Saturday is the 102nd birthday of our National Parks Service. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson solidified the United States’ commitment to preserving this country’s amazing natural resources for generations to come.
Everyone knows the big name parks like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone, but with over 417 parks in the system, there really is something for everyone. Some of the most amazing things to be seen are well off the beaten path, and not something that everybody gets a chance to see.
Here are 6 of the coolest hidden gems of the National Parks System:
Hidden Ice Caverns and Lakes of Mount Rainier
Towering over 14,000 feet above the Cascades and near Seattle, Mount Rainier National Park is home to an ice-capped volcano visible from up to 100 miles away. Hidden beneath the frozen caps is an otherworldly secret. Heat from the volcano warms the rocks under the ice and melts the bottom layers. This creates surreal caverns, streams, and lakes underneath a ceiling of clear blue ice. Unfortunately, getting to these caves is extremely difficult, and only professionals on scientific expeditions are allowed to go. But hey, that’s good motivation to become a scientist!
An Untouched Piece of Southern California
We all know California has some of the best beaches in the world. The problem is, they’re always overrun with tourists and locals alike. Thankfully, the National Park Service has protected the Channel Islands National Park as a sanctuary to preserve what might just be the last untouched piece of oceanfront SoCal real estate. Hop on a short boat ride from Los Angeles and walk pristine beaches in solitude, kayak alongside sea lions, and explore the wonders of California’s kelp forests, all before making it home for dinner.
The World’s Tallest Tree
The Redwood trees in California are the largest trees on Earth, towering hundreds of feet above the forest floor. Twelve years ago, on National Park Service Founder’s Day 2006, the world’s tallest known tree was discovered by environmentalists Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor far off the beaten path in a remote section of Redwoods National Park. While the remote location is kept a secret to protect the 380-foot-tall tree, an equally impressive specimen, the General Sherman Tree, is much easier to reach and is accessible to the public.
Where Lava and Ice Meet
Lucky winter visitors to Lava Bed National Monument in Northern California have the chance to see one of the most unique sites in the world: Crystal Ice Cave, a place where lava and ice meet. Water seeping down into these hollow lava tubes has frozen over the course of thousands of years to create spectacular ice formations. Hanging from the ceiling like chandeliers and growing up out of the ground like a garden of glass, these ice formations are like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Make sure to get a permit for this amazing excursion if you’re planning a trip to Lava Beds during wintertime.
Arctic Sand Dunes
Kobuk Valley is the least visited of all the National Parks, but it’s far from the least exciting. The only way to access this extremely remote park is by private bush plane. Once you’re dropped off, it wouldn’t be uncommon for you to not see anyone else during your entire stay. The park is home to not only migrating herds of thousands of caribou but also the largest sand dunes in the Arctic. Take a walk across these otherworldly dunes by the light of the midnight sun for an experience you’ll never forget.
The World’s Rarest Fish… In the World’s Hottest Place
The world’s rarest fish actually lives in a water-filled hole in Death Valley National Park, the hottest place on Earth. More than 100 miles to the closest river which flows to the sea, the Devil’s Hole Pupfish truly does seem like a fish out of water. The tiny fish live at the entrance to a vast underground and waterlogged cave system which is at least 300 feet deep. The cave is just a part of a much larger aquifer that traps all the rain which falls across much of Nevada, Utah, and California underground. What’s weird is that whenever a large earthquake happens somewhere on Earth, the water at Devil’s Hole sloshes around like a wave pool. Who knows what other rare and unique creatures are hidden in this underwater world locked away beneath the desert.
The National Parks Service does a great job at making many of these amazing places accessible to all. An annual access pass to all National Parks is only $80, though many parks don’t even charge an entrance fee. If you want to visit one of the more popular destinations, but are on a budget, free admission days are planned for National Public Lands Day (September 22) and Veteran’s Day (November 11).