You know Arches, Yellowstone and Yosemite, but we bet you’ve never heard of Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s a shame, because it, like so many other unsung parks, is on par with some of the finest, pristine, protected land in the United States.
Hopefully after we share these hidden gems with you, they’ll stay that way…
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – Western Colorado
This dark and inhospitable gorge is legendary among climbers — and nearly always overlooked by everyone else. For decades, climbers have cherished this solitude, even if it means more loose rock.
Even this park’s name, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, has a pretty badass ring to it. Among climbers at least, the 2,000 to 3,000-foot tall walls, streaked with massive bands of white and black rock, are badass. This immense cleft cut into the southern Colorado landscape is home to continuously steep, unforgivably gnarly walls.
The routes that ascend it are invariably traditional climbs, sometimes sporty ones at that, which don’t offer much protection. Where the rock is good, it is very good indeed, but the crisscrossing bands of dark rock can be dangerously loose and sketchy.
Still, the spicy sections are worth braving for the quintessential Black Canyon experience: climbing thousands of feet above a roaring river, in a steep and narrow canyon, with no one else in sight. Better still, the approach hikes are downhill, and you can summit within spitting distance of your car.
Take that, Yosemite!
American Samoa National Park – American Samoa
It is easy to understand why no one has ever heard of this national park. It’s in a place that everyone forgets is even a part of our country.
American Samoa National Park is the only national park in the southern hemisphere, lying in the South Pacific, much closer to New Zealand than to mainland United States. It is made up of three islands, Ta’a, Ofu and Tutuila, which are active volcanoes in the Samoan island chain. American Samoa is home to a mere 55,000 people, only a fraction of whom live in remote villages inside the park.
The steep jungle slopes are nice to look at, but the real attraction is the remoteness and the bluer-than-blue sea that surrounds it. Its coral reefs and can be explored by snorkelers, who will find scads of sea turtles, water temperatures in the mid-80s and visibility near 100 feet.
Snorkel if you please, or cover lots more ground in the traditional outrigger canoes. You can even arrange to stay with a Samoan family. Just make sure to sit on the floor and cross your legs before speaking. That is customary to the culture there, which would not allow the U.S. to buy the land for a national park (we have leased it since 1988).
City of Rocks – Idaho / Utah Border
Why the park service ever snubbed City of Rocks, declining to make it a national park, is beside the point. This high desert hideaway of psychadelic rock formations makes for an amazing trip.
Though this sporty getaway in southern Idaho is technically a national reserve, it is as magnificent as any national park anywhere. The only thing that differentiates it from a national park is the official designation and the lack of a cheesy gift shop.
City of Rocks is a wonderland of stunning granite domes jutting from the high desert. Pioneers described it as “a city of tall spires,” and were awed by the wildly sculpted cliffs they found there, with deeply eroded pits and fins. Some boulders even sport holes, which frame the landscape like windows.
Climbers have been lured there since the 60s, and it can get crowded on the weekends, for good reason. There is, however, ample rock and other wilderness, for those willing to walk past the masses.
There are also 22 miles of mountain bike trails that wind through the rocks. The wavy granite forms natural campsites — sometimes providing benches and other useful features, and always lending an ambiance absent at large national park campgrounds.
Great Sand Dunes National Park – Colorado
Southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley is home to a conflicting set of landscapes: 750-foot-tall sand dunes, the tallest in North America, situated alongside alpine lakes and tundra. Welcome to Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Unlike many national parks, where geyser-gazing and RV-steering might be the most thrilling activities, this wilderness is ripe for… sledding and skimboarding — park-service sanctioned activities.
The dunes are no bunny slopes. Big kids can haul ass down the steeps on sleds or boogie boards. Skimboarding is done on the shallow Medano Creek, where gold panning was once popular. Just watch out for the occasional a high-powered sand blasting from the strong winds that have formed the dunes over eons.
High Allegheny National Park – West Virginia
The reason you’ve never heard of High Allegheny National Park is because it does not exist. The park service is, however, currently reviewing West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, along with other federal lands in the region, for inclusion into the national park system. So, it could be the newest one.
This area, about 150 miles from the nation’s capitol, could swallow up the legendary climbing area Seneca Rocks, a quartzite haven known for its old school traditional style. It would likely also include the 8-mile long gorge of Blackwater Falls State Park and wild-trout filled Canaan Valley State Park.
The national forest, covering a million-acre spine of Appalachian Mountains, also boasts Civil War-era forts and battlefields. The park be could be announced as early as September, when the survey is expected to be finished.