Everyone has heard of famous tourist attractions in the United States such as the Lincoln Memorial, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, Hollywood, and Mount Rushmore, and millions of tourists flock to these spots each year to see these uniquely American treasures. However, as someone who loves to tour the country whenever I get a chance, I have visited some unique American places that are relatively unknown and in some of the remotest parts of the country.
I am always searching for opportunities to visit America’s national parks. Since these parks are recognized for their natural splendor, the U.S. government provides funds and services so they can be preserved in their natural state. Some of these parks are famous worldwide, like Grand Canyon National Park, but many are relatively unknown outside the U.S. and even to some Americans. Here is a glimpse at five of the many national parks in the U.S. that portray the diversity and natural beauty of the American terrain.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Only an hour and a half to two hours away from Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park stands tall in its mighty beauty. Part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah is a true representation of the Appalachian Mountains, a mountain range that runs along the entire East Coast. With its snow in winter, green trees and flowers in spring and summer, and beautiful leaves of many colors in the fall, the park offers something beautiful for every season. Shenandoah National Park is most easily accessible by car, and tourists can drive through it via a 170-km scenic byway called Skyline Drive running from the northernmost point of the park at Front Royal Entrance to the southernmost point.
Visitors most commonly drive through the park to see the natural beauties of the Appalachians and stumble on some trademark Appalachian wildlife, including black bears, deer, raccoons, and skunks. You can go on hikes or walks that lead to mountain summits such as Hawksbill Mountain, the highest point in the park, Dark Hollows Falls, or White Oak Falls. All these hikes begin at Skyline Drive. You can even camp, rock-climb, or ride horses in the park.
Restaurants at the Skyland Resort, Big Meadows Lodge, or other wayside food stops on Skyline Drive make the trip more convenient, and those interested in staying for longer can take advantage of the lodgings offered at the park, such as the Skyland Resort, Big Meadows Lodge, or Lewis Mountain Cabins. If the weather permits, you can even camp out at one of the four campsites along Skyline Drive. Visitors of all ages can enjoy a trip to Shenandoah National Park!
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
An hour away from the four corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah intersect, Mesa Verde offers glimpses of American history prior to the arrival of European colonists.
Mesa Verde, both a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an archaeological site built by the Ancient Puebloan people around A.D. 1200 amid awe-inspiring natural surroundings. The Ancient Puebloan people lived across modern-day Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, and they built massive homes called cliff dwellings out of stone and adobe mud beneath cliffs.
At Mesa Verde National Park, you can see the exquisite archaeological remains where the Puebloan people lived their daily lives. Sites like Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree are must-see locations where homes were built underneath massive cliffs that show the true wonder of the Pueblo people. The Chapin Mesa Archeological museum gives you a chance to learn about the history of the Ancient Puebloan people and see prehistoric artifacts. Natural overlooks like the Montezuma Valley Overlook will leave you in awe of the park’s natural beauty.
Due to the bitterly cold weather and the closing of some sites during winter, the summer season, starting around April and ending around October, is usually the best time to fully enjoy the park and all of its opportunities. Restaurants and other places to eat are located throughout the park near the Morefield Camping Ground, Wetherill Mesa, Far View Lodge, and Far View Terrace. Those interested in staying overnight at the park can stay at the Far View Lodge from April to late-October, and other hotels and inns such as the Sundance Bear Lodge and the American Garden Inn are in towns near the park. The Morefield Camping Ground, open from mid-May to early-October is also available for those interested in camping under the clear skies. Come look around and learn all about a truly spectacular and unique part of American history!
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Located three hours by car from Los Angeles, Joshua Tree offers a stark contrast to city life and is one of California’s greatest treasures. From the moment you enter the park, you’ll be struck by the mystique of the desert landscape.
The park is home to a number of different kinds of desert terrain, such as sandy deserts, rocky deserts, and shrubby deserts. You can see a wide variety of plants and animals there that cannot be found anywhere else in the country. The most notable plant in the desert also happens to be the park’s namesake: the Joshua tree. It is unique for its tall and spiky features.
The park is great for walking, hiking, and rock-climbing. If you’re lucky, you may even be able see Mexico if you stop by Keys View on a clear day. No trip to the desert is complete without stargazing, because the skies of Joshua Tree offer some of the best and clearest views of the stars in the nation.
Joshua Tree National Park is infamous for its strong winds and extreme weather that can change up to 40 degrees in one day, so it is best to visit in the spring and the fall when the weather is not as severe. Also, since the desert is extremely arid, make sure you stay hydrated even if you are only driving through. Unlike other parks, there are no restaurants or hotels within the park, but there are plenty of places to eat in the surrounding cities such as Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, and the town of Joshua Tree. As an alternative to staying in the surrounding towns, you can camp out underneath the desert sky and have picnics at the many campsites available inside the park.
Filled with bizarrely shaped rocks, tall and spiky trees, and unique wildlife, Joshua Tree National Park is a great place to escape from the bustle of city life.
Acadia offers a gorgeous coastal environment of the Atlantic Ocean on islands off the coast of the northeastern state Maine. The park is a combination of ocean waters, sandy and rocky beaches, mountains, and forests.
Located on one main island with other smaller islands in the surrounding area, the park has many unique sights to offer. Acadia is teeming with moose, black bears, porcupines, deer, chipmunks, and other animals that are famous in the northeast. You may find yourself stumbling in their way as they play and munch on their food. Tourists that go to Acadia enjoy hiking in the green mountains, walking along the beaches, climbing on the rocks, taking boat cruises, riding in horse-drawn carriages, and camping. Some popular destinations include the gorgeous Eagle Lake, the highest point of the park at Cadillac Mountain, the only fjord on the U.S. east coast, called Somes Sound, and the eerily beautiful Sand Beach. No words can truly describe the beauty of Acadia.
Maine has cool and clear weather in the summer, but it can get extremely cold with torrents of snow in the winter. Often the weather is a little chilly in the spring and fall months, so summer is usually the most popular time to visit. Nevertheless, each season in Maine has a different character and a different kind of beauty that anybody can appreciate. The spring flowers, the fall leaves, and the picture-perfect snow of winter provide year-round beauty.
Though it is fun to explore all of Acadia’s splendors over a couple of days, there is still a lot that you can see in just a single day. You might like to eat at the Jordan Pond House inside Acadia, where there is a restaurant and a small gift shop. There are accommodations available all around Bar Harbor, one of the closest towns to the park, in hotels, inns, and bed-and-breakfasts. The Blackwoods Campground and the Seawall Campground are both open from May through October, but camping in the Blackwoods Campground requires advance reservations.
Zion National Park is a land of paradise just north of the Grand Canyon. Like the Grand Canyon, it is filled with high canyons, mountains, and massive rock structures, but the rivers, narrow canyon passes, and natural arches in Zion are unique to the park and never fail to impress the millions of visitors who go there each year.
With clear blue skies above creamy and red colored sandstones, this park is stunning. You can take a picture in front of the massive Great White Throne, walk or hike through the narrow canyon passes, or “Narrows,” and visit Kolob Arch, one of the largest freestanding arches in the world. The Narrows are considered one of the best hiking locations in the country because of their narrow canyon passes and the rivers that flow through them.
In addition to desert terrain, Zion National Park has a number of water pools including the Emerald Pools, rivers, waterfalls, and some forested areas. There are many challenging walks in the park, but there are also plenty of easier walks for those not as experienced at hiking, making the park accessible to anybody. You might even be lucky enough to see mountain lions or bighorn sheep along the way, but make sure to be extra careful around wildlife!
Because of the dry and unpredictable climate that fluctuates from very hot to very cold, it is important to stay hydrated and be prepared by bringing many layers of clothing. The town of East Zion near the park offers many places to eat and stay overnight at hotels, inns, and lodges. Additionally, the Zion Lodge within the park offers accommodations and food for visitors.
If you want to camp beneath the clear skies, you can stay in the Watchman, South, or Lava Point Campgrounds from March to the end of October, or join a group campsite where the trip will be organized for you. Although Utah is home to a number of national parks, Zion National Park is one of the most beautiful, and a trip there will be absolutely unforgettable.
- Find a map/guide: There is a possibility that you could get lost in the park, so make sure to obtain a map or guide prior to your trip or stop by the information centers located at all national parks.
- Stay hydrated: Most of these national parks are in remote locations and many are in extremely dry climates where you can easily become dehydrated. While exploring, you may find yourself far away from the nearest areas providing food or water. Whether you are going for just a day trip or camping overnight, make sure you bring enough necessities with you!
- Bring layers: You never know when the weather will fluctuate from being extremely hot to unbearably cold, so it’s advisable to bring jackets or sweaters with you even in the summer months.
- Know your comfort zone: Many of the trails and the activities offered at the parks have varying levels of difficulty, so make sure you check with the park rangers or the park map/guide for the difficulty levels before starting an activity. This is particularly important for young children.
- Always keep a positive attitude and have fun!
Though some of the parks are in remote locations, others are very close to major American cities with international airports. This means that although you may have to make more of an effort to visit these parks, it is not too big a stretch. Many other national parks are also located all over the country. There are still 20 or so national parks to choose, spanning the country from coast to coast. A trip to America is not complete without experiencing its natural splendor, and I hope you all get the chance to enjoy “America the Beautiful.”
Mia Tong was a Press Office Summer Hire at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo in 2012, and is currently a college junior at the University of California in Berkeley, where she is an Anthropology major with an Arabic minor. She grew up with parents working in U.S. embassies and spent her childhood in Japan, China, South Korea, and the U.S.