The Road Less Traveled; National Parks Worth Seeing


Snorkeling near coral reefs in the warm Pacific Ocean and hiking on trails that wind through stretches of deserted white-sand beaches and over rocky sea cliffs are two activities that top the list for many park visitors. Wildlife watching is also a must in National Park of American Samoa. Rich in biodiversity, the park is home to extraordinary animals that can be found in no other national park, including a large population of Samoan fruit bats (also known as flying foxes). The park's coral reefs harbor an impressive diversity of fish -- more than 890 species.

There are just two weekly flights that depart from the United States (Honolulu) to Pago Pago, the closest airport to the park. Other flights are available from Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. The park's limited accessibility naturally means very few tourists. In 2009, National Park of American Samoa received just under 3,300 recreational visits.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon is part of the Grand Staircase, a scenic geological region of southern Utah that also includes Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. While Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks see millions of visitors annually, Bryce Canyon by far is the least traveled of the three. Bryce welcomes less than 1.5 million visitors each year, which pales in comparison to the Grand Canyon's 5 million and Zion's roughly 3 million annual visitors.

Although Bryce is less popular than the other Grand Staircase parks, it offers equally impressive canyons and geological formations. The park is studded with hundreds of "hoodoos," fantastical, spiraling rock formations that pepper the area's dramatic canyons. Visitors to Bryce can hike the park's scenic trails, or travel the trails on horseback, past legions of hoodoos and bristlecone pines, and glimpse jaw-dropping vistas from the canyon rim.

At night, Bryce Canyon is an ideal site for stargazing. Due to the park's high elevation and low light pollution, it's possible to see more than 7,500 stars twinkling in the night sky. In fact, Bryce Canyon's stargazing conditions are comparable to those at world-class astronomical research locations. From spring through fall, Bryce Canyon rangers host enchanting guided full-moon hikes, as well as astronomy programs during which visitors can peer at planets and stars through high-tech telescopes. Both activities are free.

Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland and Virginia

Tired of packed summer beaches? Head to Assateague Island National Seashore, where you'll share the sand with far fewer crowds -- plus wild horses, shorebirds and a host of other non-human coastal inhabitants.

Assateague Island National Seashore is an undeveloped barrier island located off the coasts of Virginia and Maryland that's best known for its galloping herds of wild horses. In addition to the horses, an abundance of animals can be spotted on land or in the ocean, especially within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, located at the southern end of Assateague Island. Bring some binoculars and keep your eyes peeled for red foxes, otters, Asian elk, bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales and tens of thousands of migratory shorebirds.

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