Whenever we're back in the USA, we make it a point to visit as many National Parks Service sites as possible. There are over 400 official National Parks sites … and counting. There are national parks, historic sites, military parks, historical parks, monuments, battlefields, memorials and more. We've visited many of the more popular sites like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Zion, and Washington, D.C. As much as we appreciate the grandeur and wonder, we're many times just as appreciative of the more obscure, less visited sites. So often, we have the place to ourselves and the pace is relaxed and easy. Here's our not-in-any-particular-order Top 11 list of off-the-beaten path NPS sites to date. Those we haven't visited remain on our bucket list. All NPS sites offer some unique perspective on America, its people and its history. Enjoy.
1. Pipestone National Monument (Minnesota)
There were only two other people at Pipestone when we arrived early one summer morning. Here, in centuries past, native Americans quarried red pipestone used for ceremonial pipes. View pipestone carvers at work at the Visitor's Center, walk along scenic paths and peer into the quarries. The nearby town of Pipestone has some great gargoyled buildings which are worth a peek.
2. Pompey's Pillar National Monument (Montana)
Rising 150' from the banks of the Yellowstone River, Pompey's Pillar is a huge sandstone outcrop named by explorer, William Clark, of Lewis & Clark Expedition fame. Learn more about the Lewis & Clark explorations at the Visitor's Center as well as the local native Americans in the area. Climb to the top of the outcrop and see Clark's name engraved in the stone. We were alone for most of our visit here.
3. Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument (Texas)
You have to go out of your way for this site, but we found it a worthwhile detour. Flint has been quarried by native people in this area since the Ice Age. We had the place and the rangers all to ourselves. Watch a local flintknapper ply his trade, learn about local flora and fauna and enjoy being in the middle of absolute nowhere.
4. Cedar Breaks National Monument (Utah)
While nearby Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks were overcrowded and the traffic moved at a snail's pace, Cedar Breaks National Monument was nearly deserted even though it was peak wildflower season. Go figure! Situated in an alpine meadow, the flowers and vistas were spectacular as we wandered along miles of trails and paths.
5. Dry Tortugas National Park (off west coast Florida)
You need a boat or seaplane to get to this national park, located about 50nm west of Key West, Florida. Formerly a strategically placed fort and a prison, it was here that Dr. Mudd, sentenced to prison for providing medical services to Abraham Lincoln's assassin, served his time as prison physician. Lots of history midst an absolutely beautiful setting.
6. Great Basin National Park (Nevada)
Over 71,000 acres of protected watershed lands, this less-visited national park in the middle of nowhere, east Nevada, offers hiking, terrific views, a look at bristlecone pines (the world's oldest living things) and trips underground into Lehman Caves.
7. Virgin Islands National Park (USVI)
Having a boat is to your advantage getting here, but St. John in the Virgin Islands is definitely accessible via ferry. Over 7,000 acres of the island is dedicated to national parks land. The park offers beaches, coral reefs, historical sites and sheer tropical beauty.
8. Dinosaur National Monument (Utah/Colorado)
Dinosaur is a special kind of place. There are sections to this park which straddles the Utah/Colorado state line. The highlight on the Utah side is the Wall of Bones, a fossil-rich wall excavated and left in situ so people could see and touch million year old dinosaur bones. Self-guided auto tours through both sections of the park offer superb views, geological and archeological insights and lots of petroglyphs.
9. Homestead National Monument (Nebraska)
Part of America's westward expansion efforts was the Homestead Act of 1862 which promised 160 acres of free land to folks who moved west, staked a claim and worked the land. Hundreds took the offer and this monument commemorates their courage, hardship and perseverance in settling a new land. The Visitor's Center is particularly informational. Paths and walks lead you through native grasslands and past reconstructed historical buildings. You might even be able to trace your family's history if they were part of the great migration west.
10. Wupatiki National Monument (Arizona)
Ancient pueblos to wander through along with lots of archeological history to enhance the experience. Native people have lived here for thousands of years and the preserved pueblos are outstanding.
11. Harry S. Truman Home (Missouri)
“The buck stops here.” Harry S. Truman, the 33rd US president, called Independence, Missouri his home. It's a nostalgic and historic trip as you explore the rooms of this down-to-earth president's home on Delaware Street or walk the streets of small town America.
If you go:
- First of all, if you're over 62 and a US citizen, you can buy a pass for $10 and voila … free national park sites admission for life for you and everyone in your car. Wow, what a deal that is. Almost worth being 62 (or least having someone in the car that's 62). Even without a Senior Pass, many sites are free or the admission prices are reasonable, and if you plan to visit several sites, a season's pass is definitely worthwhile.
- Every US National Park site offers something. If you go to the more popular ones, try to go off-season. When parks are crowded, they're much less enjoyable and you feel compelled to rush through. Don't hurry. Take it all in. Off the beaten path has lots of advantages.
- Some NPS sites allow camping. Consider staying inside the park if it's allowed. You get a better feel for the park and its inhabitants. Pricing of campsites is also reduced with a Senior Pass.
- Research a little first. The US Parks Service maintains a great website which provides information on each park including history, facilities, what to see and do and where to stay. Figure out in advance what you want to see so you don't miss anything.
For more pix and information, check out our website.