Enjoy these lesser-known national parks
Monday, June 03, 2019
We constantly hear about record attendance at our national parks. This is great, since it means more people are enjoying the outdoors. But it is difficult to really enjoy a park that is full of people with long lines for everything, including hiking trails.
There were 81 parks with over 1,000,000 visits in 2017. Instead of these popular parks, I enjoy visiting the lesser-known national parks where I can still get some privacy and enjoy the peace and quiet.
Here are some of my favorites with both historical significance and/or great hiking. All of the visitor numbers are from 2017.
Geronimo’s son was kidnapped by the U.S. Army and died in captivity.
Arizona: Fort Bowie National Historic Site — 8,491 visits
This park in Arizona had less than 9,000 visits in all of 2017! The park requires a 13-mile drive out from the nearest small town of Bowie on a road that is paved until the last mile. After parking, you walk 1.5 miles over hills and along washes to reach the fort.
However, this is part of the experience. There are displays along the way giving the history of the area, including ruins of a Butterfield Coach station (the trail is from St. Louis to San Francisco), a memorial for Geronimo’s son, and sites of different attacks where the Chiricahua Apaches fought U.S. soldiers.
The park includes a small museum and ruins of the fort built to protect an important pass. This is my favorite of the lesser-known parks.
Inside the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
Alabama: Tuskegee Institute Historic Site — 20,407 visits; Tuskegee Airmen Historic Site — 39,322 visits
It amazed me to hear that these two parks had so few visitors. The history revealed at these two parks is fascinating. The Tuskegee Institute Historic Site contains history from both Booker T. Washington (who started the black college) and George Washington Carver (the scientist and inventor). In both cases, much of their work involved “making do” with what they had in very inventive ways.
Only four miles away is the Tuskegee Airmen Historic Site. While we had heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, the displays go into more detail. Since whites didn’t want to work with blacks during WWII, a whole unit of blacks was trained as pilots, navigators, mechanics, and all the other jobs required for the group. After our visit, we watched the movie “Red Tails” to learn a bit more.
Arizona: Tumacacori National Historical Park — 46,308 visits
This museum and mission discuss three different cultures within the neighboring Native Americans; Pimas (O’odham), Yaqui, and Apaches. Each reacted differently when Europeans came.
The mission was built by the Jesuits in 1691, but Franciscans were assigned the mission by the Spanish King Charles III in 1767 when he felt threatened by the Jesuits. There is lots of history of older cultures for just one stop!
New Mexico: El Morro National Monument — 59,013 visits
For hundreds of years this was a major stop for those traveling in the area since there is a steady source of water here and a major trail ran through the area. A pool of water is formed by rain and snow melt draining off the large rocks of the sandstone bluff.
As the travelers rested, the soft sandstone rock walls became a record of the visits with over 2,000 drawings, signatures and messages in Inscription Rock. The travelers included Ancestral Puebloans (pre-1400), Spaniards (1600-1700s), and settlers from the 1800s.
I was amazed at the quality of the “graffiti”. This was not teenagers scribbling but people who took their time to record their stopover at this rock. A trail takes you on top the mesa where there are pueblo ruins of the Ancestral Puebloans.
Arizona: Chiricahua National Monument — 63,132 visits
Bryce Canyon is famous for its colorful hoodoos. But since that park has over 2.5 million visitors, the gray hoodoos at Chiricahua can be an appealing alternative. First, it is pronounced cheer-i-cow-ah.
The park has a scenic drive along with several excellent hikes where you can walk among the rock pinnacles, which were formed from eroded rhyolite rock from a volcanic explosion 27 million years ago.
Many of the formations have names like Thor’s Hammer. Dry camping for RVs less than 29’ is available at the park.
Along the trail at Ninety Six Historic Site.
South Carolina: Ninety Six National Historic Site — 113,103 visits
The town of Ninety Six was built at the crossroads of early roads. The history of the name of the town is hazy. However, it was the site of a siege and battle during the Revolutionary War.
While the hike here is short (one mile), the trail is quite interesting with signs, earthworks, and restored structures. The battle here was basically between American Patriots and American Loyalists.
Given that most of the Revolutionary War battle sites are farther north, this is a fascinating stop when in South Carolina.
Hiking in lava!
El Malpais National Monument — 161,526 visits
Hiking at El Malpais is completely different from anything I’d done before. There is no easily found path because you are walking on 3,000-year-old lava. There are cracks and gaps that you have to step or jump across.
The path is marked by piles of rocks (cairns). The goal is to keep at least one in sight but somehow we missed a part of the path when we visited. At the same park you can also see sandstone cliffs including a large arch. There is quite a mixture of geology in one park.
Arkansas: Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site — 170,413 visits
Little Rock Central High School is still a school, but the visitor center takes you back to 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education had overturned segregated schools. The Little Rock school board decided to integrate this school in 1957 with the “Little Rock Nine.”
The Arkansas National Guard was called and the governor asked for protests. TV crews showed up. President Eisenhower had to send in federal troops to uphold the law.
The park describes the abuse the students handled their first year. On the lighter side, you cancheck out the gas station that was the unofficial press center during the standoff.
Climbing a ladder for a peek into the cavate.
New Mexico: Bandelier National Monument — 209,141 visits
Bandelier is a definite treasure. The Pueblo people lived here from 1200-1400 CE. The trails take you along ruins and allow you to climb ladders (some can be scary if you are scared of heights) in and out of the cliff dwellings.
The soft tuff from volcanic eruptions allowed people to enlarge natural openings and to carve petroglyphs in the walls. The soft material also made for trails that deepened over time. On one trail, the paths are up to two feet deep. The RV camping is dry camping but quite gorgeous.
Texas: Guadalupe Mountains National Park — 225,257 visits
RV camping is really just a parking lot at this national park, but the trails make it worthwhile. One of my favorite hikes is here. Devil’s Hall Trail has a satisfying ending with areas called Hiker’s Staircase and Devil’s Hall.
However, it is the hike out and back that is spectacular, particularly in the fall with the colors of the leaves contrasting with the white rocks and blue sky. The daylong Guadalupe Peak Trail is extremely challenging, but hikers who have completed this hike have found the views stunning.
The view at the end of Lost Mine Trail.
Texas: Big Bend National Park — 440,276 visits
While there are more visitors here, you have to understand this park is BIG. Driving from the campgrounds to some of the trails can take 1.5 hours. Given that it is a day’s drive from basically anything, plan to stay at least five days here and more, if possible.
The hikes are amazing with a full range of lengths and difficulty ratings. Our favorites were: Hot Springs Trail (yes, you can soak in this hot springs), Lost Mine Trail (amazing view), and Santa Elena Canyon Trail (cliffs along the Rio Grande). The stars are also spectacular here. There is both dry camping and sites with hook-ups at this park.
Take the less-traveled road by visiting the lesser-known national parks and fully enjoy the experience of getting out there.
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