Three Lesser Known National Parks of the West that You Should Visit
By Jordan Vaughn & Eva Griffith
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the National Park gems: Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain. During our travels visiting all the National Parks in the lower 48, we have come across a few lesser-known parks that are absolutely worth the trip. Here are three worth visiting.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado
With the Grand Canyon and Zion Canyon to compete with, you don’t hear much about this park. However, Black Canyon is so narrow it makes its ~2,000 foot depth look much harsher and deeper. At one point the canyon rims are only 1,100 feet apart, meaning John Daly could drive a golf ball from rim to rim even after a few of his signature drinks. Drive to the viewpoint for Painted Wall, a 2,000 foot wall marked by streaks of two different colors of rock.
Then take the East Portal Road to drive down to the Gunnison River, or if you are up for it, hike the Gunnison Trail down to the river. This steep trail is complete with an 80-ft chain to keep you from taking the “super-fast” route to the river. The park is only one of seven of the big National Parks to be designated an International Dark Sky park so be sure to hang outside of your tent past sunset for an amazing view of the stars. We did a night hike to Tomichi point and were lucky enough to get a great view of Mars.
Great Sand Dunes, Colorado
The tallest dunes in North America, and you can sand board down the side of them. About two hours and 45 minutes southwest of Colorado Springs, you can find these aptly named dunes tucked up against the base of the Rocky Mountains. Piñon Flats Campground has an awesome view overlooking the dunes, and is close enough to hike to them from your camp.
We opted to head towards the mountains to find some tall dunes to sand board down, away from the crowds. The board (which you can rent at Oasis just outside of the park for $20/day) is much quicker than I was anticipating, so if you have dreams of being the next Shawn White this is right up your alley. Hiking up the dunes is no small task, so I’d recommend wearing a lightweight pair of shoes. If your dogs are barking, resist the urge to take off your shoes, as the sand gets extremely hot around noon.
Great Basin, Nevada
This is one of the more remote parks we have visited. We ended up driving a little over an hour away to Ely for groceries, as the convenient store just outside of the park in Baker offered little more than your typical gas station does (you know we don’t play around when it comes to good bacon). Entering Great Basin at around 5,000 feet means you get little relief from the 100-degree desert heat. However, after a twelve-mile cruise up Wheeler Peak Drive, we were sitting pretty at around 10,400 feet and 70 degrees.
For this reason I highly encourage staying at Wheeler Peak Campground. There are only 37 campsites here, and they are spread out under the towering Wheeler Peak. Up here you will also find quick access to the Alpine Lakes Trailhead. We hiked this 2.7-mile loop to find two beautiful alpine lakes, Stella and Teresa. We also passed by some wild turkeys and multiple deer along the way.
The great thing about the National Parks is there is always beauty to be found. Next time you are planning a trip to the parks, don’t overlook some of these lesser-known spots!