Classic Earthly Marvels in 4 Lesser-Known National Parks

The sandstone fin of Scotts Bluff National Monument jutting out of a green prairie with an ox team pulling a wagon.

Every national park was set aside to protect a unique feature, be it cultural, historical, or natural in form. America's most iconic natural wonders are protected or administered by the National Park Service — Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Crater Lake, just to name a few. But some of earth’s classic geological traits can also be found in sites off-the-beaten path. These lesser-known beauties showcase classic earthly marvels, making them some of the best places to witness the incredible wonder of our planet. 

National Park of American Samoa

Red-footed boobies flying over the tree-covered rocky hills of Pola Island surrounded by blue ocean at the American Samoa
Yasmeen Smalley, Share the Experience

If you look at an aerial view of the Samoan islands chain, you’ll notice that the islands form a relatively straight line, from the east to the west. How did this happen?

National Park of American Samoa, spread across three of these islands, lives atop a live, but dormant, volcano. This volcano is also on the move! Directly under the Samoan islands is a “hot spot.” As the earth’s tectonic plates move (in this case, the Pacific Plate moving toward China), the hot spot will have bursts of molten magma every million years or so that come up through the ocean, creating an island. Because of this hot spot and tectonic movement, the islands of American Samoa and western Samoa were created in a pretty straight line.

Because of its geological isolation, visitors can see plants and animals that are unique to the tropical Samoan islands. Surrounding the islands are coral reefs with over 250 species of coral and a plethora of other marine animals. Park visitors can not only go hiking and snorkeling to see these magnificent species, but can learn about the history and culture of the native Samoans.

Scotts Bluff National Monument

Uncovered covered wagon in the dessert with Scott's Bluff National Monument in the background.
Melissa Liner, Share the Experience

Even the Presidential Proclamation says that Scotts Bluff National Monument has “scientific interest… from a geologic standpoint.” Looking at it, Scotts Bluff is definitely a unique geological formation that seems to rise up out of the blue (or in this case, green grass).

This park protects the geology of the area, which has been well studied since the U.S. Geological Survey made the first forma geologic investigation of the area in the 1890s. The towering 800-foot Scotts Bluff exposes the most geologic history of any location in Nebraska, from 33 to 22 million years before the present.

While hiking visitors can see the horizontal striations of this sedimentary rock that tell the story of sand blown in from the Rocky Mountains, ash from violent volcanic erupts in parts of what is now Colorado, and even old Nebraskan sand dunes.

The park is also rich with American history. It served as a landmark for people from the Native Americans to explorers and trappers in the 1800s. It was an important landmark to the pioneers heading west on the Oregon Trail in the 19th century.

Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area

Small waterfall peaking between giant orange, brown, and green boulders

Small waterfall off the Honey Creek Loop Trail

National Park Service

Protecting 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau with the free-flowing Big South Fork of the Cumberland River cutting a gorge through the soft rock, Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is riddled with mesas, chimneys, cracks, sandstone arches, and more. In fact, it may have more natural arches than any other region in the eastern part of the country!

The Cumberland Plateau is mainly composed of two types of rock: Pennsylvanian and Mississippian aged rock. Throughout the years, the on-going processes of weathering and erosion have created a plethora of unique rock formations.

The park harbors a wide range of plants and animals, from black bears to the threatened eastern slender glass lizard. It is also a vast playground for outdoor activities of all kinds, from hiking and mountain biking to fishing and camping.

Rainbow Bridge National Monument

A massive red and brown sandstone arch surrounded by a red dessert landscape at Rainbow Bridge National Monument
Shawn Harris Ahmed, Share the Experience

In the desert of southern Utah, Rainbow Bridge National Monument is home to something truly unique: one of the largest known natural bridges in the world. 

Over 200 million years ago, reddish-brown sand and mud was brought to Colorado Plateau by inland seas and shifting winds, compositing what is now called Kayenta Sandstone. Then, about 200 million years ago, wave after wave of sand dunes of up to 1,000 feet were deposited, creating a another layer of sand on top.

Over the next 100 million years, these two layers were buried under the weight of another 5,000 feet of material, hardening them into the Kayenta Sandstone and the Navajo Sandstone layers. Finally, water flows and erosion cut away at the soft sandstone, creating the intriguing Rainbow Bridge that stands at 290 feet tall and spans 275 feet across today.

Visitors can hike out to Rainbow Bridge National Monument and stand in awe underneath this natural wonder.

From primeval forests to island paradises, these national parks show the incredible diversity of our planet. When you are planning your national park vacation this year, consider visiting one of these unique and lesser-known national parks.


It would be so VERY HELPFUL if the state where these parks are located was identified in the descriptions under the photos. . . without having to leave the page and go to the links provided. . . .
They are identified easily at the tops of the photos.
Hooray for teamwork!!!
Is that petrified wood under the Great stone arch?
There are so many inspirational places in our National Parks that doubt I will ever see them all. But I have no representation excuse for not seeing the waterfall shown above inBSF since my son is a ranger there.
I have had the Great pleasure of serving as Artist in Residence for 3 of our wonderful National Parks; Mesa Verde, the Great Sand Dunes, and Great Basin. Two of them I lived in for a time and created work to leave there. I hope to perhaps repeat this fantastic experience in another.
We hiked to Rainbow Bridge this past September. It was truly a remarkable and memorable experience, one we will always remember. We love our National Parks!

Start a Conversation

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Stay Inspired
Connect with the parks you love. Sign up to receive the latest NPF news, information on how you can support our national treasures, and travel ideas for your next trip to the parks. Join our community.