Many think of the National Park Service to consist of, well, national parks. But in addition to showcasing our country’s natural beauty, it also preserves our historic sites, rivers, seashores, lake shores, and other national treasures. These underrated national parks are definitely worth it to check out.
This year’s National Park Week is even more special because 2016 is also the park service’s centennial year. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an act to create the National Park Service. It was a new federal bureau under the U.S. Department of Interior.
However, way before that on April 20, 1832, Hot Springs Reservation in Hot Springs, Ark., was created by an act of congress. Although it was established before the National Park Service was created, it was the first land set aside by the federal government in order to preserve it for recreational purposes. National Park Week was established in April in honor of its anniversary, which leads me to my first park.
Hot Springs National Park
The first on the list of underrated national parks is Hot Springs National Park. Although Hot Springs National Park didn’t change its name from reservation to national park until 1921, it is still the oldest maintained national park in the service.
People have been drawn to the park’s famous thermal springs since before Europeans began to live in the United States. In recent history the spa town was a popular destination for celebrities like Babe Ruth and notorious gangsters like Al Capone.
Bathhouse Row, a national historic district, consist of nine bath houses which were built between the late 1800s and 1930s. Today they are occupied by a modern and historic spa, a microbrewery, an art museum, a gift shop, a historic bath house open for tours, and a future boutique hotel.
But not only can you enjoy a bath, the park offers 26 miles of hiking trails, scenic drives and overlooks, camping and picnicking. The city of Hot Springs, Ark., offers much more as well. For hikes in and around the park check out my Hometown Hikes post.
Hot Springs is one of the smallest of the national parks, but it is not lacking in beauty and amazement.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
The second on the list of underrated national parks is Gulf Island National Seashore. Located in Florida and Mississippi, Gulf Island National Seashore consists of barrier islands along the north of the Gulf of Mexico. Some islands along the Alabama coast were considered, but none have yet been designated as the national seashore. It has a wide variety of activities for nature and history lovers. It is a great place for those wanting a day at the beach without the crowds. In addition to serene beaches without traffic, hotels, or partying 20-somethings, visitors can tour historic forts, walk through maritime forest and learn about marine life and habitats.
Last summer I spent some time at Pensacola Beach, Fla., with my sister nephew and friend. My favorite activity while there was to ride bikes along the national seashore, which is located adjacent to the Florida town. It is a long ride, but possible, to ride from Pensacola Beach to Fort Pickens.
We did not ride our bikes all the way to Fort Pickens, but we did go back by vehicle the next day for a self-guided tour. I loved walking through the historic fort. Gulf Island National Seashore also is home to another historic fort, Fort Barrancas.
Both military forts remained in use until 1947. The construction of Fort Pickens was completed in 1834 and the fort was one of the few Southern forts that remained in Union control throughout the Civil War. Fort Barrancas is older and was built in 1787. It is located in the Naval Air Station Pensacola and across Pensacola Bay from Fort Pickens.
Like beaches along the Gulf Coast, the sand is pristine white and I loved seeing what the barrier island looks like without human development.
It’s a great way to add a national parks visit to your beach trip.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
The third on the list of underrated national parks is the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a wonderful way to experience Appalachian scenery and culture for those wanting to do something different than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The parkway spans 469 miles through North Carolina and Virginia. If you are planning a road trip in this area, I suggest you drive it. However it is a slow pace meandering through the mountains, so you will need to plan for extra time if you chose to drive it.
There are more than 300 miles of trails throughout the national park property and even more in the national forest and state parks that surrounds it.
The parkway also has several places to camp along it. It has numerous pull out along the road for breathtaking views.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
And the fourth on the list of underrated national parks is Guadalupe Mountains National Park.Located in a remote area in southwest Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is more than worth the drive. One of the smaller national parks, Guadalupe Mountains has a plethora to offer its visitors.
For adventure travelers you can hike to the highest peak in Texas. The park is also the best place to see fossils from the Permian era.
I loved hiking and spotting fossils in the rocks as we went by. Another aspect I loved about the park is being able to hike from the open desert floor to coniferous forest. With 80 miles of trail, there are plenty of opportunities to explore the park.
One thing to note is that with only two campgrounds and no reservations, campsites are limited. Getting to the park earlier in the day will help insure you have a place to pitch your tent.
Don’t think national parks that are small don’t have much to offer
Both Hot Springs and Guadalupe Mountains are small national parks, but don’t be fooled by their size they have much to offer. Also, be sure to check out other types of parks in the National Park Service, like national seashores, river, and historic sites. You won’t be disappointed.
Do you have a favorite park that you don’t think gets enough credit?