These national and state parks don't get as much attention as others, but we think they're among the best parks in the United States.
By Robin Hoffman
You might think it’s a bit incongruous to call a 10,000-square-mile national forest a “hidden” gem. But this country is so big, even a scenic wonder larger than seven of our 50 states can disappear into the vastness.
When we launched our Hidden Gems series last year, we gave our photographers three criteria: The places had to be public, beautiful and not among the 100 most-visited national parks. It’s yet another way of noting that nature’s beauty surrounds each and every one of us—if you know where to look.
And many of the gems in this issue do require a bit of looking. Most of them, including Massachusetts-size Chugach National Forest, are well off the beaten path. Some are also hidden in plain sight. If you’ve traveled much with a spouse, you’ll recognize the conversation my wife, Kathy, and I shared as we drove across the West Texas plains looking for Palo Duro Canyon.
“You must’ve taken a wrong turn. There’s nothing here.”
“There weren’t any turns, and the sign said Palo Duro Canyon.”
“Well, there’s nothing here. Maybe the sign was wrong.”
“Wrong? Like Texas forgot where its canyon was? Or Panhandle bandits put it up to lure unwary tourists?”
“I didn’t say that—but there’s nothing here.”
“I know there’s nothing here! What do you want…” And we’re suddenly staring into a 120-mile-long, 800-foot-deep geological wonder that you literally can’t see from a quarter-mile away.
One of our gems was even hidden on purpose, though no one knows for sure why. I’ve written before about the eerily profound sense of wonder and loss I felt standing in the ruins of the Cliff Palace of Mesa Verde (below). So imagine how Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason must’ve felt when they first glimpsed this scene through a snowstorm in 1888 as they searched for lost cattle.
With a little imagination, that’s how you’ll feel when you visit these uncrowded yet spectacular places. As far as we’re concerned, America is still waiting to be discovered—and always will be. For more photos and information on each of these hidden gems, click the links below.