The Best Parks That Aren’t National Parks
By Kat Carney
Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon National Parks are some of the most recognizable landscapes in the world. We have all seen hundreds of photos of the beautiful views in each park, but with fame and prestige of being considered one of the nations most beautiful National Parks comes crowds.
If you’re looking to escape some of the crowds, but still experience an incredible amount of beauty, here are some of the best areas in the US that aren’t National Parks.
1. Sucia Island Marine State Park – Washington
Sucia Island is a 564-acre marine park with 77,700 feet of shoreline in Washington. It is consistently named one of the top boating destinations in the world. Alpinist and mountain guide, Charlotte Austin, described this as one of her favorite parks.
“I truly love Sucia Island State Park, which is a tiny atoll nestled in Puget Sound, directly north of Orcas Island.” Though it seems like a departure from what a mountain guide might pick as one of her favorite parks, Austin enjoys getting to experience other sides of nature, particularly sea life. “Orcas, sea lions, and curious seals frequent the island’s coastline, and visitors can hunt for fossils, scour tide pools for colorful sea life, and explore the island’s hiking trails,” she said.
2. Ichetucknee Springs State Park – Florida
This state park is at the top of the list for Florida biologist, underwater photographer, and Nat Geo Young Explorer, Jenny Adler. “Between November and May, I love to cave dive at “Blue Hole,” a spring that requires divers to lug their gear a half mile out in to the woods to dive into a relatively short (550′) but breathtaking cave.”
During the summer, the river is a premier place for snorkeling and tubing. Adler used to be a saltwater lover, but when she arrived in Florida to take a job as a biologist with USGS, she fell in love with the beauty and ecosystems of Florida’s fresh water springs. At Ichetucknee she likes “to paddle board or swim the river, coming nose-to-nose with manatees, gar, turtles, and bowfins as I float through meadows of flowing underwater grasses.”
3. The Adirondack Park – New York
Fall is the ideal time to visit the Adirondack Park in order to catch a glimpse of the picturesque foliage in the northeast. However, all seasons bring a unique perspective of the stunning landscape around the park. If you’re up for a challenge, the park is home to 46 peaks higher than 4,000 feet. Although that may sound small to those accustomed to mountains in the west, out east 4,000 feet takes you above tree line.
Ultrarunner and microbial ecologist, Michaeline Nelson, said, “Near the summit, the trees open up to spectacular views as the hiking terrain turns from shaded dirt trails to colossal granite slabs.” Exercise caution when attempting some of the 4,000+ foot peaks as twenty of them have no official trail to the top, giving them a truly backcountry feel.
4. Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area – Oregon
Running from the mouth of the Sandy River to the mouth of the Deschutes River, Columbia River Gorge is a stunning canyon in Northern Oregon.
Although she’s currently living in Glacier National Park, outdoor adventurist Lauren Hurst said, “My favorite park or area has to be the Columbia River Gorge which is actually a National Scenic Area.”
The gorge is known for its striking waterfalls and clear waters.
“The Columbia River Gorge’s historic highway is also home to so many beautiful waterfalls that are easily accessible to anyone, permitting all age groups and abilities to enjoy the outdoors at their will, which I find to be very special,” said Hurst.
5. Ozark National Forest – Arkansas
This unassuming National Forest has a surprising amount of beauty packed into its boundaries. With lovely rock walls ready to be climbed to a huge variety of waterfalls and rapids, climbing and float trips are the thing to do in summer. Southern California surfer and climber, Jessica O’Bryan, was blown away at the natural features in the area.
“”It’s unbelievably green. The view while climbing the high quality sandstone is breathtaking.” The Ozark National Forest covers 1.2 million acres in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. It’s home to Mount Magazine, the tallest mountain in the state, and Blanchard Springs Caverns, a living cave, where formations like stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and flowstone are still changing.
6. Mount Baker Wilderness – Washington
The Mount Baker Wilderness is nestled in the Mount Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest in the western Cascades. It’s one of those place with such amazing beauty tha you wonder how it’s not a national park. Endurance athlete and outdoor lover, Alex Borsuk listed this as one of her favorite places.
“You’ve got waterfalls, alpine meadows, sweeping vistas, crystal clear rivers and old growth forests.” And the views are really spectacular almost everywhere. Check out Artist’s Point for great views of both Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan.
7. Anza Borrego Desert State Park – California
My personal favorite park near my home in San Diego is Anza Borrego State Park. This desert park is the place to escape to on winter nights for epic views of the night sky without light pollution from the city. The park also boasts an extreme lack of people (hard to find in southern California), mud caves at Arroyo Tapiado, and climbing at Jasper Boulders. Some nights, friends and I will just drive out for the evening to watch the stars and camp in the middle of nowhere.
Lauren Hurst currently lives in Glacier National Park. Find her on Instagram.
Alex Borsuk is an endurance athlete. Find her on Instagram.