In 2009, more than 285 million people visited our national park system, up 3.9 percent from the previous year.
According to CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg, the sluggish economy, coupled with moderate gas prices, can be partly credited for the uptick in national park travel. Fee-free days also sparked some interest among travelers (the next free entrance days are Sept. 25 and Nov. 11).
Sure, people are visiting the Great Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon but, says Greenberg, there are many more options than the best-known parks.
There are 58 national parks in the country, and there's actually a grand total of 392 units in the national park system, including national seashores, preserves, recreation areas, and national wild and scenic rivers.
The real key to enjoying great national parks is to bypass the overcrowded (and some would say overstressed), most popular parks, and heading to some of the lesser-known, least-visited sites. That's where the great surprises (and better experiences) can be found:
Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colo.
Often described as a mini-Grand Canyon, Black Canyon is a steep, deep and narrow spectacle featuring some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth ... nearly 2 billion years old!
At its greatest depths, the canyon plunges 2,722 feet; its narrowest width at the rim is 1,100 feet, and the total length is 53 miles. It's the tenth least-visited national park in the country, but is hugely popular among extreme climbers and kayakers who consider it a feat to traverse the thundering river.
But that doesn't mean it isn't accessible to regular folks. The park boasts plenty of camping and hiking trails, and there are several routes that take you to the bottom of the canyon. Even non-extreme athletes can climb down the canyon, spend some time trout fishing and then "scramble" back up over the course of a day.
If you'd prefer to avoid climbing altogether, it's possible to drive to the bottom along the East Portal Road. Keep in mind, this is a steep drive with 16 percent grades and every curve is a hairpin, but it's definitely accessible to those who prefer to get the bottom without hiking.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colo.
Great Sand Dunes has perhaps one of the most unique views you'll find in America: huge, rolling sand dunes and the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains in full sight.
The dune field itself is about 30 square miles, and while there are no designated hiking trails, activities abound. If the seasonal creek is flowing over the sand, expect to come across some very muddy children. Or you can go adventurous and try out sand sledding, skiing or boarding -- using pretty much the same equipment as you would on snow.
One cool feature about this park is that it offers dune wheelchairs with rugged wheels, one for adults and one for kids, to better navigate the sand dunes during their visit.
Additional programming usually takes place usually between May and September (and by special request in winter) with ranger-led lectures and nature walks, plus performances and programs in the outdoor amphitheater.
Lassen Volcanic, Calif.
Although Lassen Volcanic National Park is only about about 4.5 hours north of San Francisco and 3 hours from Sacramento, you'll feel as if you've stepped into another world. Bubbling pools, mud pots, and fumeroles co-exist alongside the more traditional national park elements like nature trails and water falls.
A popular experience for families, Lassen offers three different kinds of junior ranger programs, including a Green Junior Ranger, plus ranger talks under the stars; morning bird walks, and even a junior firefighting program.
You really don't want to miss the hike toward Bumpass Hell, a huge collection of bubbling, steaming hydrothermal features and that unmistakable rotten egg smell. But if you prefer to be a "windshield tourist," you can tackle the 185-mile loop between Lassen National Forest and Lassen National Park, which is a designated National Scenic Byway.
Dry Tortugas, Fla.
Why go? It's the seventh least-visited national park, with only about 52,000 visitors in 2009. Best-known for its birding colonies and rich marine life, it's one of the best day trips out of the Florida Keys you can find.
Dry Tortugas is a cluster of seven islands located about 70 miles west of the Florida Keys. Of course, one of the reasons for its low visitorship is that it's only accessible by boat or seaplane. (The Yankee Freedom II is $165 for adults; Sunny Days is $145; and Key West Seaplane Adventures costs $249 per adult.)
More importantly, the waters around Dry Tortugas have NOT been affected by the Gulf oil spill, and is currently under 1 percent threat for impacts. So don't let fear dictate where you travel -- go enjoy the beauty.
Guadalupe Mountains, Texas
As the highest point in Texas (nearly 9,000 feet), the Guadalupe Mountains is one of the best places in the state to experience the changing of the seasons. Spring wildflowers, blazing fall foliage and desert flora round out the outdoor beauty of this remote park. It's West Texas' only legally designated wilderness, featuring 80 miles of trails and steep switchback, and natives know that the hike through McKittrick Canyon in late October/early November offers one of the most spectacular showings of fall foliage in the state.
If you're going to visit the more popular parks, it doesn't mean you have to follow the crowds. Yosemite was the third most-visited national park in 2009 (after the Great Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon), but visitors only see a fraction of the park: the Valley Floor. In reality, the entire park is about the size of Rhode Island, so you can venture out and feel like you have it all to yourself.
Savvy travelers also know to travel in the off season, when the park is far less crowded and lodges are more afforable. The Ahwahnee national park lodge hosts high-profile winter events, including Chef's Holidays and the Bracebridge dinner, but even then you won't see nearly the volume of crowds that you do in the summer.
Or, how about experiencing the park in a completely different way? The Tin Lizzie Inn offers Model T and Model A tours of Yosemite and the Sierra National Forest. You You won't go more than 20 mph, but this tour isn't about speed. In fact, you'll travel the way many Americans did - actually slow enough to actually see things!
STATE PARKS AND MORE
But remember, exploring the great outdoors isn't all about national parks. Our country also has more than 6,000 state parks to choose from ... so chances are that a great experience available right in your own backyard.
One of the great "hidden" parks on the West Coast is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, in Monterey. Though it's often overshadowed by its more popular neighbor 10 miles north, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, this little spot (only 4 square miles) features tower redwood groves and beautiful coastal views. You can even spot whales migrating as you look out on the coast, with ranger-led whale-watching presentations in January.
And last, but certainly not least, there's one very surprising state that has done it right. Delaware is the only state without a national park (although here is legislation to change that). But that doesn't matter to locals, because it's got plenty of scenic areas and 17 state parks to choose from. We're talking about spots like Brandywine Creek, which is home to two nature preserves -- Russell Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge, one of the only urban refuges in the country, with more than 200 acres of wetlands to preserve fish, wildlife and nesting habitats; and Mt Cuba Center in Greenville, a botanical garden and conservatory. (Tip: Get here early in the morning or take advantage of one of their twilight walks in summer.)
For more information and travel tips, visit PeterGreenberg.com.