When most of us think of visiting our national parks, we conjure up images of the larger, more frequently visited parks: Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon. These larger parks can span millions of acres, and you may feel overwhelmed by their sheer size.
Smaller parks can help focus your attention, especially if you’re short on time. These small parks may be off the radar for many travelers, but they offer a wide range of exciting activities.
1. Gateway Arch National Park
Ride the tram to the top
As the young United States entered the 19th century, President Thomas Jefferson took a bold step and accepted France’s offer to acquire what is now known as the Louisiana Purchase. The following year he commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore this vast newly acquired area.
The slender and striking 630-foot Gateway Arch – imagine a 63-story skyscraper – symbolizes this historic event as the opening or gateway to westward expansion. The park, at just 91 acres, is the smallest national park and is located in downtown St. Louis alongside the Mississippi River.
The most popular feature of the park is the tram ride to the top. This 4 minute drive takes visitors to the observation area and on a clear day you can see up to 30 miles away. Allow 45 to 60 minutes for the tour. Reservations are recommended during the busy summer months.
While the tram ride is a key feature of the park, be sure to check out the walking tour of the Explorers’ Garden, an area displaying many of the plants discovered on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
All in all, you should allow 2 to 3 hours to enjoy the park.
Pro tip: The tram cars are comfortable. So if you’re claustrophobic, be sure to check out the model car in the west entrance lobby to make sure you’re comfortable in the cramped space. The drive to the top is not wheelchair accessible but can be visited with a virtual journey.
2. Hot Springs National Park
Who doesn’t enjoy a soak in a hot spring? Treat yourself to spa therapy while visiting a national park. At Bathhouse Row, visitors can enjoy an authentic opportunity to go to the baths. The Buckstaff Bathhouse has offered bathing experiences since it opened in 1912, while the newer Quapaw Bathhouse offers more modern day spa options.
The human history of Hot Springs National Park is rich with stories of Native Americans who came to and lived at the springs. Europeans later settled here in the early 1700s, and African Americans immigrated later, but were subject to Jim Crow segregation laws, which for decades restricted where they could live and work. Today, the city of Hot Springs reflects the diversity of that history.
Although it officially became the 18th national park in 1921, Hot Springs was declared a federal reserve in 1832 by President Andrew Jackson. Although Arkansas has eight National Park Service locations, Hot Springs is the state’s only national park.
While swimming is the most popular activity in the park, there are 26 miles of trails ranging from easy walks to challenging hikes. One of the most popular hikes, according to park ranger Kate, is the Goat Rock Trail off the North Mountain Loop Road. The trail is rated easy to moderate and offers impressive views from Goat Rock Overlook. Treat yourself to a leisurely half-day to enjoy the park.
Pro tip: Reservations are recommended at the bathhouses, and not all offer online booking, so you may need to call ahead.
3. Indiana Dunes National Park
One of the nation’s newest national parks stretches 15 miles along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Formerly known as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the 15,000-acre site was designated as the 61st national park in 2019.
Yes, the dunes are the main attraction and the reason most visitors come to the park. The dunes – several over 100 feet tall – are the result of thousands of years of prevailing wind/wave action of Lake Michigan. This dune landscape creates a rich mosaic of diverse ecosystems including swamp, dune, forest and grassland areas, providing a dazzling array of habitats for both plants and animals.
The park has many other attractions including
- excellent birding during spring and autumn migrations
- 60 km of interconnected cycle paths
- Swimming in Lake Michigan
- 50 miles of trails ranging from easy to moderate and from 1 to 8 miles in length
According to park ranger Nikky, the Great Marsh Trail is one of the park’s most popular and widely used hiking trails. The 1.4 mile trail is rated easy and offers views of a large wetland complex. It also features an accessible paved trail that leads to a scenic viewpoint. Give yourself a full day to enjoy the sound of the waves crashing on the beach and take in the natural beauty of the park.
Pro tip: The visitor center is always my first choice when visiting a national park. It’s the place to get your bearings and see professionally designed exhibits that showcase the parks’ themes. In the Indiana Dunes, the Dorothy Buell Visitor Center is a joint building with the State of Indiana Tourism Site. These types of partnerships are becoming more common as budgets shrink and visitor numbers increase. At the center, friendly staff will answer your questions and provide you with the latest information on ranger programs and other park news and activities.
4. Congaree National Park
This 26,000-acre park in central South Carolina preserves the critical habitat of the Southeast’s largest intact lowland native forest. Huge specimens of native bald cypress and tupelo dominate this temperate forest. People have lived here for over 13,000 years – from Native Americans to Spanish explorers and escaped slaves. The park’s mission is to tell their stories of finding refuge and making a home amidst the region’s diverse landscapes. Park rangers and volunteers are available year-round for guided hikes and informative talks about this history.
With over half of the park being a designated wilderness area with few developed hiking trails, there are plenty of opportunities to explore beyond the wilderness boundaries. Since most of the park is subject to regular flooding, several boardwalks are available during high tide. An excellent trail launch is the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop, which takes you on an elevated section through old growth hardwood forest. There are benches and the path is barrier-free.
Due to its floodplain geography, canoeing and kayaking are popular activities in the park. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned paddler, you’ll enjoy exploring miles of meandering waterways along the Congaree River and Cedar Creek watersheds. This is an excellent way to take a leisurely look at the many species of birds and other wildlife that thrive here.
Pro Tips: Canoe and kayak rentals are available near Columbia City. Also check out our Beginner’s Guide to Kayaking and these 10 must-haves for your next kayaking adventure.
Congaree National Park is only 14 miles east to west and 5 miles north to south; You can see most servings in a day or less.
5. Pinnacles National Park
Spot California condors
Pinnacles is a park with a long geological legacy. It is located in Central California midway between I-5 and Monterey and is adjacent to the San Andreas Fault. Geologists believe its unique development began about 23 million years ago – when the park was 17 miles or more southeast of its current location due to movement along the fault. There were violent eruptions of molten rock, and over time erosion shaped the landscape we see today.
The high peaks (spikes), gigantic boulders and deep caves created by these natural forces have created perfect conditions for today’s climbers. In fact, the park offers many challenging opportunities and attracts climbers looking to test their skills on a variety of routes, from beginner to expert.
Bird watchers will enjoy the many sighting opportunities the park offers, including a good chance of seeing an endangered California condor – the largest land bird in North America, with a wingspan of up to 3.5 metres. The history of condors is remarkable as they have grown from just 6 wild birds in 1995 to over 300 wild condors living in several western states today. Considered one of the world’s rarest birds, these magnificent condors can often be seen from the Bench Trail near Pinnacles Campground.
Pro Tip: Ask for more detailed information on condor sightings when you stop at the visitor center.