Many people dream about going on a road trip to all the best national parks. Just the words national park inspire visions of looming mountain ranges, stunning waterfalls, and unparalleled scenery. Across the United States, there are currently 63 places designated as national parks. Each is part of a system once called America’s best idea by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. Some of these parks are world-renowned, like Great Smoky Mountains and Yellowstone, while others fly under the radar, like Theodore Roosevelt NP in North Dakota, Cuyahoga NP in Ohio, and Dry Tortugas NP in Florida.
But when the time comes for planning that road trip of a lifetime, consider this fact: the entire National Park System has a total of 424 units spread across all 50 states—a total of 132,000 square miles of parklands. In fact, if all NPS units were combined into a single continuous piece of land, it would be the fifth-largest U.S. state, just after Montana. That’s a lot of adventure potential!
Granted, not every NPS unit offers the same type of experience. Most national parks are larger areas with a wide range of activities and highlights, including scenic drives, roaming wildlife, hiking trails, and more. But among those remaining 360 units, there are countless park-like experiences just waiting to be discovered. Options range from national monuments to seashores and lakeshores to rivers and recreation areas. Here are some of the best.
The most abundant type of NPS designation is not national parks but national monuments, currently totaling 83. Created by presidential decree, national monuments—and NPS units with other designations—may be later redesignated by Congress as national parks. Most recently this occurred with three excellent units: Gateway Arch NP, New River Gorge, and White Sands NP.
Some of the best national monuments for outdoor adventures include the otherworldly volcanic landscape at Craters of the Moon in Idaho and the mysterious Devils Tower in Wyoming, both of which make excellent additions during a road trip to Yellowstone NP and Grand Teton NP. Meanwhile Colorado National Monument and Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado are two high desert units offering stunning canyon scenery in a state with four other excellent national parks. Other worthy monuments that we have previously covered on this blog include Muir Woods in the San Francisco Bay Area, Natural Bridges in Utah, and the Statue of Liberty in New York City.
One of the best national monuments we haven’t shared before is Hovenweep NM, located in a remote part of southeastern Utah, about an hour west of Cortez, CO. The highlights here are the remarkable Ancestral Puebloan structures and ruins of six villages mostly located on the rims of small canyons. Visitors can hike short trails through the remnants of these villages, while learning about regional history and archeological discoveries.
Another excellent option is Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument near Flagstaff, AZ. Around 1000 years ago, the Sunset Crater cinder cone erupted, blanketing the surrounding area in jagged lava flows and fields of cinders—pebble-sized lava stones. Today, visitors can hike trails through the hardened lava and cinder fields and summit a volcano.
National Seashores and Lakeshores
In a previous blog post, we covered two excellent national seashores, Point Reyes in California and Cumberland Island in Georgia. Further up the East Coast, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, is Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Stretching from Ocracoke Island to Bodie Island, this NPS unit protects about 70 miles of mostly undeveloped coastline and barrier islands. Visitors can walk along pristine beaches, swim in the seasonally warm waters, paddle through tidal wetlands, and explore several historic lighthouses.
Other units worth considering are the three national lakeshores, each located on the Great Lakes. Sleeping Bear Dunes is located on Lake Michigan in the state of Michigan. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is located on Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. And Apostle Islands on Lake Superior in Wisconsin protects an archipelago of over 20 islands with plenty of opportunities for boating, paddling, and hiking.
Head inland from the coasts and water lovers will find several great options for paddling sports. Spread across the country, the National Park Service manages 10 units of the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System and four national river units.
One of the best is definitely the Buffalo National River in the Arkansas Ozarks. The Buffalo winds for about 150 miles between sheer limestone bluffs through a rugged region of forested hills. Along the way, the river passes through many class II rapids and two wilderness areas, offering access to a 200-foot waterfall, the tallest between the Rockies and Appalachians.
Another great unit is the Niobrara National Scenic River, found in the sand hills of western Nebraska. Located at the edge of the Ogalala Aquifer, one highlight of a paddling trip down the Niobrara is witnessing hundreds of small springs and waterfalls plunging from the river-right bank. The current is swift and steady, and the water runs cool during spring into early summer, making this an excellent adventure in the Great Plains.
National Recreation Areas
Another type of NPS unit that may be overlooked by some outdoor enthusiasts is the national recreation area. These units often cover a large geographic area and may include reservoirs popular for watersports like motor boating and paddling.
One of the best examples is Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes the scenic Lake Powell in the scorched desert of southern Utah. Due to prolonged drought, by the spring of 2022, Lake Powell fell to record low levels since the reservoir filled in the decades after the opening of Glen Canyon Dam in 1966. Today, the hub of lake activity is around the town of Page, AZ, located near the dam. Most visitors come for motorboating, house-boating trips, and fishing. However, paddling is increasingly popular, with many trips launching from points near Page to explore various side canyons. Another worthy part of the recreation area is Lees Ferry, the famous launching point for whitewater rafting trips down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park. In addition to hiking several trails, exploring a historic ranch, and watching rafts depart, visitors can paddle a 15-mile section of class I-II river upstream that can be floated as a day trip.
Other national recreation areas include Golden Gate NRA in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most popular NPS units averaging over 14 million annual visitors in recent years. The recreation area stretches dozens of miles north and south of San Francisco, with many spots to explore. A few highlights include a ferry ride and tour of the famous prison on Alcatraz Island, the Civil War-eras Fort Point National Historic Site underneath Golden Gate Bridge in the Presidio, the Marin Headlands area, and Stinson Beach.
Want a complete list and recap of all our US National Parks as well as free downloadable maps and other great resources? Check out our US National Parks List and Map guide!
Lead photo: Reflection Canyon of Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Adobe/Dario