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America’s Most Underrated National Parks

America’s Most Underrated National ParksAmerica’s Most Underrated National Parks

Our family has had the great privilege of visiting many national parks, including the most popular ones. We've enjoyed well-known parks like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, and others. Additionally, we've achieved our goal of seeing those national parks that are just as interesting, but often underrated by the public and lesser known. Here are our choices for the best underestimated or widely unknown national parks around the country:

American Samoa

My father first visited beautiful American Samoa in early 1945 as a crewman on a U.S. Navy ship. Three of the territory's islands, Tutuila, Ofu-Olosega, and Ta'u, were dedicated as a national park in 1988. American Samoa is nearly 5,000 miles and a 10-hour flight from Los Angeles, but its sunny beaches, South Sea island tranquility, and exotic wildlife make it worth the journey.

There is no fee to visit this park. There are hotels on the islands, and the National Park Service also provides a home stay option in which visitors stay with a local family.

Dry Tortugas - Florida

On a family vacation to Key West, Florida, about five years ago, we boarded a tourist boat headed 70 miles west to Dry Tortugas National Park. It offered natural, uncrowded beaches; turtle nests; and coves famed as pirate hangouts in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The entrance fee is $5 per person for visitors 17 and older -- this covers up to a seven-day visit. Primitive camping is available (think tent on a beach) for $3 and you can truly have a desert island-type experience.

Isle Royale - Michigan

Isle Royale National Park is on the largest island in Lake Superior between Michigan, Minnesota, and Ontario, Canada. On a recent family visit, we embarked on a short boat trip to Hidden Lake Trailhead. We went ashore for a ranger-guided hike up to Lookout Louise, where we could see a herd of moose grazing on the Canadian shore.

The park has a user fee of $4 per person per day. A season pass is available for $50, and a season boat pass is $150. The Rock Harbor Lodge provides rooms and cottages in this rustic setting.

Great Basin - Nevada

Another underrated national park is Nevada's Great Basin National Park. In the eastern part of the state near the border with Utah, it's a beautiful natural area far away from the glittering lights of Las Vegas and Reno. Looming up nearby on 3-mile-high Wheeler Peak, there's glacial snow and centuries-old pine trees. Away from city glare and pollution, visitors can look up at the perfectly clear night skies. There is no entry fee for the park. There are campsites available for $6 per night.

Valley Forge National Historical Park - Pennsylvania

Over the years, our family has visited Pennsylvania's Valley Forge National Historical Park many times. It was just a short drive from our Philadelphia home, and we enjoyed the historic grounds. Every American schoolkid knows about the cold winter of 1777-78 when General Washington camped at Valley Forge with his troops, and now the site is a national park.

We scheduled our visits when there were reenactment events, including volunteers in period uniforms and costumes of the era, and reenactments of battles and general camp life. Each June, there is a big recreation of the march-out of the Continental Army -- in 2012 it's on June 16 and well worth a visit.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - North Dakota

For us, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a very underrated national park, yet one of the best for photographers. The striking sunsets and dramatically eroded North Dakota badlands along with herds of free-roaming buffalo and bighorn sheep brought us lasting images we still treasure. We were absolutely astounded by the unspoiled beauty, abundant wildlife, and many hiking trails.

Fees are $10 per vehicle for a seven-day pass. Entry is $5 per person for visitors coming by foot, bike, or horse. Many campsites are available, including campsites for horses. Backcountry camping is also permitted; visitors must get a free permit.

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve - Idaho

This Idaho wonderland was formed over more than 600 square miles through eons of eruptions and lava flow. The latest eruption at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is reported to have happened 2,000 years ago. Visitors can see the still-flowing lava seeping from little cones out onto the rocky ground. The experience is as close to a moonwalk as you can get on our planet.

Admission to the park is $8 per car or $4 per person for hikers and bicyclists. Children under 15 are free. Campsites are also available at the park for $10 per night.

Freddy Sherman has been vacationing in America's national parks for 30 years -- first as a kid with his family, now as a travel writer and world traveler. So far, he has visited over 15 national parks around the country. Freddy is the editor of the travel blog You can follow him on Twitter @thefredsherman.

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