Crater Lake

Lesser Known National Parks: A Road Trip through Hidden Gems

When it comes to national parks, the United States is renowned for iconic destinations like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. However, hidden among the more famous counterparts are lesser-known National Parks that offer unique experiences and breathtaking landscapes. In this road trip itinerary, we’ll embark on a journey through some of these hidden treasures in the western United States – Pinnacles National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Crater Lake and North Cascades National Park.

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Pinnacles National Park (California)

Pinnacles National Park
Rising out of the chaparral-covered Gabilan Mountains, east of central California’s Salinas Valley, are the spectacular remains of an ancient volcano. Massive monoliths, spires, sheer-walled canyons and talus passages define millions of years of erosion, faulting and tectonic plate movement. Within the monument’s boundaries lie 24,000 acres of diverse wildlands. The monument is renowned for the beauty and variety of its spring wildflowers. A rich diversity of wildlife can be observed throughout the year.

Our journey begins in the heart of Central California at Pinnacles National Park. Known for its unique rock formations, talus caves, and diverse flora and fauna, Pinnacles offers an off-the-beaten-path adventure in one of the many lesser-known national parks. This hidden gem allows you to escape the crowds and immerse yourself in the untouched beauty of the landscape.

Entry Requirements:

  • Park Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle (valid for 7 days)
  • America the Beautiful Passes are accepted for entry.
  • Pinnacles operates on a first-come, first-served basis, and it’s recommended to arrive early, especially during peak seasons.

Must-Visit Spots:

  1. High Peaks Trail: This challenging trail takes you through the heart of Pinnacles, ascending to the pinnacle of the park. Along the way, you’ll encounter spectacular rock formations and diverse wildlife. The panoramic views at the summit are particularly breathtaking, especially during sunrise or sunset.
  2. Bear Gulch Cave Trail: Explore the mysterious talus caves along this trail. The Bear Gulch Cave is an intriguing underground adventure, where sunlight filters through openings, creating a surreal atmosphere. It’s a photographer’s dream, capturing the interplay of light and shadows within the cave’s unique environment.

Best Photo Spots:

  • Balconies Cave Entrance: Capture the entrance of Balconies Cave, a unique talus cave with impressive rock formations, creating a dramatic backdrop for photos.
  • Condor Gulch Trail Overlook: Photograph the expansive vistas of the park, especially capturing the rugged terrain and the iconic rock spires. The unique rock formations against the backdrop of the blue sky make for stunning images.

Best Places to Stay near Pinnacles:

  1. Pinnacles Campground: For an immersive experience, stay within the park at the Pinnacles Campground. Enjoy the tranquillity of nature under the stars.
  2. King City: Approximately 30 miles from the park, King City offers a range of lodging options, making it a convenient base for exploring Pinnacles.

Distance to Next Park: Approximately 350 miles


Lassen Volcanic National Park (California)

Lassen National park

Heading north, our next stop is Lassen Volcanic National Park. This park showcases the geothermal wonders of the region, including boiling springs and fumaroles. Hiking trails wind through the volcanic landscapes, providing a glimpse into the Earth’s powerful forces.

Entry Requirements:

  • Park Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle (valid for 7 days)
  • America the Beautiful Passes are accepted for entry.
  • Some areas may require additional permits, especially for backcountry camping and certain activities. Check the official park website for specific details.

Must-Visit Spots:

  1. Bumpass Hell Trail: A boardwalk trail that leads to the park’s hydrothermal area, Bumpass Hell. Witness boiling springs, fumaroles, and mud pots – a surreal and photogenic display of geothermal activity. The vibrant colours of the mineral-rich pools are captivating and make for excellent photo opportunities.
  2. Devastated Area: Explore the aftermath of the 1915 volcanic eruption. The Devastated Area, with its stark landscape and regrowth of vegetation, provides a unique contrast. It’s a poignant reminder of the power of nature to both destroy and renew, making it a must-visit for photographers seeking compelling narratives.

Best Photo Spots:

  • Reflection Lake: Capture the reflection of Lassen Peak on the tranquil waters of Reflection Lake, especially during the calm early morning hours. The symmetry and serenity make for a beautiful shot.
  • Lassen Peak from Summit Lake: Photograph Lassen Peak against the backdrop of the turquoise waters of Summit Lake for a stunning alpine scene. The vibrant colours of the lake complement the grandeur of the volcanic peak.
Lassen Peak

Best Places to Stay near Lassen:

  1. Manzanita Lake Camping Cabins: Located within Lassen Volcanic National Park, these cabins offer a rustic and cosy stay near the park’s attractions.
  2. Redding: Approximately 50 miles from the park, Redding provides a variety of accommodations and amenities for visitors exploring Lassen.

Distance to Next Park: Approximately 240 miles

Crater Lake National Park (Oregon)

Crater Lake

Continuing our journey northward, our road trip takes a detour to Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park. This hidden gem boasts the deepest lake in the United States, formed within the caldera of Mount Mazama. Crater Lake’s intense blue color and pristine waters make it a captivating stop on our lesser-known national parks adventure. I can tell you from personal experience that visiting Crater Lake during winter is truly amazing.

Entry Requirements:

  • Park Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle (valid for 7 days)
  • America the Beautiful Passes are accepted for entry.

Must-Visit Spots:

Crater Lake Entrance
  1. Rim Drive: Take the scenic Rim Drive for panoramic views of Crater Lake from various vantage points. The entire drive offers breathtaking perspectives of the deep blue lake and surrounding cliffs.
  2. Wizard Island: Consider taking a boat tour to Wizard Island, a cinder cone within Crater Lake. It’s a unique opportunity to explore the island’s volcanic features and capture stunning shots of the lake.

Best Photo Spots:

  • Watchman Overlook: Capture the mesmerising sunset or sunrise views of Crater Lake from the Watchman Overlook. The changing hues of the sky reflected in the lake create a magical setting.
  • Cleetwood Cove Trailhead: Descend the Cleetwood Cove Trail for an alternative perspective of Crater Lake. The trail offers excellent photo opportunities along the lakeshore.

Best Places to Stay near Crater Lake:

  1. Crater Lake Lodge: Immerse yourself in the park experience by staying at Crater Lake Lodge. The historic lodge offers comfortable accommodations and proximity to the lake.
  2. Chiloquin: Located about 30 miles south of the park, Chiloquin provides lodging options for those looking to explore Crater Lake.

Distance to Next Park: Approximately 500 miles


North Cascades National Park (Washington)

Cascades National Park

Our final destination takes us to the “American Alps” – North Cascades National Park in Washington. This park boasts jagged peaks, glaciers, and pristine alpine lakes. Outdoor enthusiasts can immerse themselves in a variety of activities, from hiking to camping, surrounded by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

Entry Requirements:

  • Park Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle (valid for 7 days)
  • America the Beautiful Passes are accepted for entry.
  • Some areas may require additional permits, especially for backcountry camping and certain activities. Check the official park website for specific details.

Must-Visit Spots:

  1. Cascade Pass Trail: This iconic trail leads to an alpine mountain pass, offering breathtaking views of surrounding peaks, glaciers, and meadows. The journey is as rewarding as the destination, with diverse flora and fauna along the way. Photographers will find endless opportunities to capture the alpine beauty of the North Cascades.
  2. Sahale Arm Trail: For those seeking a more challenging hike, the Sahale Arm Trail rewards adventurers with stunning panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and peaks. The vastness of the landscape and the rugged beauty of the Sahale Glacier make it a must-visit for those looking to capture the raw, untouched wilderness.

Best Photo Spots:

Diablo Lake Overlook
  • Diablo Lake Overlook: Capture the vibrant turquoise waters of Diablo Lake against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks. The striking contrast of colours and the serpentine flow of the lake make for a mesmerising composition.
  • Washington Pass Overlook: Photograph the rugged beauty of the North Cascades from the overlook, showcasing the dramatic landscape of the mountain range. The play of light and shadows on the peaks during sunrise or sunset creates a captivating scene.
washington pass overlook

Best Places to Stay near North Cascades:

  1. Ross Lake Resort: For a unique experience, stay in floating cabins at Ross Lake Resort, providing easy access to the park’s wonders.
  2. Winthrop: A charming western-themed town, Winthrop offers a range of accommodations and is situated conveniently for exploring North Cascades National Park.

Final Thoughts:

As we conclude our road trip through these lesser known national parks, it becomes clear that beauty and adventure can be found in unexpected places. Pinnacles, Lassen Volcanic, Crater Lake and North Cascades National Parks offer a diverse range of landscapes, showcasing the natural wonders that make each park a hidden gem worth exploring.

Embark on this road trip, and discover the magic that lies beyond the well-trodden paths. These national parks may be lesser known, but their allure is undeniable, providing a unique and enriching experience for those willing to venture off the beaten track. Capture these moments through your lens, and let the stories of these hidden gems unfold in your photographs. Ensure you check the entry requirements before your journey, as each park has its own regulations and permits for a seamless and enjoyable exploration. America the Beautiful Pass holders can conveniently use their passes for entry, adding an extra layer of accessibility to these natural wonders.

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For the rest of this National Park road trip series click here

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