Attractions of Lesser-Known National Parks
The United States and Canada both have extensive national park systems. Most people know about the popular and most-visited parks, like Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Banff and Jasper. But there are plenty of other, lesser-known parks with their own unique attractions. Many are well off the beaten track, so getting there can be an adventure, and they’re usually much less crowded in the peak visiting seasons, which makes the visit more fun.
Following are a few of the parks that fall into that category. We’ve supplied website information for further investigation.
Kenai Fjords National Park
Reaching Kenai Fjords National Park from the Southern 48 or Canada can be an adventure in itself. You can use the Alaska Marine Highway System, which operates ferry services from Bellingham, Washington and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to a series of ports along the Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska, all the way out to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. For Kenai Fjords, your stop would be Seward, 125 miles south of Anchorage. For ferry information: www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/. NOTE: Vehicles over 25 feet long cannot be booked online; contact the reservations office at 907-465-3941, toll-free at 1-800-642-0066.
Of course you could drive there, too. The scenic route on land highways from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Seward is 2,325 miles – about 50 hours’ total driving time. The route truly is scenic, through some of the most beautiful wild terrain in the world. You could easily make a two- or three-week adventure out of this road trip.
No matter how you get there, you’ll find an other-worldly land and seascape formed by earthquakes, glaciers and storms. The park’s website describes it as a land of constant change, where ice worms, bears and whales make their homes, and the native Alutiiq have used these resources to nurture a life entwined with the sea.
For more information, please visit: www.nps.gov/kefj/index.htm
Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada
This massive park straddles the border of Alberta and the Northwest Territories. From Seward, Alaska it is about 1,300 miles due east as the crow flies, but by road the drive is about 2,100 miles. From Edmonton, Alberta, it is about 815 miles due north.
In land area, Wood Buffalo is larger than Switzerland, making it one of the largest national parks in the world. It’s been in existence since 1922, created for protection of the area’s bison herds. Today it is a haven for endangered species, including the wood bison, peregrine falcon and whooping crane.
Wood Buffalo was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. According to the park’s website, the features that prompted this designation include:
- One of the largest free-roaming and self-regulating bison herds in the world
- The last remaining natural nesting area for the endangered whooping crane
- The Peace-Athabasca Delta, one of the largest inland freshwater deltas in the world
- Some of the finest examples of gypsum karst landforms in North America
- Unique salt plains
- Vast undisturbed expanses of boreal wilderness.
This wilderness park offers visitors a wide variety of experiences and adventures in the long days and very short nights of sub-arctic summer, including boating, canoeing, hiking, camping, fishing, wildlife viewing. Remote areas of the park can also be reached by motorboat operated by a licensed guide, or by float plane.
Yoho National Park of Canada
Canada’s Yoho National Park is about 130 miles west of Calgary, Alberta, and 500 miles north-east of Vancouver, B.C. It is on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains, just over the Continental Divide from Banff National Park in Alberta.
Although Yoho isn’t nearly as well known as its neighbor park on the other side of the mountain range, traffic volume in the peak months of July and August can be high. So if you’re looking for more solitude, peace and quiet, try mid-June or mid-September.
Yoho is a Cree word for awe, and the area’s craggy mountain peaks, rock walls, glacial lakes and waterfalls are truly awesome.
For the Canadian Pacific Railroad builders in the 1870s, this terrain presented a daunting obstacle, and led to creation of the “spiral tunnels” at Kicking Horse Pass in the early 1900s. These are still in use today, carrying 20 to 30 trains a day up and down the mountain, from the pass’s 5,340-foot elevation to the village of Field, B.C., at about 4,000 feet, which is also the home of Yoho’s visitor center.
Like Wood Buffalo, Yoho, too, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated in 1981 because of the Burgess Shale Formation, which contains 515-million-year-old fossils of some 120 species of marine animals.
Wind Cave National Park
For centuries, American Indians of the Black Hills area told stories about “a hole that breathes cool air.” That is Wind Cave, in a park located about 40 miles south of Rapid City and 20 miles south of Mt. Rushmore.
The cave has one natural entrance, and its “breathing” can sometimes be an audible whistling sound due to winds that alternately blow in and out to equalize air pressure inside and outside the cave.
Wind Cave is the world’s 4th longest cave system, with more than 135 miles of passages, and more being explored every year. (The world’s longest system is Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.)
Above ground, mixed-grass prairie and ponderosa pine forests support plentiful native wildlife, including bison, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, and prairie dogs.
For more information, please visit: www.nps.gov/wica/index.htm
Keweenaw National Historical Park
Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula is the northern-most part of the state, jutting about 60 miles into Lake Superior. People began mining copper here 7,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that copper mining became a major industry, and for more than 100 years it was a key force in shaping the lives of the people and the land they lived on.
This was one of the first mineral mining rushes in the United States, and today this park shows the heritage in the remains of mines and mining communities, and the stories of people who worked and lived there.
At present, the park has two main sites at former large-scale mines, Quincy and Calumet, 12 miles apart. The two units are located at the sites of former large-scale mines.
The park’s description says, “the Quincy Mining Company property illustrates the processes and technologies of copper mining. The social, ethnic, commercial, and company planned aspects of a mining community are revealed in the village of Calumet and the Calumet & Hecla properties.”
For more information, please visit: www.nps.gov/wica/index.htm
Fathom Five National Marine Park of Canada
If you enjoy snorkeling or scuba diving, Fathom Five is your kind of park. Much of it is below the clear waters where Lake Huron and Georgian Bay meet off the tip of the Bruce Peninsula at Tobermory (about 180 road miles northwest of Toronto). Snorkelers to experienced divers can find some of the best fresh-water diving experiences in the world. Sites include underwater cliffs, caves, and overhangs, and more than 20 shipwrecks – most from the 1800s.
A boat trip to Flowerpot Island is another attraction, where you will find unusual “flowerpot” rock formations, as well as caves, an historic light station, hiking trails, and places to swim.
The park’s visitor’s center has a high-definition theater, exhibits about black bear, rattlesnakes and shipwrecks, and a full-sized lighthouse. There also is a 65-foot tower for panoramic views of the area.
For more information, please visit: www.pc.gc.ca/eng/amnc-nmca/on/fathomfive/index.aspx
Congaree National Park
This 24,000-acre park is located about 20 miles southeast of Columbia, S.C. along the north side of the Congaree River. It contains North America’s largest remaining tract of old-growth floodplain, populated by lofty bottomland hardwood forests. It is a sanctuary for a wide-ranging variety of plants, animals, amphibians, reptiles, birds and insects.
Activities in the park include hiking, primitive camping, bird watching, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, ranger-guided interpretive walks and canoe tours, and environmental education programs. There is a 2.4-mile elevated boardwalk trail, and more than 20 miles of hiking trails through the quietly serene forests.
Canoeing in the eerie light of Cedar Creek, a visitor paddles through a lush landscape of still water, towering bald cypress and water tupelo trees and Spanish moss. Fauna range from bobcats, deer and river otters to barred owls and tiny mud turtles.
For more information, please visit: www.nps.gov/cong/index.htm
Forillon National Park of Canada
On Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, the park itself is on a smaller peninsula that juts into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. A place of majestic hills, forests and cliffs, Forillon is in fact the eastern end of the Appalachian mountain chain, and has been inhabited by man for at least 9,000 years. The park’s website says that “the wild beauty of its countryside, where man, the land and the sea live together in harmony, as well as the diversity of its flora and fauna, give this park a unique character.”
Forillon offers plenty of variety in things to see and do, like whale-watching cruises in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, sea kayaking, fishing, camping, snorkeling and scuba diving, hiking, cycling and horseback riding. The park is open in the winter as well, with activities like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, dogsledding, and winter camping.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend occupies more than 800,000 acres (1,250 square miles) along 118 miles of the north bank of the Rio Grande. The topography varies dramatically, from the river’s lush floodplains and spectacular canyons through desert, and into the Chisos Mountains, more than a mile higher than the river. The varieties of plant and animal life vary widely with the terrain, elevation and temperatures.
It is a wild, beautiful and often desolate place, but it is home to an amazing variety of animals, birds and plants, including more bird species than any other U.S. park – some 450 in all – 75 species of mammals, and 1,200 plant species, including some that exist nowhere else in the world.
At Big Bend you can experience extraordinary sights, sounds, and seclusion in one of the rare places in the lower 48 states that is truly wild.
For more information, please visit: www.nps.gov/bibe/index.htm
A spectacular drive
This borderlands area of southwest Texas is an exotically beautiful landscape of desert and mountains that makes an ideal place for a great road trip. There are a variety of options for routes, all offering not only spectacular scenery, but also interesting places to stop for a break to dine, tour, shop or rest.
We will point you toward two possible routes, described on the following websites: