Please allow me a moment of abstinence from my typical diarrhea of miscellaneous schmaltz that so lovingly describes my blog, and behold a serious and pointed travel column. (What better way to deal with writers block than to regurgitate events and create lists qualifying those events with arbitrary and completely subjective criteria?)
Without further ado, I give you a list: Quack’s Top Five Underrated National Parks
Visiting national parks has become somewhat of a hobby of mine as of late, and in my short life, I have had the opportunity to see twenty-four different parks in eleven different states (none of which lie east of the Mississippi River, so my experience is rather west-centric). In these lands one can find striking variation, awe-inspiring contrasts, and otherworldly environments that stagger the imagination and breathe life into the hearts of even the most stoic adults.
The chances are, if the US Government felt the need to label it a national park, it’s probably worth going to. With that said, some parks are definitely cooler than others, and the range of awesomeness is probably a little wider than the Dept. of the Interior would like to admit. Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, hype and visitation numbers don’t necessarily reflect the quality of experience a park has to offer. The Great Smoky Mountains, for instance, is the nation’s most visited national park, bringing in 9.6 million annual visitors (2012)* – over twice as many as the second most visited, the Grand Canyon (which brings in 4.4 million visitors). Even though I’ve never been there, I can’t imagine the Smoky Mountains being twice as cool as the Grand Canyon, and that’s even considering my belief that the Grand Canyon is one of the most overrated national parks in the USA.
Thus, I have chosen my top five underrated national parks – parks with woefully low visitation numbers and almost no hype, but with a lot of beauty, heart, and uniqueness. Please note – these are not my favorite parks; they’re just the ones I deem the most wrongfully neglected. Let us neglect them no further.
1. Kings Canyon National Park – California
2012 visitors: 590,000 (6% of Smoky Mountains visitors)
Kings Canyon has the misfortune of being sandwiched between Yosemite (the most famous park on the West Coast) and Sequoia (the home of the largest living thing on Earth [the General Sherman tree] and the tallest peak in the lower 48 states [Mount Whitney]). For this reason, anyone who wants to visit a park in the Sierra Nevada goes to Yosemite (if they’re a n00b), or Sequoia (if they’re a little less n00bish), and Kings Canyon is left with nobody outside of Sierra Club members and park hipsters (myself).
This is part of the charm. Kings Canyon has just as much to offer as both Yosemite and Sequoia, and you don’t have to wade through masses of international tourists to take pictures. The Kings Canyon itself is a glacially carved valley (like Yosemite Valley, but admittedly slightly less cool). The High Country is nearly just as high as Sequoia’s, and there’s more of it. Not to mention, it’s also home to its own Giant Sequoia groves, including General Grant, the second biggest tree on earth (behind General Sherman – my apologies to the Sons of the Confederacy).
That’s right – Kings Canyon has literally everything Yosemite and Sequoia have, and no visitors. The only problem is: there’s only one road in, and to see anything worthwhile outside of the canyon itself, you have to hike in for three days and fistfight bears.
2. Saguaro National Park – Arizona
2012 visitors: 630,000 (7% of Smoky Mountains visitors)
Saguaro, much like Kings Canyon, has the misfortune of being close to a much more world-renown park: the Grand Canyon. Hell, Arizona even calls itself “The Grand Canyon State,” even though “The Saguaro State” would be much more appropriate for the state as a whole.
The initial draw to Saguaro National Park is its unusually rich desert flora, the irony being that “desert” often brings to mind a lifeless wasteland. But don’t be fooled, Saguaro is actually shockingly green, and contrasted against the red Arizona desert rock, blue skies, horrific monsoons of death, it’s truly a sight to behold, especially during the springtime desert bloom when rich, colorful flowers emerge from grotesque alien creatures you had no idea could bear life. But the bonus for Saguaro is that, if you hike far enough up the Rincon Mountains, you actually leave the desert ecosystem and enter into an oaken chaparral, and then eventually a pine forest. Who knew?
The downside is that there’s no drive-in camping at Saguaro. You have to leave the park to find a site at nearby Tucson Mountain Park. Or, since Saguaro literally sandwiches the town of Tucson, you can get your fill of nature and solitude during the day, and then spend the night in Tucson to enjoy its bizarre mix of college-town fun and cartel-warzone shenanigans.
3. Death Valley National Park – California
2012 visitors: 980,000 (10% of Smoky Mountains visitors)
Death Valley is without a doubt the most celebrated park on this list, but even then it only sees a fraction of what Yosemite does. And honestly, I understand the lack of initial appeal – Death? No thanks. Hottest place on Earth? I’ll pass. Lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere? Woopdie doo.
Granted, you don’t want to go to Death Valley in July, but in the winter and spring months, the weather is actually remarkably pleasant, and in wetter seasons, one might stumble upon a wonderful display of wildflowers. And yes, at -282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point on earth east of Egypt, but that’s only a fraction of what Death Valley has to offer. Lest we forget, Telescope Peak rises out of Badwater Basin to a height of 11,000 ft above sea level, a taller base-to-summit height than anything you’ll find in the Colorado Rockies, or even the Sierra Nevada for that matter.
But Death Valley is more than about depths and heights. It’s a museum of geological deformities. It’s as if God partitioned out pieces of desert during an oddly experimental phase in his exploration of artistic craft, and after going from tablet to tablet trying different brush strokes and techniques, he eventually realized nothing worked and went on to create the rest of the world as we know it. What he rejected was the Death Valley collection: Devil’s Golf Course, Artist’s Palette, the Racetrack, dunes, shrubs, and more.
True story: two French tourists requested my advice on where to stop on a road trip from Colorado to California. I gave them a list of national parks from which to craft their route. They stopped at Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, and more, and by the time they got to the Grand Canyon, they were so bored with striking scenery that even the Grand Canyon made no impression on them. And then they arrived at Death Valley and hailed it as the highlight of their trip.
4. Big Bend National Park – Texas
2012 visitors: 290,000 (3% of Smoky Mountains visitors)
Being Texas’s oldest (and best) national park, Big Bend is actually pretty well-known, but nobody goes there because it’s such a pain in the ass to get to. Much like Saguaro, the appeal of Big Bend is the diversity of its ecology. Big Bend is an island of mountain around which the Rio Grande flows through the vast Chihuahuan desert wasteland. Thus, it contains both the piney forests of higher elevations and the desolation of lower elevations, and all within a relatively short drive, and the central part of the park is in a mountain bowl-shaped valley complete with bears and staggering views.
The best part about Big Bend is watching Mexicans cross the border illegally, which, in all seriousness, I saw happen about four or five times in a single afternoon. But don’t worry, they’re not crossing to immigrate. They leave handicrafts on the American side of the river with jars that say “$1.00 for souvenir,” and then cross back and watch you buy their tariff-free goods illegally (in spite of signs posted everywhere telling you not to). At one point, a traditionally-dressed Mexican sang folk songs to me from across the river as I walked by his jar marked “Please donate to the singing Mexican.”
As a park ranger put it, “We can’t stop them from crossing the river, but once they get across, then what? They still have to make it across West Texas. Naw, they’re just trying to make a bit of supplemental income.”
Big Bend – Go for the vistas. Stay for the impoverished singing Mexican across the river.
5. Mesa Verde National Park – Colorado
2012 visitors: 490,000 (5% of Smoky Mountains visitors)
Mesa Verde is an unusual park on my list, because unlike the other parks whose appeal is rooted in natural beauty and landscape, Mesa Verde’s is mostly an anthropological point of interest. People don’t go to Mesa Verde for the striking vistas overlooking Southwestern Colorado. They should, but they don’t.
No, they go for the badass cliff dwellings left by the Native Americans 1,600 years ago, forged in the crevices of sheer rock wall and still standing today. They go for the preservation of a history that far outdates our own and yet somehow still exists as something more real and tangible than our mythical Jamestown. They go because you can touch it.
But they should go because they’d be driving around atop a mesa situated thousands of feet above the desert floor with views of hundreds of miles in all directions, from the Rockies to the lands of the Ute and Navajo, encompassing four states and countless types of geography and landscape. And then, on top of the awe of being elevated high above the rest of your immediate world, then you notice that you’re surrounded by an anthropological goldmine of awesomeness.
It’s pretty cool.
*All numbers were found at NPS Stats Report and rounded to the nearest whatever.