When the U.S. Virgin Islands chose a National Park Service (NPS) site for their quarter (see below) in the America the Beautiful coin collection they selected this undeveloped park, which we would rank worst of the five NPS units there. Established in 1992, it contains the only place in the United States where Christopher Columbus’s men set foot 500 years ago (although that is now underwater). The region is still recovering after Hurricanes Irma and Maria did extensive damage in 2017, including the removal of the NPS contact station here.
Mangroves, bioluminescent bay
On St. Croix Island, the NPS has exhibits about this park at Christiansted National Historic Site, including descriptions of the western hemisphere’s first violent resistance by natives to European encroachment in 1493. The park is completely undeveloped, including the archaeological sites. The must-do activity is a kayaking trip after dark to Mangrove Lagoon to see the bioluminescent organisms there. Plan your trip around a new moon when the darkness helps them show up better. Do not bother bringing your waterproof camera, since it is nearly impossible to capture on film.
The long roots of mangroves help protect the shore from storm damage and provide a safe hiding place for small fish.
None, except for guided tours of the bioluminescent bay
Access roads paved
There is no official campground, but locals have semi-permanent camps set up on the beach within Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve and other parts of the island. We found the best deals on St. Croix Island were available through Airbnb.
Big Cypress National Preserve was originally planned to be a part of Everglades National Park (established in 1947), but this wild area to the north did not gain federal protection until 1974. There are few roads and trails in the 729,000-acre preserve, which makes it ideal habitat for the endangered Florida panther. The easiest access points are along Alligator Alley (Interstate 75) or the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41). While many of the “trails” require route-finding and slogging through deep water, there are also designated ATV and canoe trails located throughout the park.
Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress Bend Trail, canoeing
Many of the baldcypress and pond cypress trees that once stood here were logged in the 1930s and 1940s. At the Kirby Storter Roadside Park, you can still see some large examples of these trees famous for their buttressed boles and root nodules, or “knees,” that stand above the high water level. We previously reported on these unique deciduous conifers at Congaree National Park in South Carolina, but here they grow right alongside tall palm trees that we typically associate with sandy beaches.
Many of the trails in the park are underwater and require slogging. Two exceptions with boardwalks are at Kirby Storter Roadside Park and Big Cypress Bend (technically within Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park).
Wherever you look, you are likely to spot an alligator or two in this wild section of south Florida. An extra photo-op can be found at the smallest post office in the United States, a former irrigation pipe shed located in Ochopee, Florida since 1953.
Mojave National Preserve is a massive 1.6-million acres of desert bounded by Interstate 15 to the north and Interstate 40 to the south. Passed by millions of commuters every year, it does not take many miles of driving to leave behind the bustling freeways for a quiet landscape. Species diversity is high here given its elevation range from 800 to 7,929 feet and its place at the intersection of three deserts: the Mojave, Great Basin, and Sonoran. Watch for desert tortoises, Mojave rattlesnakes, roadrunners, ravens, kangaroo rats, mountain lions, mule deer, and some of the 1,000 bighorn sheep that reside in the preserve.
If you are driving on I-15 between California and Nevada consider entering the preserve via the Cima Road exit, with a first stop at its gas station’s interesting waterfall urinal in the men’s restroom. From there drive south on a paved road into a dense Joshua tree forest on the gently sloping flanks of the enormous Cima Dome (an extinct volcano) and then stop at Kelso Depot where the National Park Service (NPS) operates a visitor center and museum. From there you can continue south to the beautiful Kelso Dunes or take the paved Kelbaker Road back to Interstate 15 at Baker, home of the world’s tallest thermometer.
The one-mile Rings Loop Trail has metal rings cemented into its canyon walls in some places to help you ascend and descend steep portions. Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail and the six-mile Barber Peak Loop Trail are also found in this area near the NPS campgrounds.
We love sand dunes (see our Top 10 list) and one of our favorites is the nearly 700-foot tall Kelso Dunes, which create a booming sound when the sand shifts and moisture conditions are right.
The main roads are paved, however, most of the 1,000 miles of roads are unpaved and some of them require a high-clearance vehicle, especially if you want to access neighboring Castle Mountains National Monument.
Dispersed camping is allowed throughout most of the preserve, but there are also NPS campgrounds around the Hole-in-the-Wall Ranger Station.
Authorized in 1992, Little River Canyon National Preserve covers about 14,000 acres in northeast Alabama. Elevations range from 1,900-foot tall Lookout Mountain down to 650-foot Weiss Lake reservoir, as the Little River plunges from the Cumberland Plateau. With cliffs up to 600 feet in height, this unique gorge contains several endemic species of plants and animals. Only the southern half of the preserve is readily accessible by roads, with DeSoto State Park offering the best way to see the northern section.
Little River Falls, Canyon Mouth, Graces High Falls
Start your visit at the Little River Canyon Center on Highway 35, then make the short drive to the parking area for 45-foot tall Little River Falls. From there, drive Highway 176 for 11 miles along the west side of the canyon, which has nine scenic overlooks, including one for seasonal Graces High Falls.
There are a few short trails in the preserve, many of which drop steeply from the rim to the riverside. At the southern end near the intersection of Highways 273 and 275 is Canyon Mouth, a flat trail that follows alongside the Little River. There is better hiking and even more waterfalls in nearby DeSoto State Park.
Graces High Falls is 133 feet tall, making it the tallest (aboveground) waterfall in Alabama, but it only flows in the spring and after large rain events.
None except at Canyon Mouth ($15 per day or America the Beautiful pass)
All roads paved
De Soto State Park offers camping, in addition to excellent hiking trails to several waterfalls. There are also three backcountry campsites in Little River Canyon National Preserve available from February through September with a permit.