The road less traveled

Celebrate 100 years of America's National Parks by checking out these lesser-known treasures

Lassen Peak

If you’re a fan of our country’s national parks, you’re in good company.

More than 300 million people — a number almost equal to the entire U.S. population — enjoy the National Park system every year. And 2016 is a special year, because the National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

The words “national parks” often conjure up images of soaring landscapes and dramatic terrain, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Among the more than 400 destinations in the park system are smaller, lesser-known sites around the country that have their own special appeal.

They offer magnificent scenery, overlooked chapters of American history and intriguing learning experiences.

City of Rocks National Reserve

City of Rocks National Reserve (Idaho)

Westward Ho! In 1849, an artist creating pictures of the Overland Trail leading to the California Gold Rush passed through a region of dramatic granite spires in Idaho that he dubbed City of Rocks. When a national reserve was established there 140 years later, the name endured. The outcroppings soar above a sagebrush plain to create an otherworldly landscape.

This Idaho site — an hour and a half southeast of Twin Falls, not far from the Utah border — also recalls the westward migration of early pioneers. Deep ruts cut into the ground by wagon wheels remain visible today. Inscriptions written on large rocks still bear the names of hardy souls who undertook the treacherous journey during the nation’s westward expansion.


Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve (Colorado)

One of the largest and finest stretches of sand in the U.S. can be found in landlocked Colorado. The tallest dunes in North America are the central attraction at this destination, about four hours south of Denver.

Topping them all is the spectacular Star Dune, which peaks at 750 feet.

The diverse landscape also includes rolling grasslands, wetlands, aspen forests and alpine lakes. Visitors are allowed to hike or even sand sled on the dunes and — when summer sand temperatures reach nearly 150 degrees — can cool off by splashing in Medano Creek or exploring the nearby shaded forests and a waterfall.


Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park (California)

Popping mudpots and pools of boiling water are among the geological formations that create the landscape of this gem, two and a half hours northwest of Reno and an hour east of Redding, Calif.

Jagged peaks tell the story of the area’s eruptive past. All four types of volcanoes found throughout the world — plug dome, cinder cone, shield and composite — are found within the park. Gentle trails and scenic overlooks provide access into, and views over, the most dramatic areas.


Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument (Colorado and Utah)

Some 150 million years ago, a much larger river in what now is Utah attracted 10 different types of dinosaurs to its banks. Their bones remain embedded in rock at this site, about three hours east of Salt Lake City.

Most are fossils of Sauropods — high, long-necked plant eaters, which were the biggest creatures ever to walk on earth. Other specimens range from large to small.

Rock petroglyphs remain from 800 to 1,200 years ago when the Fremont Indians left their marks. Near them stand remains of homesteads of settlers who arrived during the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Theodore Roosevelt Island

Theodore Roosevelt Island (Washington, D.C.)

A lot of credit for the National Park system goes to President Theodore Roosevelt. During his stint as chief executive (1901–1909), Teddy pushed through legislation that established five national parks, along with a bill, which empowered presidents who followed him to designate historic and other landmarks as national monuments.

His conservation and preservation efforts are honored on this 91-acre outcrop in the Potomac River in the heart of D.C.

Native Americans once used the land as a fishing destination, and a regiment of black union troops encamped there during the Civil War.

Visitors today can learn about the legacy of our 26th president at a memorial that includes his statue and most memorable quotes. Teddy would be delighted to stroll along a boardwalk that leads through the quiet marsh and forest setting.


Adams National Historical Park

Adams National Historical Park (Massachusetts)

Many decades after early Spanish explorers encountered families of Puebloan people in the Southwest, another family helped establish and lead the new nation that was born along the eastern seaboard. A house in Quincy, Mass., named Peace Field served as home to John Adams, John Quincy Adams and subsequent generations of the famous family from 1788 to 1927.

The house, now preserved in this park, about 10 miles south from the heart of modern-day downtown Boston, was originally purchased in 1787 by John Adams, then the minister to Great Britain, who later served as vice president and second president of the United States (1797–1801).

John Quincy won fame as a diplomat, member of Congress, Secretary of State and the sixth president (1825–1829). Furnishings in the house include items acquired by each generation of the family.


Navajo National Monument

Navajo National Monument (Arizona)

It’s the prehistoric Puebloan people who are recalled in the cliff dwelling here — four and a half hours north of Phoenix — with 13th-century dwellings, two accessible to the public, perched in natural sandstone alcoves on cliffs overlooking wide canyons.

The structures include roof beams, handholds and footholds, and other original architectural elements. A museum displays pottery, tools and other items of various Native American groups who took up residence in the Southwest, including the Navajo, where they still reside today.


Learn more

For information about the National Park Service — including famous and not-so-famous sites — call 202-208-6843 or see

Victor Block is a veteran travel writer and has contributed to numerous national publications.