By the numbers, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone draw the most visitors. But how about the unheard-of or under-appreciated gems further down the list? They deserve some love too.
I love the underdogs, those obscure or out-of-the-way places that surprised us with their culture, history, learning opportunities, recreation and beauty. These are the places we could easily have missed but now can’t stop raving about, those we dream of returning to before our kids leave the nest. In no particular order:
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan. Standing on its pure white sand, gazing into aquamarine infinity, Sleeping Bear Dunes wows “lake people” and “ocean people” alike. As lifelong sea-goers, Sleeping Bear checked all the boxes for us. It didn’t hurt that our late-summer stop served up the perfect weather: warm enough to swim and sip a chilled cherry pop, but cool enough to sleep with the windows open. I understand why so many families return here year after year—it’s a blast. Stumbling down the 400-feet high dunes rocked (climbing them not so much) and we got totally carried away (pun intended) tubing down the Platte River. Family fun, beautiful beaches, Junior Ranger programs, world-class sunsets and quaint nearby resort towns made Sleeping Bear one of our favorite stays. Michigan: Who knew?
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California. Our family’s favorite ecosystem? Easy: the desert. Its infamous dry heat, the aroma of Brittlebush and Ocotillo in bloom, the jaw-dropping night skies—this is the happy place I retreat to in my mind while getting a cavity filled or having blood drawn. Anza-Borrego sports a rugged look, much like the bighorn sheep who call it home. Only an hour from the sprawl of Palm Springs, the setting feels unexpectedly remote. We circled the wagons with a group of traveling friends over New Year’s, setting up camp in one of the huge expanses of empty desert available to campers and RVers. More than a year later we continue to reminisce about the sunsets and stars, coyotes yipping through the night, hikes through slot canyons and tropical oases, 500 miles of unpaved roads, wide-open space for kids to roam and the unforgettable view of the Badlands from Font’s Point.
Death Valley National Park, California. Many of our favorite places blindsided us. We knew little about them and almost skipped them, only to be blown away when we arrived. Welcome to Death Valley, where your adventure begins before even entering the park. Only a few roads lead into the valley, all descending sharply from the ear-popping passes over the surrounding mountain ranges to the lowest elevations on the continent. The park wooed us at first sight, making the four days we allotted feel woefully inadequate. During our too-short stay we crammed in a slot canyon hike, white-knuckled our way through a 27-mile off-road back country drive, scaled enormous sand dunes and explored several old-west ghost towns, all while avoiding seeing one of the park’s native “sidewinder” rattlers. Rounding out its awesomeness, Death Valley holds International Dark Sky Park credentials. Oh yes, we will be back.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska. Unless you’re one of McCarthy, Alaska’s 40-some-odd permanent residents, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park—the largest in the country—is the most isolated and inaccessible destination on this list. However, if you can manage to get the family here either by bush plane or car (the only “road” into the park is so sketchy, many rental car agencies expressly forbid it), you’re in for a treat. The frontier lives on here, in the bush and up and down the unpaved streets of McCarthy. The town’s handful of businesses rely on generators for power and a nearby spring for fetching pails of water. Eco-friendly composting toilets, in hand-crafted reclaimed wood enclosures (read: outhouses), round out the town’s modest list of amenities. Thrill-seeking visitors can enjoy back-country excursions, whitewater rafting and mountaineering. The park has a lot to offer less adventurous, bear-fearing frontiersmen such as ourselves, too, such as touring the abandoned Kennecott mining town and glacier trekking.
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, UT/AZ. Just outside Page, Ariz., near the Utah border, the Colorado River flows through one of the most iconic images of the desert southwest: Horseshoe Bend. Perched on the red sandstone cliff like the king of the hill, feet flirting with the edge of a 1,000-foot vertical drop, I found myself securing my first-born with one hand and reaching for my selfie stick with the other. A few miles away, Antelope Canyon is another gem begging to be checked off your bucket list. Navajo guides lead small groups down impossibly steep staircases where you’re enveloped by the most gorgeous (and photographed) water-sculpted slot canyons anywhere. And since you’ve journeyed this far, you might as well travel a little further to Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, home of another bucket-list slot canyon hike known as “the Wave.”
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. This park immerses visitors in Ancestral Pueblo life in some of the best-preserved cliff dwellings on the continent. While many of the park’s 600 dwellings housed one or two families, the larger ones provided shelter for as many as 150 people. A ranger-guided tour of Balcony House has you scaling a cliff on a 30-foot wooden ladder and crawling through a 12-foot long torso-width tunnel. In Spruce Tree House we climbed down into a kiva, one of the sacred subterranean living spaces, as we imagined the lives lived here nearly a millennium ago. The phenomenal ranger-led tours and hands-on environment made this our favorite roadschooling stop.
Everglades National Park, Florida. The Everglades have always held top billing on my other travel bucket list—the places I’d be scared to death to ever step foot in. Are you kidding? Pythons big enough to ingest a deer? I suppose morbid curiosity and the opportunity to show the boys crocodiles and alligators commingling in nature finally swayed me to suck it up. The park didn’t just surpass expectations, it blew them out of the wetlands. A one-of-a-kind ecosystem that plays home to exotic birds, cougars, bears and even carnivorous plants…it was all but guaranteed the boys would love this place. With its nine distinct habitats, the Everglades refuses to be typecast. At times I couldn’t tell if I was in a delta, a prairie, a forest or on the African savanna. In the warm afternoon sun, alligators sleep peacefully alongside the park road, mouths wide open, no doubt generating a gazillion likes in many a visitor’s Instagram feed (#instagators). A braver dad might have biked his kids around the 15-mile park loop, but after a too-close-for-comfort encounter with a mama gator and her pups just outside the visitor center, we settled on the enjoyable and stress-free tram tour instead.
This list, like our messy route across the continent, isn’t all-inclusive. Had we visited places such as Great Sand Dunes, the Olympic Peninsula, Big Bend, or the Dry Tortugas, this post may have turned out very differently (or probably just longer). But then, it’s good to leave wanting more.
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