10 off-the-beaten-track US national parks

Sunset over canyon slopes during winter.

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Ancient cliff dwellings, protected sea forts and the world's fourth-longest cave system - the USA's got some incredible parks beyond the big hitters. In this excerpt from Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Experiences, we look at 10 of the parks that are flying fabulously under the radar.

1. Sequoia, California

California is the most heavily populated state in the USA, so who would have thought it would be home to a secret known as 'the hidden park'? While most of California's nature tourists head for Yosemite, those in the know sneak off to Sequoia National Park, in the southern Sierra Nevada. The lack of visitors is due to the terrain – 84% of the park is wilderness area, only accessible on foot or horseback. It's worth the effort. Among the awaiting wonders are the world's largest trees, the giant sequoia, which grow up to 85m, and the highest mountain outside Alaska, 4421m Mt Whitney.

July to August is peak season (camping pitches are at a premium). September to November is colourful – crowds disperse but snow can fall at any time.

2. Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Alaska is one of the world's greatest wilderness areas, and the Gates of the Arctic National Park is a frontrunner for America's finest national park. Wild and remote, the entire park lies within the Arctic Circle, covering a whopping 39,460 sq km. That's almost the size of the Netherlands. This is no place for casual tourists: there are no roads, trails or visitor facilities within the park, and the only recognised visitor centre lies off the Dalton Highway near the town of Coldfoot. With wild rivers, hungry grizzlies and the imposing Brooks Mountains, you'd better know how to survive in the wild.

The park is so remote that most people arrive by floatplane from Fairbanks, 320km to the southeast. A one-way
ticket to Coldfoot costs US$200 (www.airarctic.com).

3. Bryce Canyon, Utah

Located 330km northeast of Las Vegas, this spectacular landscape couldn't be further removed from the brash kitsch of Nevada's decadent party city. There's no neon in Bryce Canyon National Park, although the brilliant red and orange hoodoos (pillars and arches eroded from the soft sedimentary rock) are every bit as vibrant. Often ignored in favour of the more accessible Zion and Grand Canyons, Bryce's masterpiece is its eponymous amphitheatre. At 19km long, 5km wide and up to 240m deep, with a mass of fragile needles soaring 60m from the valley floor, it's a spectacular sight that not even Vegas can match.

Turn your eyes to the night sky – Bryce's remote location and superclean air mean you can see 7500 twinkling stars on a clear night, three times the national average. See www.nps.gov/brca.

4. Shenandoah, Virginia

Before the creation of Shenandoah National Park in the mid-1930s, much of the terrain in this leafy corner of Virginia was farmland, given over to swaths of apple orchards. Tranquillity still pervades along Skyline Drive, the main 169km route running through the park's core. And the Blue Ridge Mountains may sound imposing, but by American standards they're mere babies – diminutive Hawksbill Mountain is the highest at just 1235m. Shenandoah is a place to unwind, hike back-country trails and camp wild amid grassy meadows and lofty oak groves. In the 21st century that's a commodity worth celebrating.

Saddle up and explore the trails on horseback, just as 1930s farmhands would have done. One-hour tours run April to November; see www.visitshenandoah.com.

5. Hawai'i volcanoes, Hawai'i

Hawaii might be a well-known tourist destination but the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park merits special attention for its sheer concentration of eruptive wonders. The Big Island is composed of five coalesced volcanoes of varying ages, including the largest volcano anywhere on earth. Mauna Loa's summit rises 4169m above sea level but continues for another 5000m to the ocean bed, making it higher than Mt Everest. With black-sand beaches, ancient lava tubes and pyroclastic flows waiting to be discovered, this is one national park that could be too hot to handle.

Nature and luxury seldom go hand in hand, so indulge at Halekulani on Waikiki beachfront, possibly Hawai'i's finest hotel.

6. Mesa Verde, Colorado

Colorado is famous for the Rocky Mountains, and rightly so, but tourist guides often overlook the rich Native American history of Mesa Verde National Park. Located near Four Corners (meeting point of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah) the park holds an astonishing array of archaeological history seldom associated with the USA. Primary attractions are the striking cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people, built in the 13th century and rising over four stories throughout a series of dramatic canyons. Several allow public exploration, and the experience of squeezing through narrow passages and stairways is unique among American parks.

Step House and Spruce Tree House are the only cliff dwellings you can visit solo; tours for other houses must be booked at Far View Visitor Centre.

7. Big Bend, Texas

America's national parks aren't all about soaring mountains, ancient forests and exploding geysers. In the Deep South, forming almost 400km of the Texan border with Mexico, Big Bend National Park is defi ned by outstanding geology and palaeontology. Varying in altitude from 550m to 2400m above sea level, the park throws up extreme climatic conditions, from the baking deserts and plunging canyons alongside the Rio Grande, to the cooler heights of the Chisos Mountains. Along the border area, archaeological finds from thousands of years ago show that this land has always been a place of discord and special human interest.

Big Bend's isolation keeps visitor numbers down; the nearest airports are Midland/Odesa (330km away) and El Paso (580km away), both in Texas.

8. Dry Tortugas, Florida

Florida's Everglades might pull in over a million visitors per year, but for something different head for the southern tip of Key West and take to the sea to fi nd this intriguing mix of marine life and military history. Located some 110km off shore, Fort Jeff erson is an enormous sea fortress, never completed but preserved in splendid isolation in the Gulf of Mexico. Scattered around the seven coral-reef islands known as the Dry Tortugas are shipwrecks steeped in piratical history and nearly 300 species of bird, including the brown noddy, the masked booby and the magnificent frigate bird. It's an unusual mix that justifies the journey.

The Dry Tortugas National Park's only accommodation is a primitive camp site with stunning coastal views near Fort Jefferson. There are no facilities, so carry everything you need.

9. Wind Cave, South Dakota

There aren't many caves that are designated national parks but, near the town of Hot Springs in South Dakota, is Wind Cave National Park. Currently the fourth-longest cave system in the world, with over 200km of explored passageways, the site is fabled for distinctive calcite honeycomb formations known as boxwork. Guided tours venture deep inside the system, named because of the fi erce 100km/h winds that have been recorded at the mouth. Above ground you can camp at nearby Elk Mountain, on the doorstep of mixed grass prairies and ponderosa forests that are home to native bison, elk and pronghorn antelope.

You can't go to Wind Cave National Park and not explore this underground wonderland; 1½-hour guided tours operate year round. Get there early (8am) to avoid queues in summer.

10. Crater Lake, Oregon

America's Great Lakes are famous around the globe, but most people don't know that the US of A is also home to the world's ninth-deepest lake. Plunging to a depth of 594m, vivid blue Crater Lake occupies an extinct caldera sitting at the heart of Crater Lake National Park. Other not-to-miss wonders found in the park include lunar landscapes of pumice and ash, together with soaring spires eroded from ancient eruption sites. And if you feel like giving your legs a bit of stretch, why not try hiking the 4260km Pacific Crest Trail? It only runs all the way from Mexico to the Canadian border…

The highlight of a visit to Crater Lake is a boat tour from Cleetwood Cove (July to September, weather permitting). See www.craterlakelodges.com for details.

This article was originally published in September 2010 and refreshed in August 2012.