1. New River Gorge National Park
Just last year, “the New River Gorge, formerly a national river, was upgraded to a national park and preserve,” reports Sarah Buder, making this West Virginia park the newest in the United States.
Encompassing more than 70,000 acres of land, this rugged Appalachian canyon has something for everyone: rock climbing routes on sandstone cliffs for climbers of all levels, whitewater rafting along 53 miles of whitewater that include Class IV and V rapids, and hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain biking trails.
2. Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park in South Carolina is best known for its large collection of old-growth, bottomland hardwood trees, although more than 80 tree species can be found here. “This biodiversity, along with a rich cultural heritage, in 1983 earned Congaree UNESCO biosphere reserve status,” writes Brooke Vaughan.
Come here to hike among the trees or take a guided tour down Cedar Creek canoe trail. But be warned: The park sits on a floodplain fed by the Congaree and Wateree Rivers and it can be swampy (in other words, full of mosquitoes) in warmer months. Spring and fall are the best times to visit.
3. Dry Tortugas National Park
Located 70-miles offshore from Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas National Park is often passed over in favor of Florida’s more well-known and easy-to-reach Everglades National Park. Although a neighbor of the Everglades, Dry Tortugas is entirely different. This park consists mostly of open water, with coral reefs and seven small islands, putting marine life at the center of its attractions.
Sadly, climate change threatens the ecosystem at Dry Tortugas but, for now at least, visitors can explore its unique beauty by snorkeling, diving, or kayaking—as well as the history of Fort Jefferson, built in the 1800s on Garden Key. For the few who choose to spend the night and camp, the remoteness of the islands also offers incredible stargazing and afternoons of crowd-free swims once the day-trippers have returned to shore.
4. Voyageurs National Park
With just 263,091 visitors in 2020, Voyageurs National Park along the Canadian border in Minnesota doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, despite being a wonderland for water lovers. More than 40 percent of the park is water, a series of interconnected waterways as well as the Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan, and Sand Point Lakes. There is evidence that for over 10,000 years, humans have centered life in this area around the waterways: using them for fishing, foraging, and as transportation corridors—activities that continue to be a main draw for visitors to this day.
5. Big Bend National Park
Located in the southwest corner of Texas, Big Bend National Park is “underrated because of the location . . . it’s definitely one of the harder parks to get to,” says Norman Aynbinder, president and CEO of Excursionist, a luxury tour operator that has a variety of unique, expert-led options for exploring the U.S. national parks. But “unlike some parks that are more limited in the season, you can visit [Big Bend] year-round.”
It’s worth the effort—Big Bend is one of the most biodiverse parks in the United States, home to over 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, 22 species of lizards, as well as three distinct landscapes centered around the Chisos Mountains, Chihuahuan Desert, and the Rio Grande. Vast, rugged, and varied, the park offers plenty of ways to explore—whether it’s a hike to the park’s historic hot springs, a multiday canoe trip down the Rio Grande, or bird-watching along the 5.2-mile Window Trail.
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