5 Lesser-known National Parks Well Worth Exploring

A handful of national parks get all the attention but these incredible alternatives provide a quieter experience outdoors.

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hikers walking in hills Photo © Getty Images / Milo Zanecchia / Ascent Xmedia

If you're really looking to get away, why not skip the crowds and explore a lesser-known – but just as impressive – national park? These standout national parks in the United States and beyond deserve a place on your itinerary.

1. Piedras Blancas National Park, Costa Rica

Previously part of the country’s most popular national park, Piedras Blancas is a lesser-visited rainforest (fewer than 400 people per year) that has a nearly identical list of species as its more crowded neighbor (Manuel Antonio National Park). Dense evergreen forests create habitat for toucans, macaws, monkeys, wild cats, and countless colorful reptiles. This region is a true rainforest and is one of the wettest regions in the world so check the forecast and pack accordingly.

2. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, USA

Rolling prairies studded with roaming bison and elk may be what park visitors initially see but to take in what truly makes this park special, you’ll need to head underground. Wind Cave, after which the park was named, is one of the longest and most complex caves in the world. Candlelit tours of the cave allow travelers to explore its maze of passages and unique honeycomb-like boxwork formations.

3. Congaree National Park, South Carolina, USA

Nicknamed the ‘Redwoods of the East’, Congaree National Park is home to one of the largest stands of old-growth hardwood trees in North America. Canopies average around 100 feet but some ‘champion trees’ soar to 160 feet. Because much of the park is swampy, the best way to experience the park is by canoe, though a 2.4-mile elevated boardwalk allows visitors to explore by foot without getting their shoes wet.

4. Wadi Rum National Park, Jordan

Depicted as Mars in several Hollywood movies, this ‘Valley of the Moon’ is an otherworldly park with golden sand dunes and desolate mountains that truly simulate outer space. Wadi Rum resembles national parks in the American Southwest, only it receives fewer visitors. In addition to sand trekking, mountain hiking, and jeep safaris, Wadi Rum is famous for its Bedouin hospitality. It’s impossible to visit the region and not be offered sweet mint tea. You may also be treated to the best meal of your life, likely a feast that’s been cooked underground, a delicious Bedouin tradition.

5. Wood Buffalo National Park, Northwest Territories, Canada

Larger than the entire country of Switzerland, Wood Buffalo National Park is both Canada’s largest park and the third largest park in the world. Park goers (fewer than 4,000 per year) roam the park’s staggering 17,300 square miles, home to the world’s biggest herd of free-roaming wood bison. Wood Buffalo is also Canada’s largest dark sky preserve so it’s magical for stargazing. Winter visitors may even be treated to the Northern Lights.

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