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Three Amazing Underrated National Parks

by Peter Stringer
Panorama Point at Capitol Reef National Park

Panorama Point at Capitol Reef National Park on July 26, 2020. Photo by Peter Stringer

It’s generally not possible to overrate a National Park, but a handful of parks are consistently underrated. Perhaps “overlooked” is a better term, because Great Basin National Park, Petrified Forest National Park and Capitol Reef National Park are all under-represented in the popular dialogue about National Parks.

These incredible National Parks aren’t getting the love they deserve mostly due to their remote locations, which in turn results in low visitation numbers.

But hey, maybe that’s a good thing.

When hiking in Great Basin National Park, you’ll be rewarded with epic views and awed by magnificent mountain solitude. A drive through Petrified Forest National Park will reveal unspoiled badlands and ancient fossils from eons gone by. Capitol Reef offers many of the astonishing highlights of more popular Utah National Parks without the crowds that often overwhelm you at Zion National Park or Arches National Park.

Great Basin National Park – Awesome Altitude

Great Basin National Park features views that stretch for miles, centuries-old bristlecone pine trees, the Lehman Caves and challenging hikes at high elevations at Wheeler Peak. Situated roughly 300 miles North of Las Vegas, Great Basin National Park sits just west of the NevadaUtah border.

Thanks to its isolated location, Great Basin National Park is one of the least visited National Parks in the United States. In 2019, the park averaged just 370 visitors per day. That number certainly cranks up in the summertime, but Great Basin National Park isn’t overrun with tourists like so many of the most popular National Parks in America.

Great Basin National Park on August 16, 2020.

Great Basin National Park on August 16, 2020. Photo by Peter Stringer

The scenic Alpine Lakes hike is among the best attractions at Great Basin National Park, and the three-mile trail pays off with two lake vistas beneath Wheeler Peak. While the elevation gain on the trail itself isn’t incredibly significant, you’re already above 10,000 feet when you begin, and as such, oxygen will be at a premium. As long as you’re in reasonable cardiovascular shape, it’s a fantastic summer hike.

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Tip: Take it slow on this hike if you’ve never climbed at high elevation. Everyone responds to elevation differently.

Stella Lake and Teresa Lake both occupy basins once inhabited by retreated glaciers. They’re equally picturesque; both landscapes paint “Gram-worthy” vistas perfect for digital postcards.

Petrified Forest National Park – Travel Back in Time

Most National Parks aren’t accessible directly off an Interstate Highway, so you would think that location feature would give Petrified Forest National Park a competitive advantage in terms of visitation. However, Petrified Forest is an overlooked gem among the ranks the National Parks.

In the salad days of Route 66 following Jack Kerouac’s iconic 1957 novel On the Road, Petrified Forest National Park was drawing nearly a million visitors a year, many of whom were retracing Kerouac’s legendary route that bisects the park. That trend maintained popularity throughout the 1970s up until the gasoline shortage of 1979, which crashed road tripping nationwide.

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park on December 29, 2019. Photo by Peter Stringer

Petrified Forest National Park’s placement near the eastern border of Arizona just west of New Mexico makes it a fairly remote destination. The park sits roughly midway between Flagstaff, AZ and Albuquerque, NM, so it’s a great place to stop between those two destinations. When you do drop in, you’ll be rewarded with unique landscapes year-round thanks to rainbow-colored badlands, pre-historic fossils and of course, as the name implies, acres of petrified wood.

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Tip: Petrified Forest National Park transforms in the winter snow. There’s really never a bad time to visit.

Petrified Forest National Park is a photographer’s paradise 24 hours a day, with the incredible Painted Desert scenery by day and some of the darkest skies you can find after the sun sets.

Capitol Reef National Park – Utah Unspoiled

Utah is known for its Big Five National Parks, but of the Big Five, Capitol Reef National Park ranks fourth in Utah in terms of annual visitation. However, in terms of publicity, it’s probably the least-discussed National Park in the state.

Originally named “Wayne Wonderland” almost 100 years ago, Capitol Reef got its National Park designation in 1971. It’s a haven for hikers and backpackers, with spectacular trails including the challenging Cassidy Arch trail and the popular Hickman Bridge trail, a two-mile round-trip trek that leads to an impressive natural bridge.

Goosenecks Overlook is also impressive, accessed by a brief hike to a breathtaking view of the park. Goosenecks Overlook is an especially popular for taking in the sunset at Capitol Reef National Park.

Goosenecks at Capitol Reef National Park on July 26, 2020.

Goosenecks at Capitol Reef National Park on July 26, 2020. Photo by Peter Stringer

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Tip: A great addition to any Capitol Reef National Park is Goblin Valley State Park, which is about an hour northeast. Just make sure to keep an eye on your gas tank. Aside from Hanksville, there isn’t much civilization between these two spots.

Canyonlands National Park in Moab, Utah is also underrated and certainly overshadowed by nearby neighbor Arches National Park. But Canyonlands benefits from its Arches-adjacent location and the Moab setting gives it a more prominent position on the radar of Utah tourists.

However, when you think about underrated parks, Capitol Reef truly fits that description because of its isolated location near Torrey, Utah, a town with a population of about 180 residents. You’re not likely to end up there accidentally. Capitol Reef National Park is just further removed from civilization than all of the other Utah parks.

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