There will be lots of travel opportunities in 2023 – everyone whispers hopefully under their breath. It is true that the future is so unpredictable that even making a plan to go camping in a neighboring state seems presumptuous. Yet, if the past three years have taught us anything, it’s that we need to be outdoors, in the sun, exercising, appreciating natural beauty, and doing so with friends and family. But where should you go this year? Well, I am going to suggest five locations that you won’t find on many other lists.
Map of the National Parks
But why these five places, you ask? Another great question. I selected five National Parks based on the following criteria:
The location must be a less popular National Park–and by that I mean less visited and talked about than most National Parks. Thus, the following suggestions all have fewer than one million annual visitors, as reported by the Department of Interior’s visitation statistics and are in the bottom two thirds of parks visited. (Click here for a great article that ranks the parks by pre-COVID visitation numbers.)
The location must be beautiful. Now, you might want to argue that all National Parks are naturally beautiful, and though I concede that point, I might respond that the St. Louis Arch has less natural beauty to cherish, photograph, and hike through than someplace like Canyonlands, especially if you’re looking for a place to spend days or even a week in admiration.
Ease of Access
By that I mean a lot of people can get to and enjoy these places without needing to take a four hour flight, or an 11 hour car ride. So, I selected places that are all less than a half day’s drive (about 5 hours) from a major population center.
Park #1: Great Sand Dunes National Park
Popularity: 41st (out of 63). This park received only 461,000 visitors in 2020, which was just down 12% from a “normal” year.
Beauty: I won’t put beauty into an arbitrarily selected numerical value, but I will say that there are mountain ranges, 600ft tall sand dunes, forests with creeks running through them, and much more. On top of that, it’s a great dark sky location, so stick around for night, if you can.
Accessibility: Although it’s in the middle of nowhere, Colorado, Colorado Springs and Denver are just over three hours away by car. Albuquerque is just four hours straight south.
I am truly baffled by how seemingly remote Great Sand Dunes National Park remains. There are not even tourist traps or restaurants nearby. I got nervous when I didn’t see a gas station for twenty miles. But the lack of commercialization makes for an even better park experience. When choosing a time to visit, there are a few things to keep in mind. Summer gets really hot and you’re already at altitude, so hydration is the name of the game. If you are interested in night photography, plan your trip around the lunar cycle.
The activities at the park are seemingly endless. From sandboarding to river tubing, horseback riding to hiking. There is something for everyone. And the cross section of environments is so unique, that you’ll find yourself stopping to stare.
The park’s elevation (8,200 feet) and rural location make it a favorite with dark-sky-loving stargazers, and it even offers special astronomy programs many evenings May–September. The Junior Ranger Program has different activities for kids ages 3–12, and they earn a badge once they’ve completed the educational and fun tasks.
There are a few options for camping in the area. There’s an actual campground that has 88 sites, half of which require reservation and the other half of which are first-come, first-serve. Then, there is dune camping. The experience is as unique as it sounds. It requires a permit and about a mile of dune hiking to get to the “backcountry” dunes where you can camp, but it’s worth it if you are looking for something new and amazing.
There are many more reasons to love Great Sand Dunes. Here are a few: sand wheelchairs for accessibility, super kid friendly, sledding without snow, and picturesque mountains behind almost every dune. But, there is one significant downside: you’ll be finding sand in your everywhere for weeks. Just saying.
Read More: Best 8 Desert Tents for Sandy Environments
Park #2: Redwood National Park
For readers interested in less sand, I submit to you the home of the world’s tallest trees! With trees reaching heights of 370 feet, you may fear getting a kink in your neck from walking around this beautiful park. But there are plenty of other reasons to visit Redwood.
Popularity: 43rd, another park with fewer than half a million annual visitors.
Beauty: This is a beautiful place, home to some of the nation’s oldest, and largest trees. But there are several state parks and a shoreline connected to Redwood, giving this destination an extra level of natural diversity and beauty.
Accessibility: Nearly equidistant from San Francisco to the south and Portland to the north, Redwood is less than half a day’s drive from some significantly large population centers.
With very moderate temperatures and weather throughout the year (averages stay below 70 in the summer and above 40 in the winter), there’s not a bad time to visit Redwoods–although you’ll likely get rained on during the winter months. The Park(s) offer a variety of activities, including picnicking, hiking, camping, birdwatching, fishing, and ranger-led explorations (at least during non-COVID times). Some of the most incredible views, however, can be experienced by simply driving through the park. Towering redwoods appear on either side of US 199 and US 101, making this an incredibly accessible experience for those with children or in wheelchairs.
Additionally, the coastal regions offer an incredible opportunity to experience a different ecosystem altogether. Over a dozen Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) exist along the coast. Stop in Dry Lagoon State Park, Humboldt Lagoons State Park, or Gold Bluffs Beach, just to name a few other adjacent recreational areas for you to explore. Watch for whales and seals, or visit tidal pools to see anemones, sea stars (or starfish to some), and more.
Several must-do activities include the short (less than 1 mile) trek through Stout Grove, a grouping of 300+ ft tall redwoods, driving through the Avenue of the Giants (about a 30 mile stretch of roadway with spectacular redwoods all around) and sunset at Redwood Creek Overlook or Golden Bluffs Beach (the latter is easier if you’re beach camping). It’s amazing that there are so many trails, roadways, and coastal beaches that you don’t have to compete with a million people to experience (thinking about Yosemite here). This makes Redwood a great place to consider for your 2022 travel goals.
Park #3: Canyonlands National Park
1,000 miles to the east, another under-visited national park awaits you. Canyonlands National Park is located in Utah, just a half hour outside Moab. This park is breathtakingly beautiful and brings to mind the layered rock and sunset vistas that you get at Arizona’s Grand Canyon with none of the crowds or commercialization.
Popularity: At 29th, with just over 750,000 annual visitors.
Beauty: From Mesa Arch and Upheaval Dome to Shafer Canyon Road and Grand View Point, Canyonlands offers a ridiculous amount of variety in beauty and experiences.
Accessibility: The Park is a mere three and a half hours from Salt Lake City, UT, and less than six hours from Denver, CO and Albuquerque, NM.
I would recommend Canyonlands to anyone wanting a more laid back experience than the Grand Canyon offers. Don’t get me wrong. I adore the Grand Canyon and it remains in my top three favorite National Parks Experiences, but the crowds are crazy and the place feels so commercial when compared to Canyonlands. Plus, Canyonlands is just 15 minutes away from Arches National Park and 30 minutes from Moab, which adds additional opportunities and adventures. Interestingly, Arches gets far more visitors than Canyonlands, and I am not sure it’s deserved.
There are plenty of trails of various lengths for hikers to enjoy, and the camping is likewise incredible, as are the night skies. If you are into off-roading, there are lots of rugged roads that take the brave of heart down switchbacks carved into the canyon walls (just make sure your 4×4 vehicle is up to the challenge). Photography can be spectacular, if you arrive before the summer months (sometimes seasonal forest fires can produce smoky haze that prevents clear shots). Stargazing, horseback riding, rock climbing and numerous ranger programs round out a long list of activities. Canyonlands is also divided into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the combined Colorado and Green Rivers. The Island in the Sky is by far the most popular and accessible, making the other three districts even less crowded, if you’re looking for something fun and off the beaten track.
The must-do list at Canyonlands depends on you. If you are a photographer, you may want to wake up early to beat the crowds to Mesa Arch for that perfect sunrise shot. It is an incredibly easy hike–less than a quarter mile, and the view really is beautiful, so even the novice can get something worth printing. If you love off-road excursions, then White Rim Road or Shafer Canyon Road are perfect for you. Although you’ll need a day permit for traveling most of the back country roads, a permit is not required for Shafer (pictured here), making it even more accessible.
Read More: 9 Amazing Sites for the Best Camping in Utah
Park #4: White Sands National Park
Popularity: At 37th, this park would receive about 600,000 annual visitors pre-COVID.
Beauty: From Sunsets that bathe the white sand (actually gypsum powder) orange and red to dunes that visitors must drive on and between, White Sands is completely unique.
Accessibility: There are millions of people living within a half day’s drive of White sands, including residents in the cities of El Paso, TX, Albuquerque, NM, and Phoenix, AZ.
White Sands National Park is the smallest park to make this list. The entire Park can be circumnavigated in one day by dedicated hikers. However, because of its smaller size, White Sands is easier to enjoy to its fullest. Kids can still sled on the dunes, camp zones are available with a permit, plenty of marked trails exist, as do ranger-led programs, and photography opportunities. Visitors can fully experience this destination in a matter of two days, and there’s something to be said for that (especially if you’re a family with young kids). Falling far short of the Great Sand Dunes, most dunes at White Sands top out at less than 100 feet.
The dune-hiking and camping are especially enjoyable at White Sands. The nature of gypsum means that certain areas are far easier to walk. So, don’t be surprised if you travel faster than you expected in the backcountry. That said, the climate is still arid and very sun-exposed, so those wishing to spend more than an hour on the dunes should bring water supplies and sun protection. The various trails on the dunes are marked by reflectors, as it is incredibly easy to get disoriented and lost.
White Sands isn’t just for hikers. There’s an interdune boardwalk that runs for nearly half a mile and is completely wheelchair and stroller friendly. There are a variety of picnic zones too; some are drive up and include sun and wind shields, to protect visitors from the elements. Other popular activities include bicycling and horseback riding, both of which require you to bring your own (permits are required for horses). Finally, one of the coolest ranger-led activities is the full-moon hike. This is simply an awesome experience, but it requires reservations–tickets are available two months in advance!
Read More: Best Hiking Boots Under $100 for Men and Women
Park #5: Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Finally, Carlsbad Caverns National Park rounds out our list of beautiful and underrated National Parks.
Popularity: As the 45th most visited national park, Carlsbad only received about 400,000 annual visitors before COVID. Now, after a year of requiring reservations to enter the caverns, that number has dropped even further.
Beauty: Carlsbad Caverns is simply incredible. Most people don’t get excited about caves (including me), but this park is simply breathtaking.
Accessibility: The primary reason this park comes in at number five on our list, is its remoteness. Only three larger cities (El Paso, Albuquerque, and Amarillo) are within half a day’s drive, and just barely.
Despite its distance from major metros, Carlsbad really is worth the trouble. Regardless of rain, heat, snow–or other inclement weather of your choice–this park remains enjoyable and of a moderate temperature. More than 700 feet below the Visitor Center, tourists will begin their journey through the various caverns. Most rooms are large and offer paved paths around and through the geological formations. From the classic stalactites and stalagmites to the daily bat flight in the evenings, there are plenty of things to experience.
As mentioned, there are miles of paved trails in the Carlsbad Caverns, making this a wheelchair friendly park (sadly, strollers are prohibited). There are conveniently placed elevators to take guests down to the big room. Those who want to get their steps in, can venture down dozens of switchbacks into what is called “Devil’s Den,” which amounts to more than 75 flights of stairs. Every section of the big room has something special and unique. After time in the caverns, there are still miles of trails at the surface, along with an incredible Visitor Center and cafeteria (a must, since civilization is so distant). Night programs include full-moon hikes, stargazing, and bats (obviously). For adventurers yearning for a true spelunking (cave exploration) experience, there are ranger-led tours through research caves that require hands and knees navigation (kneepads are provided).
There’s nothing like visiting a National Park, and there are plenty from which you can choose. Which one is your favorite? We’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below!