5 National Park Sites You Should Visit | Christina of Route Bliss

you don't have to cross an ocean to find a beautiful destination. today I am happy to have longtime ink + adventure supporter, Christina of Route Bliss, sharing some gems from the good old USA. while I spent a lot of time traveling through the states with my family growing up, I've only ever been to one of the parks she highlights below. read on, go say hello, and start planning your next road trip!

Hello everyone! I'm Christina from Route Bliss. If you've ever dropped by my blog, especially on Wednesdays, you've probably figured out that I've visited a lot of national parks/scenic destinations in the U.S. To date, I've set foot in or driven through 33 various National Park Service sites (Parks, Preserves, Monuments, Battlegrounds, Parkways, Memorials, Seashores, Recreation Areas ...). While there are some big ones -- like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Glacier, and Grand Teton that I am head over heels in love with -- there are many that are overlooked due to their size or location that I've enjoyed just as much as the popular parks. While they rarely pop up in a top 5 or top 10 list, these five parks are definitely worth a visit if you're looking to get away from it all and relax ... primarily due to the fact that you won't be dealing with as many crowds or full parking lots when you visit! Oh, and they are full of natural beauty as well. PS: I realize none of these are east of the Mississippi River -- that's because I've only been to one NPS location on the east side of the Mississippi to date!

  Ttheodore Roosevelt National Park 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park -- North Dakota

Raise your hand if you knew there was a national park named after Teddy Roosevelt, the president responsible for the U.S. having what's now known as the National Park Service? Most people don't (here's more on his conservation efforts for the curious). I didn't know about it until a reality show on tv several years ago accidently went to the wrong location in the upper Midwest based on a clue (they were supposed to go to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota but went to the NP instead). Anyway, TRNP is smack in the middle of the Badlands of Western North Dakota. It has two units -- appropriately named North Unit and South Unit. I only visited the North Unit (near Watford City) due to time after a visitor center in a nearby town told me that with limited time, it was the better option; I'd planned on stopping at the South Unit (near Medora) since it had a petrified forest. Some of my favorite images from my 2009 roadtrip came from this park (like this one). I also didn't get quite this close to the bison in Yellowstone since they stayed a bit further from the roadways and scenic pullouts. During our visit, there were a lot of bison out and about, so we stayed in our vehicle for safety's sake. Entrance fee assessed ... purchase an annual NPS pass if visiting multiple park sites within a year. For more information, visit the TRNP NPS site.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve 

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve -- Colorado

When you think of Colorado, the natural feature that comes to mind is mountains, not sand dunes. Well, in the southern part of the state right in the middle of the San Juan Mountain Range near Alamosa is this vista ... and if you visit while there's still snow melt-off, you can enjoy Medano Creek (pictured in the foreground above) as well. You can hike up through the dunes, sand surf down them, wade in the creek, or take a hike through other parts of the park. Entrance fee assessed ... purchase an annual NPS pass if visiting multiple park sites within a year. For more information, visit the GSDNP&P NPS site.

Valles Caldera National Preserve 

Valles Caldera National Preserve -- New Mexico

While Valles Caldera isn't listed on the NPS website when you do a search of the parks in New Mexico, it is a national preserve near Los Alamos and Jemez Springs, New Mexico that borders Bandelier National Monument. We discovered this hidden gem when we stopped for a restroom break at the New Mexico Welcome Center on I-40 East; my brother found a brochure while I was taking photos of the "Welcome to New Mexico sign" out front, so we decided to wait and see if we'd happened be close by when we were at Bandelier. When we realized how close (at least as the crow flies) we were upon leaving Bandelier, we made the trek over instead of going into Los Alamos as originally planned. And I'm so glad we did despite the steep switchback road we never got above 35 mph on (boo to 4 cylinder engines!) ... check out that view above! That was looking out to the north as we stopped on the bridge across the creek on the gravel road at the main entrance. We also saw a momma and baby elk off to the south as well. While we didn't have time to spare to take the bus tour further into the preserve, its on my list of places to go back to sooner than later. Fee assessed based on activities. For more information, visit the VCNP website. 

Devils Tower National Monument

Devils Tower National Monument -- Wyoming

Devils Tower is one of the smaller parks/monuments I've visited in the Western U.S., but the tower itself is visible for miles as you drive in through the edge of the Black Hills to the park (I honestly can't remember how many miles away we were when I took this photo, easily 10-15 miles). The tower itself is considered sacred to a number of Native American tribes, who hold religious ceremonies there, and is also a destination for climbers; there is a voluntary climbing closure during the month of June when religious ceremonies are being held. If you visit during June like I did, you'll notice there are items in trees along the trail from the visitors center to the tower; those are prayer bundles, do not disturb them! Also, you have to do the touristy thing -- along the route in (coming from the east/South Dakota), pull over a few miles out from the turnoff and take a photo of yourself leaning against/pinching/holding/pushing down on the tower! Entrance fee assessed ... purchase an annual NPS pass if visiting multiple park sites within a year. For more information, visit the DTNM NPS website

Hot Springs National Park 

Hot Springs National Park -- Arkansas

Once a resort for the well-to-do, its now open to everyone. And for the most part, its free! Tour the Fordyce Bathhouse to see what a bathhouse was like when Hot Springs was the IT place to visit, then drop in at the Lamar Bathhouse to pick up some regionally made spa products or to stamp your National Parks Passport. There's also a spout near the right end of Bathhouse Row where you can fill up bottles and jugs with the mineral water for free. Don't have a jug on you? No problem -- buy a glass one at Lamar Bathhouse or walk across the street to one of the non NPS souvenir shops and snag a plastic one for less than a buck. Behind Bathhouse Row is a shaded Grand Promenade that's worth a leisurely stroll; access it from either end of Bathhouse Row or next to the Fordyce Bathhouse. For those looking for something a bit more strenuous, hike one of the marked trails from behind the bathhouses up the side of the mountain to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower (pictured above, bottom left. A fee is assessed to go to the top of the tower as it is operated by a concessioner.). At the top of Hot Springs Mountain, there's a viewpoint near the tower (pictured above; upper right) that allows you to look out on Hot Springs without paying a fee if you're on a budget. After you're done, pop in at Buckstaff Bathhouse or the Quapaw Baths and Spa (pictured above, upper left) to experience a bathhouse up close and personal. There's plenty other activities in Hot Springs that make it perfect for a weekend getaway. Interesting factoid I snagged off the footer of their homepage: The water emerging from the hot springs in Hot Springs National Park fell as rain when the pyramids of Egypt were built—4400 years ago! For more information, visit the HSNP NPS website.

 To see more photos of my travels through these parks and others, pop over to Route Bliss or follow me on Instagram! Thanks so much Jamie for letting me fill in while you're enjoying New Zealand this month!

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