.1 million people traveled there in 2015 to see the sights for themselves. While the Yosemite experience can be awe-inspiring, it can also be overwhelming to wander the trails with hundreds of other adventurers. But by traveling under four hours west of Yosemite, you can easily visit three historically significant sites, all of which are within a 90-minute drive of each other.
Begin by making a reservation to visit Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial in Martinez, California. Mandatory reservations keep the attendance at this memorial, which is located on an active military base and honors the 320 people who were killed in a munitions explosion at Port Chicago during World War II, in check.
John Muir National Historic Site, located 11 miles west of Port Chicago, preserves the home of John Muir, who is considered to be the father of the national parks. Seeing a yearly average of just under 35,000 visitors, this site allows you to tour the ranch where Muir lived with his wife and daughters when he wasn’t ascending mountains or lobbying for the creation of Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, or Mount Rainier as national parks.
6. MUIR WOODS NATIONAL MONUMENT // CALIFORNIA
If you’re still looking to hike on your trip, head over to Muir Woods National Monument, one of many redwood forests in northern California. While it’s not as heavily traveled as Yosemite (with just over a million visitors in 2015), it’s still quite popular, so be sure to review the travel advice from the forest rangers to choose the best time of day to hike.
7. FIRST LADIES NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE // OHIO
Cuyahoga Valley National Park might not get as much national publicity as Yellowstone or Great Smoky Mountains, but this park in northeast Ohio still welcomes over 2 million visitors annually. If you’re planning to be at the park for a few days, take a 40-minute drive south and spend some time visiting the First Ladies National Historic Site in Canton, Ohio, where you can stop by the National First Ladies’ Library. The library features exhibits and collections highlighting the accomplishments of the country’s First Ladies. You can also tour the fully restored 19th-century home of Ida Saxton McKinley, former First Lady and wife of William McKinley.
Bonus Site: James A. Garfield National Historic Site
8. WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK // SOUTH DAKOTA
Located in the southwest corner of South Dakota, Badlands National Park drew nearly 990,000 visitors to its colorful, varied landscape last year. If you’re looking to extend your stay in the state, drive west to Wind Cave National Park (the drive can be anywhere from 58 to 92 miles depending on the route you choose). You won’t find as many fellow park-goers here—Wind Cave recorded nearly 613,000 in attendance last year—but you will find a lot to explore. Wind Cave was the first cave in the world to be protected as a national park, and ranger-led tours through the world’s sixth-longest cave are an absolute must. Thinking about a summer trip? Make a reservation for a Candlelight Cave Tour.
Bonus Site: Jewel Cave National Monument
9. CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK // UTAH
Only three states have at least five national parks, and Utah is one of them. Arches National Park, with its world famous natural sculptures and iconic Delicate Arch, is one of the state’s most popular: It sees an average yearly attendance of over 1 million. If you’d like to take in the Utah landscape but aren’t much for sharing the view, head 26 miles south to Canyonlands National Park. With a yearly average attendance of approximately 470,000, you’ll have plenty of room to roam through the park’s distinct districts: the Needles, the Maze, and Island in the Sky—though it’s also hard to miss the Green and Colorado Rivers running through the canyons. But plan ahead: the districts in Canyonlands aren’t close enough to simply hike between, and the Maze and the Needles are better suited for those seeking a rugged, backcountry experience.
10. WOLF TRAP NATIONAL PARK FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS // VIRGINIA
For those who have already hiked through the more than 500 miles of trails at Shenandoah National Park, it’s worth visiting Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia for a completely different national park experience. With fewer than half a million visitors each year, Wolf Trap has the unique distinction of being a dedicated space for presenting the performing arts. The summer months offer daily musical acts and live shows at the park’s Filene Center and Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods, but there’s still plenty to see and do in the less busy months of October through April, including hiking and taking guided tours of the park and its unique facilities.
Bonus Site: Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site