When we think of national parks, we don't immediately think of hidden gems in America. Most of us think of the big, super famous parks: Acadia, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Zion...but those are just a fraction of all the incredible places managed by the National Park Service.
NPS encompasses over 400 units, including national monuments, national scenic trails, national lakeshores, national rivers, national historic sites, and many others.
And only 63 of them are actual national parks.
What that tells us is that there are a LOT of hidden gems to visit in the US, just within our parks!
Often, the lesser-known sites are even more mind-blowing than the famous ones. They tend to offer a better overall experience with fewer people, less traffic, no pesky national park reservations to keep track of, and in many cases, epic, uncrowded campsites.
As you plan out your next adventures, consider visiting one (or two!) of these hidden gems to visit in the US!
Psst! Make sure you have your annual national parks pass (AKA America the Beautiful Pass)!
National Park Hidden Gems to Visit in the US
From sea caves and swamps to vast canyons and towering mountains, America really is beautiful. Here are eight incredible hidden gems in America.
1. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin
Wisconsin is well-known as the Promise Land for beer and cheese. But waaaay up north just off the shore on Lake Superior, you'll find a spectacular cluster of 21 small islands, countless sea caves, and the largest concentration of lighthouses (8) in North America.
This is Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, one of the best hidden gems to visit in the US. Of the islands' eight historic lighthouses, four are still in service today. You can also tour five of them in the summer months.
The best way to explore "the Apostles" is by boat, whether it's kayaking, sailing, booking a fishing charter, or taking a tour with Apostle Islands Cruises.
Note: Lake Superior is notoriously treacherous (hence the need for eight lighthouses in this small area!), so you should only kayak it if you're very experienced.
2. Buffalo National River, Arkansas
The 153-mile-long Buffalo River was the first in the United States to be designated a National River. It's also one of the last free-flowing, undammed rivers in the Lower 48 (others include the Salmon River in Idaho and the Delaware River).
Tucked into the particularly scenic southern region of the Ozark Mountains in northern Arkansas, the Buffalo National River provides year-round recreation.
In any season, you can hike, mountain bike, fish, camp, and canoe or float the river. And really, that's just the beginning. We haven't mentioned waterfall chasing, exploring countless natural caves, visiting a real-life ghost town, or watching for wildlife including black bear and elk.
Photo courtesy of Buffalo National River
3. Colorado National Monument, Colorado
Many people say that Colorado's namesake national monument should really have been a national park. We don't disagree; it's spectacular.
With its red rock formations, hoodoos, and vast valleys, the Colorado National Monument mimics two of Utah's uber-famous national parks, Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands (both within an easy drive). Except it's far smaller and way less crowded, which is exactly why it's one of our favorite hidden gems to visit in the US.
It's also an easy detour from I-70, making it ideal for a quick road trip stop. Despite its small size, the Colorado National Monument packs a serious punch with a scenic drive and several hiking trails.
4. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Tucked into the far West Texas desert in the middle of Approximately Nowhere, you may be wondering why Guadalupe Mountains National Park made our list of hidden gems to visit in the US. Hold that thought.
One of the least visited and most remote national parks, Guadalupe Mountains is actually full of surprises.
While the park is best known for being the home of Texas' tallest peak, 8,751-foot-tall Guadalupe Peak, its natural springs are far more impressive.
Hidden among the unforgiving, arid desert landscape are several year-round springs. None are big by any stretch of the imagination, but the fact that they exist at all in this environment is mind-blowing.
Start at Frijole Ranch, where you can easily hike to two of the most impressive springs, Smith and Manzanita. Be sure to spend a bit of time at the ranch itself, where you'll learn about the area's history and how the original settlers diverted water from half a mile away.
5. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Louisiana
Most of us immediately think of the Florida Everglades when we envision swamps or alligators. While that's totally accurate, the Everglades isn't the only place to experience these natural wonders!
Just 17 miles from New Orleans, you'll find one of the best hidden gems to visit in the US national parks: Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.
Encompassing both bayous and swamp (not sure of the difference? A bayou is essentially a very slow-moving river, while a swamp is a forested wetland that's permanently saturated in water), Jean Laffite is uniquely beautiful and diverse.
Walk the park's trails, go fishing, watch for gators and other wildlife, and visit Chalmette Battlefield, site of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
6. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
As its name implies, wildlife is the main attraction at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on Florida's "Space Coast." It's far from the only one, though.
Here, you'll find world-class fishing (in particular, fly fishing), fantastic kayaking opportunities, and a handful of hiking trails. If you time it just right, you may catch a NASA rocket launch! The refuge is adjacent to Canaveral National Seashore, home of the John F. Kennedy Space Center.
The sole feature that makes Merritt Island one of the top hidden gems in America, though, is its bioluminescent bay. Despite them being exceedingly rare in the world, there are actually three bioluminescent bays on the Space Coast. Best of all, you can explore all of them by kayak!
7. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
We know what you're probably thinking...North Dakota has a national park?
The answer, friends, is a resounding YES! Not only that, but this particular national park is one the absolute best hidden gems to visit in the US.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is separated into three distinct units: North, South, and Elkhorn Ranch. The North Unit is known as the "Grand Canyon of the Little Missouri River," while the South Unit is spectacular for wildlife watching (especially bison!).
Elkhorn Ranch is incredibly unique, preserving the very site Theodore Roosevelt chose as his "home ranch" after both his wife and mother died.
The park has phenomenal outdoor opportunities, including hiking, cycling, fishing, canoeing and kayaking, and camping. Best of all, it's one of the best places in the U.S. for stargazing!
8. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Imagine a place with thousands of pristine waterways, all interconnected and dotted with tiny islands, where moose and wolves freely roam, and where you'll never hear the sound of a vehicle, because there are no roads.
That place exists in Minnesota's north woods and it's called Voyageurs National Park. Near the storied Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyageurs is thought to be one of the most pristine places on Earth.
Since the park is only accessible by water, you'll want to rent a boat. You can houseboat it or for a more rustic experience, rent a canoe and pack camping gear. Either way, bring fishing poles — Voyageurs has some of the best fishing anywhere!
The park is also one of the best places to spot the elusive Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, any time of year.
Document Hidden Gems in America With a Travel Keychain
As you're planning which hidden gems to visit in the US, one thing to keep in mind is that many of these less-visited sites don't have visitor centers or gift shops.
They're portable, stylish, and great conversation starters, plus there are countless options, including US National Park Tokens. Consider customizing your Travel Tokens with the date you visited one of the hidden gems in America and collect one for each new site you explore!