Not every destination can be among the “most popular” or “most visited.” And, frankly, that’s a good thing. While the most visited attractions and destinations are that way for a reason—convenience, incredible offerings, etc.—there are distinct advantages to exploring places that aren’t directly in the spotlight. In fact, in our experience, we find that if you can sacrifice a bit of convenience, the rewards you gain from visiting “off the top 10” destinations are significant.
This year, while we are celebrating the National Park Service’s centennial and offering “recipes” for you to visit the top 10 national parks, we also want to provide some suggestions for incredible national parks a bit further down the list.
- A crazy amount of waterfalls. So many waterfalls, in fact, that the region is called the Cascades. When it comes right down to it, the park has two dominant features: high mountains and water. Lots and lots of water. Glaciers. Lakes. Rivers. Ponds. You get the idea. And when you pair lots of water with towering peaks, you get lots of waterfalls—fierce, crushing, and stunningly pretty waterfalls.
- It’s a hiker’s paradise. North Cascades National Park has a hike (or two or three) for just about everyone. If you are into dizzying alpine trails blanketed in wildflowers with views of topaz glacial lakes, this park is for you. If you prefer dark, dense forest trails that drip with moss and amble along rugged creeks, this park is also for you. If you want to take just a few steps from your car to see towering waterfalls plummet thousands of feet, you guessed it, this park is also for you.
- It’s surprisingly easy to get to. North Cascades National Park is just about 100 miles away from Downtown Seattle, so it makes for a wonderful day trip from the city. If you want to spend a few days in the park (did we mention the hikes and waterfalls?), you can spend the night in nearby Mazama or Winthrop—two charming small towns that are definitely worth a visit.
- There are very few people. If you fancy the idea of having a national park to yourself, this is your park. Given how close the park is to Seattle, you might think that it is choking on tourists. You would be very wrong. In fact, with just shy of 21,000 visitors in 2015, North Cascades National Park is one of the least visited parks in all of the National Park System. For comparison, Gates of the Arctic National Park had around 11,000 visitors in 2015, and it is nearly impossible to get to.
Viewfinder Tip: The beloved Mazama Country Store, just 20 miles from the park’s east entrance and most popular hikes, is a great spot to grab a fresh pastry, hiker’s lunch, or post-hike beer.
- Mind boggling biodiversity. Okay, so the word biodiversity might not seem that soul-stirring to you, but listen to this: North Cascades National Park is home to more nearly 1,700 vascular plant species (i.e. green plants with vascular systems). Double that number if you want to include non-vascular and fungal species (mosses, mushrooms, etc.). There is something almost spiritual about being surrounded by such an astonishing variety of life.
- Big dams creating a lot of power. North Cascades National Park and its immediate surroundings are home to three major dams—Gorge Dam, Diablo Dam, and Ross Dam—that generate around 90 percent of the power used by Seattle residents. Let’s set aside the conversation about environmental impact and just focus for a moment on the engineering marvel of these dams. For example, Diablo Dam was the tallest dam in the world when it was constructed in 1921.
- Warm weather snowshoeing. If you like winter sports like snowshoeing, but prefer to do them in warmer weather with lots of sunshine, you are in luck. The main road that runs through North Cascades National Park, Highway 20, is closed in the winter because of the crazy amount of snow that the mountains get. So when the road opens in the spring, when the weather begins to warm, the snowshoeing is outstanding.
Which lesser visited National Park do you feel more people should know about?