National parks provide amazing experiences at a very low cost. But more than that, they offer a glimpse into something we've lost, a world largely unspoiled by modern man. While the most popular parks can turn into anything but an unspoiled environment during holiday months, there are parks which remain nearly empty almost year-round.
If you're seeking the way less trammeled, unspoiled views and breathtaking memories, it may be time to check out some of our nation's oft-overlooked national park experiences.
National Parks To Check Out:
Arizona's Saguaro National Park
Tucson sits amid the giant saguaros of the Sonoran Desert and this park. The Tucson Mountain District and its saguaro forest and petroglyphs lie to the west while the Rincon Mountain District and its sky island lie to the east. Many of Saguaro's cacti are over two centuries old, their desert just one of eight diverse habitats. Hike the western portion, or bike or drive the east.
California's Lassen Volcanic National Park
Part of northern California's Cascades, Lassen has been volcanically active for over 3 million years. It boasts the largest plug dome volcano in the world and hydrothermal features. See mountain snowpack while hiking through a wildflower meadow along a crystal-clear lake. Bring your snowshoes, and celebrate pristine wilderness.
California's Channel Islands National Park
Despite passenger ferries from Ventura, this national park remains one of the least visited. Five islands and the ocean support more endangered species unique to this park than any other National Park Service unit. Whale-watch, camp, hike, snorkel, scuba or kayak, but in this fragile destination, sea lions, seals, migrating birds and wildlife reign.
Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park
Southwest of Pueblo, 30 square miles of sand dunes tower up to 750 feet. Meanwhile, Mt. Herard and its 13,297-foot summit add alpine meadow, forest, wetlands, grasslands and shrublands. With moonlight, "half the park is after dark!" Sandboard dunes, skimboard Medano Creek, backpack or hike, bring your horses, or camp on the dunes or in the forest.
South Carolina's Congaree National ParkImage courtesy of Jtmartin57 via Wikimedia Commons
Southeast of Columbia, Congaree is also designated an international Biosphere Reserve and Globally Important Bird Area. The swamp is actually a bottomland hardwood floodplain enriched by overflow from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers. Camp, hike, bird, boat or fish, but pets must be leashed, and no bikes are permitted.
Washington's North Cascades National Park
East of Bellingham in northernmost Washington, brown bears and grey wolves roam a landscape graced by more than 300 glaciers and boundless waterfalls. Over 9,000 feet of vertical relief, 1,600 plant species and tectonic plate activity provide focus for climatological and geological study. Hike, bike, boat or climb to your heart's content.
Michigan's Isle Royale National Park
Nearer Canada than Michigan, Isle Royale crowns Lake Superior with sharp-edged Northwoods wilderness beauty. It hosts the longest running large-mammal predator-prey study on Earth thanks to isolation and its wolf and moose populations. Hike, boat, kayak, scuba or camp, but no pets, cars or wheeled vehicles are allowed.
Alaska's Gates Of The Arctic National Park
Our northernmost treasure, the Gates is completely north of the Arctic Circle, offering unspoiled tundra, stark Brooks Range mountains, boreal forest and polar desert. Both traditional Athabascan peoples and Nunamiut Eskimos still subsist in this perfect wilderness. Fly in from Fairbanks, but don't forget to bear-proof your gear!
In case you don't already know this, the National Park Service offers an annual pass which gives you access to all National Parks, and other recreation areas managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service, and the US Army Corps of Engineers.
All in all, you get entry to over 2,000 areas at only $80 a year, which makes a lot of financial sense if you visit parks regularly (considering per-vehicle entrance fees are typically $20-$30 and individual entrance is usually $10-$15).
If you are above the age of 62, you can get a lifetime pass for just $10. This "Senior Pass" also gives you up to 50% off on certain amenities which may include campgrounds, swimming areas, boat launches, specialized interpretive services and more. Children generally get into parks for free.
If you go about getting the cheapest flight deals the right way, national parks can easily provide a weekend getaway in between major vacations. Many of these parks are accessible from major towns or cities where you can use your hotel loyalty points to get free nights. If not, local bed and breakfasts, and motels can provide a more authentic experience, and camping is an even cheaper alternative for nature lovers.