Did you know there are 60 national parks in the United States? Don’t feel bad if you didn’t. Only a dozen or so parks seem to grab the headlines — and count their annual visitors in the millions. However, there are many fantastic lesser-known parks that are perfectly quiet and off the beaten path for travelers looking to enjoy quality time with their loved ones or on their own. Here’s our guide to three hidden gems.
Discover 3 Hidden Gem National Parks
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
This secluded island on Lake Superior in Michigan is one of the least-visited national parks, but it’s earned a dedicated fan base with its clean air, untouched forests and pristine natural beauty. The island is a paradise for hikers and campers and for wildlife enthusiasts who come for a glimpse of the moose and wolves that roam the woods.
The best time to visit depends on your interests: For having fun on the lake, July and August, the hottest months, are best. The shoulder months, May and October, with their dark nights and cool days, are ideal for seeing the aurora borealis and hiking. The park is closed Nov. 1 to April 15 each year.
Getting there: Accessing the island is difficult, but not prohibitively so. During the summer, fly into Houghton County Memorial Airport in Houghton, Michigan, where there is a passenger ferry that departs twice a week. Pick up your rental car when you’re ready to tour Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Staying there: Rock Harbor Lodge on Isle Royale has rooms for rent and food available, along with cottages that include kitchens and fridges, so you have the option to bring your own food from the mainland. Camping is available in the park, too, allowing you to roam the island at your leisure and maybe even catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis while spending the night under the stars.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
This constellation of seven islands west of the Florida Keys is the perfect place to live out your childhood Robinson Crusoe fantasies. Complete with white-sand beaches, fishing and snorkeling, huge bird populations and a decaying 19th-century fort, this remote paradise is an escape from the everyday into an exotic world of imaginary pirates, smugglers and sea captains.
The most commonly visited island, Garden Key, is home to Fort Jefferson. This now antique fort was strategically built to protect the harbor along one of the world’s busiest active shipping lanes. It’s serviced by a daily ferry from Key West, which will take you on a full-day excursion that lasts about 10 hours, including five on the island and five round trip on the ship. The islands are undeveloped and do not have stores, so make sure to bring your own sunscreen and water, though the ferry includes breakfast and lunch in its round-trip fare. You can also make the journey with your own boat or by chartering a seaplane. If you take your own boat, you’ll need to stop at the ranger station on Garden Key upon arrival to get your free permit.
Getting there: Fly into Key West International Airport and pick up your rental car for use on Key West. From there, a number of seaplane and ferry operators can take you to the islands — there is no car access to the park. Alternatively, fly into Miami International Airport and drive about 160 miles south to Key West.
Staying there: No accommodations are available on the islands, though camping is permitted for $15 each night. Non-campers have their pick of places to stay in Key West, from the luxurious old-fashioned Amsterdam’s Curry Mansion Inn to the sleek and modern Perry Hotel.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Nicknamed the “Redwoods of the East” for its imposing trees, this national park is hidden in plain sight in the middle of South Carolina. Congaree covers nearly 27,000 acres and offers ample opportunity for travelers looking to hike, camp or simply soak in the primeval ambience of this ancient bottomland hardwood forest — one of the largest in the U.S.
More than half of the park is designated wilderness, and even the developed parts still feel wild. Congaree is primarily enjoyed by day-trippers from nearby Columbia, who come out to hike and see the forest. Visitors can also canoe Cedar Creek, though there are no boat rentals in the park. The best time to visit is spring or fall, when the heat and insect population are not as high. Between mid-May and mid-June, you have a chance of seeing the famous synchronous fireflies, who come out for a few days to mate. Their synchronized flashing is a beautiful sight and extremely rare: Congaree is one of only three places in the Western Hemisphere where these fireflies mate.
Staying there: For non-campers, Columbia is the best place to find a hotel and a grocery store (the park only has vending machines). In the park, there are two developed campsites and plenty of space for backcountry (“wild”) camping — that is, no water hookup, electricity or bathrooms. For the developed sites, reservations are required, and rates apply. Permits for backcountry camping are free and must be requested in person at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.