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Beyond Yellowstone: The lesser-known national parks that every adventurous family should visit

From sand dunes to snorkeling, adventures await off the beaten path. Everyone’s heard about the Grand Canyon’s amazing vistas and Yosemite’s spurting geysers. While the popularity of these superstar parks is certainly well-earned, it comes with the drawbacks of high admission prices and massive crowds.

With 58 national parks from coast to coast, the United States is chock full of opportunities to experience the great outdoors. So, for intrepid explorers with adventurous children, we propose visiting these five lesser-known national treasures for a taste of natural beauty, away from the bustling crowds.

1. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Calling all beach bums and scuba junkies: boy, do we have a park for you. Located 70 miles west of Florida’s Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is actually 99% water with seven small islands to visit. This tropical paradise is only accessible by boat or seaplane, but it’s a unique experience well worth the trek. Visitors can spend the day snorkeling, admiring wildlife, and exploring Fort Jefferson, a decaying fort from the Civil War Era. 

2. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree, an enchanting park on the East Coast, may have you questioning everything you thought you knew about swamps. Waters rushing in from the Congaree River sustain stunning biodiversity, complete with owls, bobcat, deer, and birds, and the park’s lush trees form one of the world’s highest natural canopies. Park-goers walk through the wet park on raised walkways and bridges, or bring their own boat for paddling. For a truly unique experience, follow the rangers on a nightly “owl prowl.”

3. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Located just down the road from Yellowstone, this national park’s impressive beauty is often overlooked by tourists flocking to its more popular neighbor. But insiders know that Grand Teton’s dramatic summits and and scenic drives are just as jaw-dropping as Yellowstone’s. Explore 200 miles of trails, careen down the Snake River, and enjoy the placid beauty of this awe-inspiring park.

4. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

In addition to Rocky Mountain ski slopes, the land-locked state of Colorado also boasts great options for surfing – sand surfing, that is. Visitors to Great Sand Dunes National Park are able to “surf” down the largest dunes in North America with special gear. Situated at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, this 30-square-mile park has no designated trails, inviting you to forge your own by bike, surfboard, or on foot. In addition to the park’s abundant sand dunes, visitors can explore forests, cottonwood groves, mountain peaks, and tundra. This is the ultimate “Choose Your Own Adventure” park.

5. North Cascades National Park, Washington

Rev up your engine and hit the North Cascades Highway – the first National Scenic Highway in the U.S. Located three miles north of Seattle, this alpine gem is an amazing collection of 300 glacial peaks, forested valleys, and meadows. From the road, the North Cascades National Park’s crystal clear lakes and rivers are all the more stunning. The waters of Diablo Lake, a famous feature of the North Cascades, are so turquoise that you might think you’re in the Caribbean. For an alternative to hiking and driving, thrill seekers can opt for a whitewater rafting trip down the Stehekin River.

Director - International Cruise & Excursions, Inc.

Steven Kenniff is Director at International Cruise & Excursions, Inc., where he works with Sears Vacations and other travel brands. He has worked with resort brands and commercial accounts in various roles including IT, Project Management, Account Management, and Business Development.