10 Unique U.S. National Parks That Will Make You Feel Like You're on Another Planet
A trip to a national park can make for a great fall vacation. In fact, it makes for a great vacation any time of the year.
Of course, if you plan on going to some of the most popular national parks in the U.S., like Yosemite National Park or Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you might end up fighting some crowds. And, while all of the 418 park sites (including 61 official national parks) in the National Park Service system are unique in their own way, there are a few underrated parks that deserve some attention for their particularly strange or peculiar features that you can’t find anywhere else.
For instance, did you know it was possible to take a trip to another planet without leaving the continental U.S.? Otherworldly parks and monuments like White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, and Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho all feature unique landscapes that you wouldn’t expect to find in the U.S. Even the slightly more well-known Death Valley National Park, famous for its peculiar sailing stones, was the original backdrop for Luke Skywalker’s family farm in Star Wars.
But beyond transporting visitors to the farthest reaches of the galaxy no passport required, some of these national park sites are record holders, including Mammoth Cave National Park, with its 400 miles of explored cave tunnels (the longest system in the world).
There are thousands of incredible hiking trails, campgrounds, forests, lakes, waterfalls, and mountain peaks throughout the country, but only at these 10 national parks and park sites can you find something fascinating, something unique, or even something downright weird.
For the purpose of this list, even though there are only 61 official national parks, we chose to include national monuments in order to provide the most diverse landscapes and features. Though there are plenty of unique spots in more popular parks like Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon National Park, we chose not to include them since they have such high visitor counts.
1. White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
You might expect to see such a bright white in the middle of Antarctica or on a tropical, sandy beach, but White Sands National Monument is neither of these things. This national park in New Mexico is home to the largest area of gypsum sand dunes, making it a truly otherworldly destination in our own backyard. The sand may look like snow, but it can definitely get hot out there. Bring water and a sled, because it’s also a popular place for sand dune sledding.
2. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
From some angles, you’d swear you’re in the middle of the Sahara while walking through Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. But if you simply find a place with a good view, you can spot a beautiful Rocky Mountain vista. Occasionally, the nearby Modano Creek will overflow and create a sort of natural “water slide” that makes this usually dry area extra fun.
The park is one of the best national parks to see a range of biodiversity, since it’s home to wetlands, lakes, and forests, in addition to sand dunes.
3. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
This national park is the site of the longest known cave system in the world, which is really apropos for a park called “Mammoth.” It’s the ideal place for an adventure lover, with about 400 miles of caves, chambers, and tunnels to explore. One of the most popular sections to visit within the caves is called Frozen Niagara, an intricate part of the caves that resembles a waterfall, petrified in time.
4. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Even though it’s one of the least-visited national parks in the country, it’s definitely one of the best national parks in Florida. There’s no accounting for Dry Tortugas National Park’s stunning beauty. Located about 70 miles from Key West, this somewhat obscure park is made up of several islands that feature glittering, blue waters and white-sand beaches, colorful marine life, and the historic Fort Jefferson, one of the largest 19th-century forts in U.S. history.
Because it’s so remote, it’s also a little difficult to get to. The only way for anyone to access the park is by boat or seaplane, but the trip is well worth it.
5. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Two of the world's most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, reside in this national park, making it one of the most unique landscapes you can find in the U.S. After the eruption of the Kilauea volcano in May 2018, the park has been partially closed for about a year, but reopened one of its best hiking trails again last spring. About two-thirds of the Kilauea Iki Trail, which extends from lush rainforest to a still, steaming crater lake (still closed), is now open to hikers with recovery projects still in the works.
If you’re looking for something a little more relaxing, there’s also a unique hotel that’s very close to the volcano’s crater.
6. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
If you’re looking for interesting red and pink rocks, you can’t do better than Bryce Canyon. The national park is known for its fascinating rock formations and hoodoos, as well as its gorgeous, starry skies at night. Some of the best places to visit in the park are the Natural Bridge (one of several arches in the park), Fairyland Canyon (where you can get eye-level with hoodoos), or any of the scenic viewpoints throughout the park.
7. Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada
It’s the hottest and driest national park in the country, but it’s also a place of beautiful desert vistas and interesting natural phenomena, like the sailing stones on the Racetrack Playa. Depending on where you are in the park the climate can be extreme — it’s home to snowy mountains, dry desert, colorful flower fields, and cool lakes. You might also recognize it as the planet of Tatooine from the original Star Wars movies.
8. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Arizona offers way more than just the Grand Canyon. This ancient forest in the middle of the desert isn’t what you’d typically expect – it’s way more interesting. The forest became fossilized over time as minerals like quartz slowly replaced the wood remains. The result is multi-colored stone logs that are too fascinating to pass up. Just don’t take home any free souvenirs – many visitors incur hefty fines by taking rocks.
9. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
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Great Basin National Park might be one of the best parks in the state of Nevada. Just a visit to the Lehman Caves or the Lexington Arch (a rare, giant, above-ground limestone arch) will have you convinced. It’s also known for having some of the darkest skies in the continental U.S., so astronomy lovers will jump at the chance to see the night sky when they visit.
10. Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, Idaho
This is probably the closest you’ll get to the moon without actually going to the moon. Or even leaving the U.S., for that matter. With its lava fields and sparse plant life, a hike through this unique park will feel like you’ve stepped onto another planet. There are many hiking trails throughout the monument, so you can see as much of it as you like. There are even some underground caves to explore. Winter is also a beautiful sight to behold, since the deep snow accents the cinder-black earth of the monument. It’s a great time to ski or go snowshoeing.