Valdosta Daily Times

August 4, 2013

Hidden Gems: Visiting underrated national parks and monuments

David and Kay Scott
The Valdosta Daily Times

- — The National Park Service administers more than 400 units including many of the USA’s most treasured landscapes and important historic structures. A number of these, especially those classified as national parks, are well-known. Who hasn’t heard of Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, and Yosemite? Other NPS units, especially those that have not gained national park status, remain more obscure. If you haven’t heard of Alibates Flint Quarries, Florissant Fossil Beds, and Sunset Crater — each a national monument administered by the National Park Service  — don’t fret because most of your friends haven’t either.

In addition to national parks and national monuments, the National Park Service administers units in a variety of other classifications including national seashores, national historic sites, national battlefields, national preserves, and national historical parks. Units in each classification offer something special which resulted in it being placed under the protective wing of the National Park Service.

The two of us have spent the majority of the past 40 summers visiting areas managed by the National Park Service. We have explored most of the major parks including Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, and the Grand Canyon numerous times. We have also visited and enjoyed many of the less well-known units including Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Oregon Caves National Monument, and Ninety Six National Historic Site.

During these trips we have discovered a number of areas managed by the National Park Service that never make the bucket list for most Americans. Some, such as Big Bend National Park in Texas, are so isolated that many travelers are unwilling to make a long trip just to get there. In other instances, NPS units just don’t seem to receive much public notice and, as a result, remain off most travelers’ radar screens. From our perspective, the lack of crowds is a major factor making these parks so enjoyable to visit.  

Below are five national parks and five national monuments that we feel are underrated. Each is in a different state, but all are west of the Mississippi so you will have to drive some to get there. We are confident that you won’t be disappointed with a visit to any of the 10. There are certainly others we could include but these 10 make a good start for your expanded bucket list.

National Parks

Big Bend National Park (Texas): The drive south toward Big Bend National Park from the small Texas town of Marathon appears to lead to the end of the earth. It doesn’t, of course, only to the Mexican border at the Rio Grande River. Still, the vastness and beauty of this land of mountains, desert, and steep-walled canyons is amazing. The park, named for its location on the bend of the Rio Grande, is a favorite destination for birdwatchers, while the more adventurous choose to raft the river or hike some of the nearly 200 miles of trails. Fall and spring are ideal times to visit Big Bend that can get quite hot during the summer months. Chisos Mountains Lodge and several campgrounds are within the park which is fortunate because several days are required to get a real flavor for this 800,000-acre treasure.

Great Basin National Park (Nevada): This isolated gem in eastern Nevada protects 77,000 acres of America’s Great Basin, a vast area that incorporates western Utah and nearly all of Nevada. The park offers rugged desert, scenic mountains, an extensive cave system, and 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine trees that are among the oldest living things on earth.

The focal point is 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak that offers road access to an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet. Views along the road are outstanding. The park has more than 40 known caves, the best-known of which is Lehman in which guided tours are offered by park rangers. The park has several campgrounds including three on the road up Wheeler Peak.

Several creeks offer excellent trout fishing. Limited motel rooms are available nearby in the small town of Baker.

Lassen Volcanic National Park (California): Lassen has been a favorite of ours since we first visited in the mid-1970s. Even many California residents seem to know little about this wonderful park that contains four types of volcanoes. Hydrothermal features in the park include fumaroles, mud pots, and boiling pools. The park centers on Lassen Peak, where the 1914-17 series of volcanic eruptions were the last in the continental U.S. prior to Mount St. Helen’s in 1980. Much of the park is accessible via a 30-mile paved road that connects the southwest and northwest entrances. Hiking the trail to the top of Lassen Peak takes approximately five hours roundtrip. Lodging is available at Drakesbad Guest Ranch accessible from the small town of Chester. Camper cabins are available at Manzanita Lake just inside the northwest entrance.

North Cascades National Park (Washington): With elevations from near sea level to over 9,000 feet, the natural features of this park in northeastern Washington are sometimes compared to Europe’s Alps. Glaciers continue to grace some of the park’s mountains. The park is actually a complex of three units including North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Kayaking, white-water rafting, and fishing are popular activities. Boat transportation provides access to the park’s two lodging facilities, Ross Lake Resort and North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin. North Cascades Highway (U.S. 20) bisects the park and offers great mountain vistas for travelers. Numerous campgrounds for boaters, hikers, and RVers are scattered throughout the park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota): Named for our 26th president who in 1883 bought a ranch here, this 70,000-acre park in the scenic North Dakota Badlands is divided into three separate sections. The South Unit near the small town of Medora includes a 36-mile paved loop drive. Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin sits outside the South Unit visitor center. The Elkhorn Ranch unit is 35 miles north of Medora with access via gravel roads. We particularly enjoy the North Unit where a 14-mile scenic drive leads to an overlook of the Little Missouri River. The park is home to bison, elk, pronghorns, feral horses, and prairie dogs, the latter of which provide great entertainment. Campgrounds are available in both the North and South units.

National Monuments

Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Arizona): This 84,000-acre monument in northeast Arizona preserves the ruins of ancient Indian villages built in steep-walled canyons. Navajo continue to live and farm in the canyon. North Rim Drive offers three overlooks as it follows Canyon Del Muerto. South Rim Drive along Canyon de Chelly provides access to seven scenic overlook points and White House Trail, the only hike into the canyon permitted without a park ranger or authorized guide. Tours of the canyon’s backcountry by vehicle or horseback are available. A nice lodge and free campground are near the visitor center. The lodge cafeteria is in the original trading post built here in 1902. The monument is an ideal stop for travelers driving between Mesa Verde National Park and the Grand Canyon.

Colorado National Monument (Colorado): This monument is highlighted with steep-walled canyons and monoliths in the beautiful sandstone region of western Colorado that attracts rock climbers from far and wide. It is home to a variety of wildlife including mountain lions and desert bighorn sheep. Twenty-three-mile Rim Rock Drive connecting the east and west entrances offer views similar to those of Monument Valley. A campground near the visitor center and west entrance provides scenic views from a high bluff overlooking the Colorado River Valley. Lodging is available in nearby Grand Junction. Kent Moore, a friend of ours who considers himself an avid traveler considers Colorado National Monument one of the most underrated units of the National Park Service. We agree.

Craters of the Moon National Monument (Idaho): The name for this monument visited by Apollo 14 astronauts for training prior to their moon mission is certainly appropriate. Nearly three-quarters of a million acres of rugged landscape filled with lava fields and cinder cones makes earthbound visitors feel as if they may be walking on the surface of the moon. Although the area appears uninhabited, birds, animals, and plants have adapted to live here. A seven-mile paved loop drive provides access to a number of hiking trails and a cave area where visitors can walk through lava tubes. No lodging is available in the monument but a unique campground in a volcanic field of cinders and volcanic rocks is near the visitor center.  

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (Montana): This impressive monument memorializes members of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry and the Sioux and Cheyenne that fought and died here. A 4.5-mile tour road includes multiple stops where visitors can use cell phones to listen to narratives describing the troop movements and battle. CDs for self-guided tours are available for purchase in the visitor center. A trail leads to “last hill” made famous as the location of Custer’s Last Stand. Local members of the Crow Nation offer guided tours (fee charged). A walk through the adjoining National Cemetery offers a somber reminder of the costs of war. Neither camping nor lodging is available in the monument.

Scotts Bluff National Monument (Nebraska): These sandstone and clay bluffs served as prominent landmarks for hundreds of thousands of emigrants heading west on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails. Prior to this emigration, the bluffs were important landmarks for Native Americans. The visitor center houses historic and geological artifacts, along with paintings of photographer and artist Will Henry Jackson. Trail ruts carved by settlers’ wagons are plainly visible in several locations within the monument. A paved road and a hiking trail lead to the summit of the bluff that provides excellent views of the trail approach to Mitchell Pass. Famous trail landmarks Chimney Rock and Courthouse Rock are nearby. Camping and lodging are available in the nearby towns of Gering and Scottsbluff.

David and Kay Scott reside in Valdosta and are authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges.