mountains swooping down to a lake

Lesser Known National Parks To Consider For Your Next RV Trip

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Avoid The Crowds At A Less Visited National Park

As campers, we all dream of visiting iconic national parks, such as Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Acadia National Park in Maine, our favorite by far is Yellowstone!.  While both are vast and beautiful, and undoubtedly a traveler’s dream, they are often very crowded with tourists for most of the year. For your next camping trip, we suggest checking out one of these lesser known national parks instead.

Rich with gorgeous scenery and activities, these national parks are just the ticket if what you’re looking for is adventure with some peace and quiet. Make sure you research each park, so you’re prepared for your trip.  Many parks may not be able to accommodate trailers or RV’s, and some may require special travel arrangements.

Making sure you’re well-prepared for your trip will ensure a good time for all travelers. We did extensive research on what size RV is good for National Parks and other important information you need for camping in a National Park. 

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

The history behind this national park is as vast and rich as its landscape and scenery. This park is actually water-based, and all campsites are only accessible by boat. The northern boundary of the park is part of the border between the United States and Canada and it includes part of the trans-continental “highway” used by the French-Canadian Voyageurs during the 1700’s and 1800’s.

For RV’ers there are a number of public and private camping options just outside the park. There is also a good deal of dispersed camping (boondocking) land in the vicinity, so feel free to bring the RV. 

The park’s three visitors centers are accessible by road, but the remainder of the park must be explored by boat during the summer months.  You can bring your own personal watercraft or take a guided tour in one of the park’s boats. The park includes four large lakes and a multitude of smaller inner lakes to explore.

Mountains surrounded by a lake in Missouri
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Make sure you review the park’s navigation guide and study their maps if you’d like to explore the lakes on your own.  The geography of the park and lakes can make for a dangerous trip for visitors who may be unaware of the submerged rocks scattered throughout.

For the history buffs, Voyageurs doesn’t disappoint. The rock formations in the park are believed to be at least 2.5 billion years old, some of the oldest in the world. In the 1700’s, animal fur was in high demand, and French-Canadian fur traders made their way between Montreal and the Canadian Northwest via a route that included what is now the national park. You can learn much more about the park’s history by exploring sites listed in the park’s day use site map.

While the spring, summer, and fall are the best times to visit the park to view wildlife and a colorful array of wildflowers, winter can also be a lovely time to visit the park. The lakes freeze early, sometimes by the end of November, and you can explore the park via the two ice roads or by trail on your snowmobile or cross-country skis.

If the cold doesn’t bother you, you’re welcome to camp overnight as well, just make sure you make a reservation in advance.  The park also has an official sledding hill, perfect for family fun.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

If hiking is your passion, you’ll find paradise at this national park. It contains more than 80 miles of hiking trails with routes for the expert and the novice hiker alike.  Those who are avid horseback riding enthusiasts will be delighted by the trail riding opportunities at the park.

Though you’ll have to bring your own horse, over 60 miles of the hiking trails allow riding.  The park also has corrals for your equine friend to stay overnight while you camp nearby.  Please be aware that reservations are required for camping at the park. There are 19 sites in the park (first come, first served.) No hookups or dump station is available so come prepared. 

There is not a ton of camping near the park. There is some dispersed camping around and full hookups about 30 minutes north in New Mexico. 

A National Park on a mountain
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Those who enjoy bird watching will find a plethora of opportunities at Guadalupe. There are a variety of trails that provide access to great birding sites throughout the park. The National Park Service provides detailed informational documents discussing the various birds you can spot during the summer and winter months.

Guadalupe is also home to El Capitan (not to be confused with the famous El Cap in Yosemite), the eighth highest peak in Texas. Those feeling adventurous will be rewarded with stunning views if they decide to attempt the summit, as there is no trail leading to the top. 

After exploring El Capitan or one of the many other trail options in the park, you have the option to camp either front country or back county.  Be prepared for the weather, as summers in Texas are extremely dry and hot.

Pinnacles National Park, California

Perhaps what makes this park so amazing and unique is the fact that it was formed by multiple volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.  What emerged is a park made up of woodlands, caves, rock formations, and breathtaking canyon views. There is no shortage of things to explore in this park, including two caves that are accessible by trail only (there are no roads through the park).

The interesting thing about the caves are that, despite the fact that the park was formed by volcanic eruptions, the caves were actually formed by cave-ins. Please note that these caves are only open at various times throughout the year, so make sure you check the status before heading there.

Water surrounded by mountains and rocks
Pinnacles National Park, California

Pinnacles is also home to great hiking trails and climbing opportunities. The park contains over 30 miles of trails, giving you an up-close view of all the beautiful scenery, including the caves and famous spires. If climbing, make sure you visit the NPS web site for safety information in addition to any closures that may occur throughout the year.

If you’re planning to camp, please be aware that Pinnacles Campground is only accessible via the east entrance to the park. There are tent and group sites as well as RV sites, most of which include electrical hookups. In the summer months, you can enjoy relaxing by the pool when you’re finished exploring for the day. For convenience, sites can be reserved in advance online.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

This park consists of over 20,000 acres of some of the most beautiful wilderness in the country, explorable via hiking trails or canoe and kayak along the creek and river. If you really want to get away from it all, this is a great park to visit.

There are a wide variety of hiking trails, from easy to difficult, including a boardwalk trail with great views and benches to allow for rests along the way. Other trails may be more difficult, and some areas may be partially closed due to flooding.  Always make sure you check the status of a trail prior to venturing out.

For those who prefer to explore via canoe or kayak, the Congaree River Blue Trail is a great option.  It begins near the state capitol of Columbia and ends at the national park. There are several opportunities for exploration along the trail, which is rich with prehistoric Native American history. Fishing is also an option with a South Carolina fishing license.

A path through a beautiful green forest
Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Front country camping is available at the park with reservations, and back country campers must have a valid back country camping permit. Camping at this park is limited to tents only, and you aren’t able to drive to your site, so be prepared for a bit of a walk.

For RV’ers, there are no options within the park, but since the park is so close to Columbia, there are any number of state and private RV parks nearby that you can enjoy. 

It should also be noted that campfires are permitted in the front country campgrounds only.  Back country campers may not build campfires at their chosen site.

Virgin Island National Park, Virgin Islands

Whether your idea of vacation includes a trip to the beach or hiking the trails and exploring history, this lesser known national park has something for everyone. Several hiking trails offer visitors the opportunity to explore the rich history of the area, including the plantation ruins from when sugar cane was grown and harvested on the island.

Virgin Island National Park, Virgin Islands

If exploring the coral reefs and marine life is something you enjoy, gorgeous white beaches can be accessed via boat or hiking trail and offer several locations for prime snorkeling opportunities. Please respect the fragility of the reefs and only enjoy them from a safe distance.

Camping is normally available at the Cinnamon Bay Resort and Campground, but please check the NPS web site for closure information.  As of this writing, the campground is being restored due to hurricane damage. There is no other campground on the island, so plan your trip accordingly.

Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Endless skies, clear stargazing, and ancient trees are what await you at Great Basin National Park. Known for its bristlecone pine trees and 13,063-foot summit of Wheeler Peak, this national park is one that should definitely go on your must-visit list.

The park contains several groves in which to view the ancient bristlecone pines. Wheeler Peak Grove is the most accessible, as there is a trail and also a ranger-guided tour.  The other two groves are a bit more difficult to enjoy, as access is limited, and the trails may be steep and tricky to navigate.

During your stay, make sure to attend a ranger-guided tour of Lehman Caverns. You’ll learn about the geography and ecology of the cave, and you’ll have your choice of the Lodge Room Tour (suitable for families) or the Grand Palace Tour (a bit longer and more difficult). Tickets are required and tend to sell out, so plan your trip accordingly so you don’t miss out on this activity.

After spending the day hiking and exploring the cave, don’t miss out on the ranger-led astronomy program. Great Basin is an International Dark Sky Park, meaning it’s dark skies at night offer some of the most amazing opportunities for star gazing in the country. The schedule varies throughout the year, so make sure you check ahead of time.

Snow mountain in the blue sky
Wheeler Peak Grove, Nevada

Take it one step further with a ride on the Star Train or on a full moon hike. There is no shortage of activities to keep you entertained after dark.

If you’re planning a visit to this lesser known national park early in the spring, you’ll be rewarded with abundant wildflowers. Take a ride along the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive or along the Island Forest Trail or the Baker Creek Trail to view a vast assortment of beautiful plants and flowers in full bloom.

There are five campgrounds at the park, so you’ll have many options to set up your tent for your stay. Each campground vault toilets, picnic tables, tent pads, and grills. Only one campground is open year-round, so if you’re planning to camp, please contact the park or visit their web site to ensure your chosen campground is open and available.

For RV’ers there are several RV park options outside the park as well as dispersed camping on Federal Land. 

Dispersed camping is such a great way to not only $ave some money but also to get super close to a National Park.  We parked our RV 15 minutes from Zion National Park where the views were absolutely stunning!  We did this in Utah also and parked close to Arches NP for 14 days.  Always check out your boondocking options when you can.

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Located 70 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas is made up of seven small islands and is accessible only by boat or seaplane. If you love the water, and history, there is no shortage of activities for you at this great park.

At 100 square miles, Dry Tortugas is the home of history Fort Jefferson, which was built to protect one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in the 19th century. Ranger guided tours will teach you all about the history of the fort and you’ll have the opportunity to watch living history demonstrations, night sky programs, and many other activities.

For those who love to dive and snorkel, Dry Tortugas has no shortage of intriguing dive sites, complete with colorful coral reefs and even a wreck site to explore. Loggerhead Key is the large of the seven islands of the park, and is the home of Loggerhead Lighthouse, which was built in 1857 and taken out of commission in 2015.

A view of Dry Tortugas in the water
Dry Tortugas National Park

If you’re planning to camp while visiting Dry Tortugas, please be aware that the eight sites are available on a first come, first serve basis, though there is an overflow area if all sites are taken.

Campers must travel to the island via ferry or personal watercraft, and the ferry carries a maximum of ten campers per day.  You must be prepared for your stay with everything you could possibly need while there.  This includes a tent, sleeping pad, food, water, etc.  Wood fires are not permitted.

Obviously RVing is not an option within the park, but there are any number of RV parks in the Keys that can be used as a base to visit the Tortugas. Plan ahead because it is very busy year around and quite expensive. 

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

With a peak of 18,008 feet and covering 13.2 million acres, Wrangle-St. Elias is the largest national park in North America. With everything from volcanoes to glaciers, you could spend several years exploring this park and still only discover a small part of it.

If you’re not comfortable exploring on your own, the park offers guided ranger tours in the summer months, in addition to guided walks and interpretive talks.  There is also the traditional Junior Ranger program, where children can learn all about becoming a ranger and will earn a badge and certificate.  

The park contains a vast network of hiking trails offering spectacular views of the forests, mountains, and wildlife. Most trails are maintained for the first few miles but become routes after that. If you’re feeling adventurous, feel free to go off-trail for some backpacking fun, but take safety precautions, as this park is quite remote.

If you love taking your ATV or other off-road vehicle off the beaten path to explore, you’ll enjoy the many opportunities to explore the countryside on your ORV at Wrangell-St. Elias.  Please make sure you follow all regulations for driving off-road to ensure your safety and to maintain the beauty of the park.

Snow mountain in the blue sky
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Reserve

Fewer sites are as beautiful as Alaska in the winter, and this park offers plenty of opportunities for enjoying the cold and snow. Visitors are permitted to use snowmobiles/snowmachines anywhere on public land in the park but must follow all established rules. Cross-country skiers and snow shoers will love exploring the park this way.

Because the park is so vast, it is broken up into sections, each of which has its own opportunities for camping. However, please be advised that most sites are primitive, so come prepared. There are no RV sites inside the park, but numerous options outside, depending on what part of the park you want to visit.

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

This national park is surrounded by Lake Superior and offers visitors the opportunity for solitude in the great outdoors. The park contains 165 miles of trails and 36 campgrounds, with a ton of activities and land to explore.

If you love spending time in your kayak or canoe, you’ll be delighted to paddle around the lakes of Isle Royale or even spend the day exploring the open waters of Lake Superior. While the waters may be too cold for traditional swimming, Lake Superior offers unique opportunities for scuba diving shipwrecks. Because the lake is known for its tumultuous weather, so always follow safety precautions when diving, and never dive alone.

a sea kayaker on Lake Superior
Photo Credit @ Michigan Blue Magazine

Isle Royale is also home to variety of wildlife species, including wolves and moose. Remember to enjoy the wildlife within a respectful distance to maintain safety for both you and the animals.

As you can see, once you broaden your horizons and begin looking for lesser known national parks to visit, the possibilities are endless. From paddling the river in South Carolina to climbing the icy terrain in Alaska, America is full of opportunities to explore, all while avoiding the crowds that other national parks tend to attract. This is but a small sampling of parks to add to your “bucket list” of places to visit on your camping adventures.

A Few Other Notable Parks With Small Crowds

Lesser Known National Parks To Consider For Your Next RV Trip

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