Hidden national parks: Try these out-of-the-way destinations for your next vacation

Visiting some of the hidden national parks.

It happened again. We visited a place, only to discover we were a short drive from a hidden national park. An incredible hidden national park.

We’d just pulled into the little town of Fruita, Colo., and I peered across the next mountain range. “I wonder what that is?,” I asked no one in particular.

The answer, thanks to Google and a teenager who isn’t afraid to use it: Colorado National Monument.

I’d never heard of it.

And that made me wonder: How many other national parks are out there that I — or you — had never heard of? And how many national parks are right around the corner on your next vacation?

As it turns out, my family has discovered a lot of hidden national parks beyond Colorado National Monument. Just a one-hour drive across the Utah state line, there’s another obscure national park, Canyonlands. And a few years ago, we found ourselves in a national park without even knowing it. Now that’s pretty hidden.

The Elliotts visit hidden national parks.
The kids explore the Canyon Rim trail at Colorado National Monument.

Colorado National what?

Imagine a sheer wall of red and orange granite rocks that rises abruptly from a flat desert floor. That’s Colorado National Monument. You can access the top of the plateau via a winding two-lane road that has “1930s public works project” written all over it.

It’s widely considered one of the great American landscapes — you can almost hear an Aaron Copeland tune echoing throughout the canyon walls.

Of course, I whipped out my annual National Park pass and gave it a good workout for the next few days. Colorado National Monument has some of the finest hiking trails in the national park system. My favorite was the Monument Canyon Loop trail, which takes you past Independence Monument, a 450-foot rock tower. Every time we hiked in the park, we saw herds of desert bighorn sheep and large rainbow-colored lizards wiggling around the rocks.

Colorado National Monument isn’t just hidden to us. While we were there, during the height of the summer travel season, we hardly saw a soul. Where were they? Crowding to the beaches, probably.

Canyonlands: A hidden national park.
Iden and Erysse Elliott at Canyonlands National Park in 2018.

Even more Arches in Utah

We discovered the remarkable Canyonlands National Park in a similar way. Last year, we wanted to see Arches National Park, just a short drive from Moab, Utah. But then we heard about Canyonlands and, being adventurous, we decided to drive the extra hour to check it out. I’m glad we did.

Canyonlands has rock arches, too, but it also has enormous canyons the likes of which you won’t see unless you head farther south, to Grand Canyon National Park. That national park, everyone knows.

Canyonlands is a real-life geology classroom. You can see dramatic examples of erosion, deposition and uplift in these canyons. And where are the people? They’re all looking at the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. But you can walk miles in Canyonlands without seeing anyone. That’s the test of a hidden national park — it’s all park, no people.

I’ve visited Canyonlands twice with my kids. Each time, I regret that I only have a few hours to explore the park. And each time, I come home and look at the photos and ask myself, “Was that really taken on planet Earth?”

The Elliotts visit Glacier Bay National Park.
A view of our ship, the Chichagof Dream, in Glacier Bay National Park.

Surprise! You’re in the park already

Maybe the biggest surprise, when it comes to a hidden national park, happened when I took a small-ship cruise in Alaska with my kids. The tour of Alaska’s famous inside passage, with its stunning seascapes, glaciers and wildlife, on Alaska Dream Cruises’ Chichagof Dream served up one postcard-perfect view after another. I’d heard about Glacier Bay National Park and hoped we might have a chance to see it.

“How far away is the park?” I asked a crewmember.

“You’re in it,” he replied.

Oh wow. I guess I missed the announcement about the park encompassing more than 3 million acres. Everywhere we looked — glaciers, fjords, coastline — it was all national park. In fact, most visitors get to the park by boat, although a few do hike in. That makes this one of the truly hidden national parks, since it’s very difficult to reach except by boat.

Discovering hidden national parks is now one of my favorite hobbies. Whenever we travel somewhere, I search for the nearest national or state park. The more obscure, the better! But I’m not just doing it for journalism. There’s no better way of teaching your kids about our rich national park heritage than by showing it to them — one hidden park at a time.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend