When Fred and Debbie Koegler told friends they were taking their two boys to spend Christmas in a national park, everybody assumed they'd be surrounded by rocky peaks and pine trees in some snowbound mountain lodge. In fact, they spent the holiday south of the equator on a deserted jungle-backed beach, snorkeling amid one of the Pacific's most pristine coral reefs in American Samoa National Park, one of America's least-visited national parks.
"The island of Ofu was spectacular, and we had the beach all to ourselves," Fred says. "The beach was just beautiful, with crystal-clear waters and a reef just off shore."
For part of their weeklong tour through the three-island, 13,500-acre national park, the Koeglers were guests of a local family, a homestay made possible by the fact that Samoans play an integral role in the park's management and visitor experience.
© Henryk Sadura/Tetra Images/Corbis
"Our hosts took us through the jungle to a cave where the fruit bats live-it was an amazing sight, for sure," Debbie says.
American Samoa National Park is just one of the hidden-gem national parks ready to be explored this summer. Of the 59 national parks, the big four (Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains) attract the most visitors while many of the parks like American Samoa, Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison, California's Channel Islands and Michigan's Isle Royale remain largely empty.
"Oh, those are beautiful, beautiful parks," Debbie says of the big four. "But there are so many exquisite, unexpected landscapes to enjoy in our national parks that if you only go to the big ones, you're missing out."
And the Koeglers would know. The retired Los Angeles teachers have spent more than 40 summers in California's Yosemite National Park, where Fred works as a seasonal horse patrol ranger, and over the last 20 years the couple has visited every single park, monument, seashore, recreation site and historical site operated by the National Park Service. That's 401 separate units, spread across the country from the Arctic Circle to below the South Pacific and the California coast to the Caribbean Sea.
"We love our parks," Debbie says. "We started this adventure in 1995 and have enjoyed every moment."
This month, the Koeglers will accept the National Park Travelers Club's Platinum Lifetime Achievement Award for their accomplishments at the group's annual convention. While few will see all of the country's parks, many share the couple's passion for them, says John Giorgis, the club's president.
"Our membership right now is 1,200 and growing, and most of our members' favorite parks are the ones most folks have never heard of," he says.
Case in point: The club's annual meeting will be held this month at Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee. "Everybody's thrilled to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, but Gettysburg National Military Park is going to be swamped this summer," Giorgis says. "This is a great park on the Tennessee River where people can learn about one of the most important battles in the war, and our members are excited to see one of the lesser-known parks in the South."
Indeed, while the masses migrate to the biggest, most popular parks, smart travelers can have the lesser-known (not necessarily smaller: Wrangell-St. Elias is bigger than Switzerland) parks all to themselves. Many offer comparable scenery and interpretive ranger programming, Giorgis says, and you can avoid traffic, lines and other impediments to enjoyment.
On a recent trip to Cleveland, Giorgis took his two-year-old son on Cuyahoga Valley National Park's scenic railroad. "Most people don't even realize there's a national park in Ohio," he says. "We had a great time-my son loves trains, so I think it's now his favorite park."
Exploring the lesser-known national parks doesn't just make for a great long weekend or vacation, it also helps protect these landscapes and heritage sites for future generations, says Marjorie Taft Hall, director of communications for the National Park Foundation, the congressionally chartered charity supporting the National Park Service.
"Our parks are more than the sum of their beautiful scenery-they're living classrooms of our natural and cultural heritage," she says. "They're the birthright of every American, and they belong to us, so the more we enjoy them responsibly, the more we ensure they'll be around for future generations."
Ready to find your new favorite national park? Check out our list of hidden gems, and begin planning your getaway.
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American Samoa National Park, American Samoa
Samoa translates to "sacred earth," and this park, comprising 13,500 tropical acres (4,000 acres of which are marine ecosystems) over three volcanic islands in American Samoa, protects the ecosystems and traditions of Polynesia's oldest culture. The only park in the Southern Hemisphere (in fact, it's closer to New Zealand than the U.S. mainland), it relies on Samoans for the management of its stunning rainforest, beaches and coral reefs. On Tutuila, American Samoa's largest island, towering volcanic ridges hang over the azure waters of Pago Pago Harbor, while on Ta'u, the easternmost island, visitors can scale rainforest-shrouded Lata Mountain, the territory's highest peak at 3,000 feet, from which the views of the sea are unbeatable. Among the cherished fauna on this island is the endangered flying fox-a fruit bat with the wingspan of a barn owl, responsible for pollinating the island's copious fruit trees and shrubs. But the park's real gem is the hardest to get to: Ofu beach, on the eponymous island 60 miles east of Tutuila. The waters off this jungle-backed stretch of sand protect one of the finest coral reefs in the Pacific-a snorkelers' paradise.
© Courtesy of National Park Service
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Copper Center, Alaska
Four mountain ranges-the volcanic Wrangell, the Alaska, the Chugach and the coastal St. Elias-and more than 150 glaciers converge in this 13 million-acre wonderland, our country's largest national park (it's larger than the entire country of Switzerland). This is pure mountain wilderness, pierced by just two winding dirt roads. One of those roads terminates in the quirky mining town of McCarthy, the last bush community inside a national park, at the foot of the Root and Kennicott glaciers. Strap on the crampons and explore deep ravines cut by glacial streams that cascade into the glacier's icy depths. A dazzling waterfall tumbles off of Donoho Peak, separating the two glaciers; rising beyond it, the perennially snowcapped, 16,390-foot Mount Blackburn is one of the park's most spectacular volcanic massifs. Anglers-and foodies-know all about delicious Copper River red salmon, and sockeye, coho, and king salmon can be plucked from the braided Copper River every summer. Or hike up one of the river's countless tributaries to a backcountry lake where Dolly Varden, lake, cutthroat and rainbow trout thrive, along with burbot and grayling.
© George H.H. Huey/Corbis
Channel Islands National Park, Channel Islands, California
Looking for empty beaches within 100 miles of Los Angeles? Hop a catamaran and cross the Santa Barbara Channel to this gorgeous archipelago of eight islands, stretching from Newport Beach to Santa Barbara. Despite their proximity to the SoCal metropolis, the five northern islands (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Barbara) that make up the 250,000-acre park are among the system's less visited-all the better for a beach picnic at Santa Cruz's Scorpion Anchorage, a scalloped, pebbly cove from which you can snorkel through kelp forests or kayak along craggy cliffs. For an even more isolated experience, make the trip to San Miguel Island, the westernmost 9,500-acre island-plateau above the Pacific. The journey to this wild, windswept island pays off in a 16-mile hike to Point Bennett over a wildflower-strewn expanse-gum plant, buckwheat, poppies and verbena remain in bloom through the summer. Point Bennett is one of the most isolated beaches in the world and a sanctuary for harbor seals, northern fur seals, northern elephant seals and California sea lions.
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