Grant and I are huge fans of the National Park Service. We have visited roughly 250 out of the more than 400 park units in the US and its territories. In our visits, we have seen and loved many of the most popular National Parks, including Yellowstone, Yosemite and Everglades. That said, it is often the lesser-known parks that have truly blown our minds. These national park hidden gems just seem to capture our hearts in a different way.
Why do we love many of the smaller sites so much? Perhaps the biggest reason is that we have lower expectations. Or maybe it’s smaller crowds. Sometimes it’s the unexpected finds. Whatever the reason, the smaller, lesser-known parks often make for some of the most profound moments in our travels.
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What is a National Park Hidden Gem?
As we created our list of national park hidden gems, we considered all 400+ units within the National Park System. So, you won’t find just designated “National Parks.” From there, we chose the parks that most captured our hearts that most people likely haven’t heard of or wouldn’t expect to fall in love with.
Basically, these are lesser-known sites that have left just as big of an impression as the most popular parks. We hope that you’ll include at least a few of these parks as you plan your next national park adventure.
Need help planning your national park adventure? Check out our national parks trip planning guide.
Weir Farm National Historical Park
While not terribly far from New York City and not that far off the interstate, Weir Farm National Historical Park is still a quiet haven nestled in suburban Connecticut.
Weir Farm was the home of Julian Alden Weir, one of the foremost painters of the American Impressionist movement. He originally purchased the land as a retreat, but soon moved there and created a studio, painting many of his finest works at the farm.
Weir’s second daughter, Dorothy, herself a talented artist, married the grandson of Brigham Young, the sculptor Mahorni Young, who also located his studio to the farm. Eventually, the farm passed out of the Weir family, but on to other artists, who preserved the farm, the house and the studios.
The farm is so refreshingly pastoral, it just begs walking and admiration. Fortunately, Congress dedicated the park to art and there are artists in residence who paint among the inspirational gardens, fields and ponds. Indeed, the park invites guests to take part in creating art of their own.
The serenity and unique nature of Weir Farm are what make it stand out as a national park hidden gem.
While we both enjoyed our visit to Weir Farm, Grant was particularly moved by our time there. Right now, he paints with a camera and words. One day, he wants to return to Weir Farm with a paint brush and canvas. It’s that inspiring of a place.
A couple of things to note when you go: parking is very limited and will not accept RVs or larger vehicles. Additionally, if you want to tour the house, you have to register for a tour. Allow at least a couple of hours for a casual visit. You can certainly spend longer here, particularly you are inspired to paint, draw or just enjoy the serenity.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
Wall, South Dakota
When we first visited Minuteman Missile National Historic Site back in 2012, there wasn’t a visitor center yet, just a trailer located next to a gas station not far from Badlands National Park. Now, there is a nice, new visitor center, so we made a point to stop again in 2018 when staying in Wall, SD for a couple of nights.
Minuteman Missile NHS preserves nuclear missile silos left over from the Cold War… So cool! One of the silos allows you to look down at a mock-up of a Minuteman II missile. You can also take a tour of the other silo, which will take you down to the control room underground in a sealed bunker.
Most folks just breeze past this site on their way to Badlands NP or on to the Black Hills. The history of the American arsenal in the Plains, plus the ability to actually tour a launch control room and see a silo up close is just too much to pass up. Seriously, you’ll likely enjoy the stop even if you’re not a history buff… I sure did!
One thing to note: the guided tours of the silo require a reservation. I suggest making sure you do that in advance, especially in the summer.
The fact that you can go down into an old missile control room is what makes Minuteman Missile stand out as a national park hidden gem.
Wind Cave National Park
Hot Springs, South Dakota
Wind Cave is one of only two named national parks that we include on this list. As a designated National Park, it’s likely to be higher on your radar than some of the other sites. Still, Wind Cave NP could easily be lost among all of the other great sites in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The park is most famous for its amazing underground formations. Taking a tour of the cave, especially the candlelight tour, is worth the trip to the park by itself. But don’t stop there. In fact, the wildlife and scenic beauty above ground is one of the biggest reasons we include this site as a national park hidden gem.
Sadly, Wind Cave visitors often ignore the above-ground portion of the park but they shouldn’t. We love the rolling hills, hiking through prairie dog towns and looking for bison. Also, don’t ignore it in the winter, either. Adding snow to the landscape makes for an amazing site.
Wind Cave is relatively small, but it is where the Black Hills give way to the prairie, which makes for beautiful, varied terrain, lots of wildlife and one of the best hikes we have ever taken in a NPS unit.
Like Minuteman Missile NHS, be sure to book your cave tours in advance. When it comes to the hiking, prepare to not see anyone else.
Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site
Deer Lodge, Montana
The Grant-Kohrs Ranch was one of the first major cattle ranches in Montana. The National Park Service preserves it as a working cattle ranch.
The ranch is located in the Deer Lodge Valley along the Clark River and is both practical and beautiful. As a working ranch, there are plenty of opportunities to learn about how the ranch operated in the 1800s. You can also tour the ranch house.
When we were there, the rangers gave a demonstration of prairie wildlife, including the skin of a prairie wolf. It was so much larger than I would have thought!
Our first visit to Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS was short out of necessity. It took us a few years, but we finally made it back for a second visit and are glad we did! Perhaps we’ll even visit for a third time in the future.
The story of how a German immigrant became the Cattle King of Montana and the scenic beauty of this land are what make Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS one of our national park hidden gems.
Colorado National Monument
Grand Junction, CO
Colorado National Monument preserves a picturesque landscape not far from Interstate 70 in western Colorado. The 23-mile scenic drive makes this an easy park to visit even if you don’t have much time or physically can’t do much hiking.
Along the scenic Rim Rock Drive through the park, you’ll find plenty of pullouts and overlooks providing views down into the valleys below that just never cease to get old. The variety of rock formations in a relatively small area really is staggering. And every formation is breathtakingly beautiful!
This park is all about preserving the scenic beauty that John Otto fell in love with in the early 1900s. It is thanks to his efforts to preserve this area that we can visit Colorado NM today. And we certainly can’t argue with the fact that this land is beautiful and worth preserving!
Aside from Rim Rock Drive, you’ll find a few hiking trails of various lengths in the park. Even just the short walks to the overlooks provide a chance to stretch your legs without breaking a sweat. If you are looking for longer hikes with serious elevation change, you’ll find those too.
Of course, there are many national park sites with grand scenic beauty. So, what makes this site stand out as a national park hidden gem? For us, it’s the location and the fact that it’s relatively small and quick to visit.
Chiricahua National Monument
Located in southeastern Arizona, Chiricahua National Monument is not a park that you will find accidentally. It’s remote but well worth the drive east from Tucson, AZ or west from Lordsburg, NM.
The park preserves several canyons and rock formations that are some of the most unique and interesting that we’ve seen. With an 8-miles scenic drive and 17-miles of hiking trails, Chiricahua is not a large park but you could still spend a couple of days hiking and enjoying the scenery. There is also a historic homestead, which was later turned into a guest ranch that you can explore.
We particularly enjoyed hiking among the rock formations, snapping pictures at every turn. Being there in the winter, with snow on the ground only added to the scenic landscapes.
The remoteness and unique rock formations are what compelled us to add Chiricahua NM to our list of national park hidden gems. In fact, we are looking forward to returning to do some more hiking and camping.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one park with a fairly descriptive name. Here, you’ll find sand dunes right on the shore of Lake Michigan. What we enjoyed most about these dunes is that you can easily tour from the top meaning you don’t have to hike uphill in the sand if you don’t want to!
The main highlight of the park is the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. At only 7.4 miles, you’ll be amazed at the different ecosystems you pass through in just a short amount of time. Indeed, the land transitions from sand dunes to a beech-maple forest in the blink of an eye.
We particularly enjoyed the view from the top of the dunes, which tower 450 feet over Lake Michigan.
At the Glen Haven Historic Village you can stroll through the historic general store and check out the demonstrations at the blacksmith shop. There are also a couple of small museums.
There are even a couple of hiking trails that don’t require hiking in the sand! We particularly enjoyed the Empire Bluffs trails, which provides views of Lake Michigan and overlooks the town of Empire.
While here, we encourage you to spend a day or two exploring the nearby town of Traverse City. It was here that we managed the trifecta of visiting a brewery, distillery and winery all in one day!
The small-town charm, vistas over Lake Michigan and great eating and drinking in Traverse City, are what make Sleeping Bear Dunes one of our ten national park hidden gems!
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
New Orleans, LA
Many of the other sites on our list of national park hidden gems are in remote areas. So, it may come as a surprise that we include a park in New Orleans, one of the most well-known cities in the US. Honestly, though, that’s exactly why we are including it. Most people visiting New Orleans have no idea there is a national park (two, actually) right in the French Quarter that they can visit!
Alright, before I go too far, I should admit that really only the visitor center for Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is in the French Quarter. Still, it’s a great place to start your visit and learn about the history of New Orleans and the different units of this park.
With a battlefield, three Acadian cultural centers and a swamp as part of the park, it really does preserve a lot of what makes New Orleans special.
While the battlefield and cultural centers are worth a visit, my favorite part of the park was the Barataria Preserve. Here, you can walk trails and boardwalks through the wetlands and, likely, even spot some wildlife.
Visiting the various units of the Jean Lafitte NHP really is a great way to learn more about this great city. Add on a stop at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park for yet another park site that ties in well with this city!
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
With three units of the park scattered across east-central Oregon, you’ll need a couple of days to truly explore John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. While it is possible to see all three units in one day, it would be a very long day of not easy driving! In fact, we only made it to two of the three units for that reason. And we had two full days.
You’ll find the main park visitor center in the Sheep Rock Unit. Here, you can see the park film, explore the paleontology center and explore a historic ranch. There are also a few short hiking trails.
In the Painted Hills unit, you’ll find exactly what the name says – a hilly landscape with stripes of yellow, orange, red and tan. Follow a few trails through the hills for an up close look at this unique landscape.
The Clarno Unit is the one spot we didn’t make it to but really wish we had. According to the park website, you can follow a few trails and, possibly, find fossilized plants along the cliff walls.
If you’re visiting in the summer, understand that the weather will likely be hot and dry. Bring plenty of water if you are hiking and start your day as early as possible to avoid the hottest temperatures.
John Day Fossil Beds NM makes our list of national park hidden gems for the variety of the terrain found here. While this landscape may not hold the same grandeur as other parks, it’s unique and beautiful in its own way and certainly worth a visit.
Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park doesn’t get near the admiration that it should. It’s extremely remote and its gateway town of Baker is extremely small. Many folks just don’t think the park is worth the drive. They are wrong. And that’s why we include it as one of our ten national park hidden gems.
The park is on the eastern Nevada border in the middle of the desert. But the elevation of the mountain creates an island oasis that seems out of place. On top of that, the park boasts a cave, a (small) glacier, the oldest living organisms in the world (Bristlecone Pine Trees) and dark skies that are difficult to beat.
The park is not large but does offer a lot of variety. Still, you’ll only need a day or two to explore Great Basin. I suggest making a reservation for a cave tour in advance, as they do sell out. We also enjoyed the astronomy program, which is typically offered on Thursdays and Saturdays throughout the summer.
You should definitely plan to drive the 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, which offers grand views of the mountains and surrounding valleys. There are also a number of hiking trails, both short and easy and long and strenuous.
The town of Baker is one of the smallest towns you’ll visit but also is home to one of our favorite restaurants, Kerouac’s. Seriously, it’s one of only a couple of places to get food in Baker but it’s just as good as any restaurant you’d find in a large metropolitan area.
Do yourself a favor and don’t pass on a visit to Great Basin NP.
Final Thoughts on Our National Park Hidden Gems
Since there are 423 units of the National Park Service and only 63 named National Parks, you could say there are 360 national park hidden gems. While we love the designated National Parks, we often find our visits to the National Monuments, National Historic Sites and other units just as interesting.
The 10 sites we included here as national park hidden gems really just stand out above the rest. I’ll admit, it wasn’t easy choosing just ten sites, though! And, I’m sure there are a few sites we haven’t visited yet that we may add to this list in the future.
For now, though, these are the sites that we continue to talk about and, in some cases, even revisit.
Do you agree with our choices for the national park hidden gems? Which parks are your unknown favorites that we simply must visit?
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