The Best-Kept National Park Secrets (Until Now)

Pillar of red and black sandstone rock jutting out of a rocky terrain at Canyonlands

Off the grid, off the beaten path — call it what you will, but one of the great joys of exploring your national parks is exploring places few have ever seen. Take the plunge and discover some of our national parks’ best-kept secrets, like these hidden spots, lookouts, trails, and campgrounds.

Hike the Chesler Park Loop and Joint Trail

Rock formations in Utah

The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park is a wild, otherworldly landscape of strange, spire-like rock formations. You can choose among more than a dozen trails of varying lengths and difficulty levels in the district, but one of the best is the 11-mile Chesler Park Loop. The trail starts at Soda Spring, which is about as far to the west as you can get in a motor vehicle in the Needles District. It's a strenuous trail that winds through high desert grasses, colorful sandstone spires, and a series of deep, narrow fractures called the Joint Trail. Plan on spending the night at one of the five campsites scattered along the trail, and be sure to bring plenty of water — none will be available once you leave the trailhead. 

Venture into Painted Cave

Sea cave opening

A few miles off the California coast, Santa Cruz Island, part of the Channel Islands National Park, is home to one of the largest and deepest sea caves in the world. Named for the colorful lichens and algae that coat the walls, Painted Cave is nearly a quarter-mile long, with an entrance ceiling 160 feet tall. A waterfall often veils the cave opening in spring, but Painted Cave is accessible to sea kayaks throughout most of the year.

Climb Devil's Tower

Rock climbers on Devil's Tower

OK, everybody knows about Devils Tower National Monument. If you've seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” you know that even extra-terrestrials are familiar with it! But not many people have taken in the view from the top. Climbing to the pinnacle of Devils Tower is no small feat, but experienced technical climbers will find that the rock face, divided into hexagonal segments by hundreds of parallel cracks, offers some of the finest traditional crack climbing in North America. All climbers are required to register before departing and check back in upon return. 

Explore Elves Chasm

Waterfall in center of canyon

The Royal Arch Loop is a five-day hike over punishing terrain that is considered one of the most challenging backpacking routes in Grand Canyon National Park. Only seasoned, well-equipped hikers with tested climbing skills should even attempt it. But with the challenge come many rewards. Just a short detour off the main trail, a nearly hidden spur trail takes you to Elves Chasm, a magnificent little canyon where a waterfall tumbles down over the moss-covered rocks. 

Spend the night at McCargoe Cove

Sunset on Lake Superior

Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world, and its largest island is the vast, 571,000-acre Isle Royale National Park. Tucked away on the island's northern shore, you'll find McCargoe Cove, a cozy inlet with an overnight dock for your kayak and a handful of primitive tent campsites scattered on the shore. From here, you can hike or kayak to dozens of similarly rustic campgrounds. Be sure to pack a rod and reel to take advantage of Isle Royale's incredible fishing.

When you next visit a national park near you, take the time to explore some of its lesser-known corners. With more than 400 National Park Service sites across the United States, there's still plenty left to be discovered. 

For more information on other national park spots that are off the beaten path, download your FREE copy of “The Places Nobody Knows” Owner’s Guide!

Photo credits: National Park Service, Isle Royale’s McCargoe’s Cove by Ray Dumas, Channel Islands National Park’s Painted Cave by Michael Wigle


I would LOVE to do the Caves at Channel Islands!! I live in Redding CA. just got here from PDX. Can u trip-help how I could do this?? Without my OLD car? Would b gr8: havin a difficult transition.....thanks?
Take the train to Ventura and stay overnight at one of Ventura’s many hotels before taking a guided tour of the caves with Channel Islands Adventure Company. See for more info. The caves are really cool!!!
love the parks, always stop when I see a sign along the road, Montazuma's Castle Toguzut ? no sure of the spelling both in Arizona

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