5 Lesser-Known National Parks to Take a Hike this Spring
There is, perhaps, no better time of year to explore America's national parks than in the spring. Snowmelt supplies the rivers with a rush of water, a diverse array of wildlife emerges from a wintry slumber, and the forests and meadows bloom with a glorious display of wildflowers. We, too, start to stir from our dwellings between the months of March and June and hit the road searching for a place to witness it.
With 63 national parks to choose from, anyone who has had their fair share of cabin fever has plenty of options to cure it. And it's no secret that parks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon are perfect for visiting in the springtime due to road closures in the winter and unbearably high temps in the summer.
But ideal temperatures come with less than ideal crowds for those searching for a bit of solitude. So, if you love visiting our national parks but need some space to stretch out, pull up your camp chair and read our list of top 5 lesser-known national parks to visit this spring—we've even added our favorite hike in each.
Pinnacles National Park in California
(Visitors in 2019: 177,224)
In a state with six national parks and nearly 268 million visitors per year, Pinnacles National Park is often overshadowed by California's more famous parks like Yosemite and Joshua Tree. But if you want to witness the diverse beauty of the California landscape without the traffic jams (both on and off-trail), Pinnacles should be on your list.
In 1891, homesteader Schuyler Hai arrived in the Pinnacles territory and soon understood its significant draw. Noticing its possibilities, as well as a likely target for private exploitation, he sought to protect and preserve the land and boost the local economy with tourism. As a result, he became known as the "Father of Pinnacles," providing tours through Bear Valley and the caves in the twenty years that followed. His efforts proved worthwhile when President Theodore Roosevelt established Pinnacles as a national monument in 1908. And then, on January 10, 2013, President Barack Obama signed legislation that redesigned the Pinnacles National Monument as a National Park.
Formed from volcanoes more than 20 million years ago, a journey through the park presents unique landscapes with sloping caves and lofty rock spires that share the sky with peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and the California condors. With more than 30 miles of trails ranging from easy to complex, Pinnacles National Park allows visitors to see everything from even stretches of grasslands to rising talus caves.
Recommended hike: The Bear Gulch Cave Trail is a moderate 2 miles roundtrip from the Bear Gulch Nature Center with diverse terrain. This trail is relatively easy and includes some broad flat trails, a staircase, caves, steeper ascents, and a few rocky portions. You'll see the prominent rock formations Pinnacles is known for when you make it further towards the center of the park, as well as the reservoir that's home to a protected colony of California red-legged frogs.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas
(Visitors in 2021: 243,000)
As you cross the border from New Mexico along an abandoned nineteenth-century stagecoach road in West Texas, you're welcomed by the dry Chihuahuan Desert and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Over 250 million years ago, this land was covered in a salty sea, but now what is left is a salt and grain desert ruled by the sun's scorching heat.
Boasting 100 miles of unspoiled wilderness, including the tallest peaks in Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park has 80 miles of hiking trails. Peppering with desert, flora and fauna are ready to greet you on your trek towards breathtaking canyon views. Providing an ideal location for a bit of solitude, you can visit this park in the winter and the summer, but the mild temps of spring make this a seasonal star.
Though this park is full of hiking trails, it's a largely roadless wilderness park, so the infrastructure isn't designed to hold many cars. And with the majority of visitors in spring and fall, it's possible that if the lots do fill, you will be rerouted to other locations in the park— but with equally beautiful spots to hike and camp.
Recommended hike: Guadalupe Peak is famous for being the top of Texas. Not for the faint of heart, it's a strenuous 8.5-mile hike with 3000 FT elevation gain that takes about eight hours to complete. However, a good pair of trekking poles and a hearty water supply will assist you on your mission to reach the highest point of the state of Texas. On the way, hikers are treated to several of the park's ecosystems, including the high desert and the high elevation forests.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota
(Visitors in 2020: 558,000)
"I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota. It was here that the romance of my life began" - Theodore Roosevelt.
Heartbroken after the death of both his mother and his wife on the same day, Valentine's Day 1884. Theodore Roosevelt retreated to this part of the country for a bit of solitude. Much has changed since he found solace in these parts, but the spirit of these wide-open spaces remains much the same. That's precisely why this park has made it on our list.
As the snow starts melting and the ice begins to loosen its grip over the badlands, this gradual thawing brings new opportunities to witness the place Theodore Roosevelt loved so dearly. Herds of bison and wild horses dictate traffic flow, and prairie dog towns pepper the route as you drive on through the winding roads. Just outside the park's entrance, the state of North Dakota's crown jewel, the old western town of Medora, boasts museums, restaurants, and family-friendly activities beloved by locals and tourists alike.
Recommended hike: The Jones/Lower Talkington/Lower Paddock Loop combines three smaller trails into one extensive trail where you're more than likely to encounter bison and wild horses. Making for a long day, this 11.8-mile hike is only strenuous in length and takes you across some of the best terrains the park offers. After, relax at one of the multiple campgrounds in and around the park and cool off in the muddy Little Missouri river with a pool noodle and ice-cold beverage from your cooler.
Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky
(Visitors in 2020: 515,774)
A time of new life and rebirth, Mammoth Cave National Park is the perfect place to welcome the spring season. Though it's best known for housing the world's longest cave system (over 405 miles mapped), upon the surface, its forest floor arises with a colorful display of wildflowers.
The park's south side, including the cave tours, visitor center, lodging, and developed camping areas, is designated by the NPS as the 'front-country.' The north side is known as the 'backcountry,' with a web of short hiking trails that can be combined to make a full day of hiking through towering trees leading to panoramic vistas.
Three front-country campgrounds, the Mammoth Cave Campground, Maple Springs Campground, and Houchin Ferry Campground, open for the season on March 1st. You can warm up after a day touring the caves and the surrounding trails by cozying up with a warm blanket next to a campfire with a hot beverage in hand.
Recommended hike: Primarily used as a horse trail, McCoy Hollow Trail features multiple creek crossings, two small waterfalls, and unique rock formations throughout. Stretching 12.30 miles out and back, it's considered a more challenging trail and takes around 6 hours to complete. Though it's a popular trail, you will often find yourself some peace and solitude on this long yet vibrant route.
Isle Royale National Park in Michigan
(Visitors in 2019: 26,410)
Isle Royale National Park opens every year in mid-April just in time to enjoy the best that spring on Lake Superior has to offer. Designated a National Park in 1940, Isle Royale is so wild, in fact, that it is the site of the famous predator-prey study measuring the balance between wolves and moose on the island.
With 165 miles of trails, it's easy to find seclusion on the archipelago of Isle Royale National Park. It has a booming wildlife population and a forest returning to its most vibrant self after a long winter covered in a blanket of snow. This national park is lesser-visited not because it isn't stunning, but because getting there takes some planning. Only accessible by plane, ferry, or private boat, you'll see why many return yearly once you arrive. The journey is absolutely worth it.
Recommended hike: Rock Harbor Trail is a 10.7 point to point hike perfect for those looking for some solitude. Starting from the Rock Harbor Visitor Center, the trail follows along the shores of Rock Harbor, winding in and out of the trees and onto the water's edge. Encountering only a few ups and downs, this trail is moderate in difficulty but extreme in panoramic vistas.
And there you have it. Our list of lesser-known National Parks to take a hike this spring. Do you have a favorite National Park that should be on this list? Let us know in the comments below! Stay tuned for tips on more places to spend the upcoming seasons.
Want more tips for camping this spring? Check out A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO DISPERSED CAMPING
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