The United States is filled with incredible natural sights that beg to be explored. Many of these stunning landscapes have been designated as National Parks and are protected and maintained by our government.
From the Great Smoky Mountains to the Grand Canyon, you could spend the rest of your life on the road exploring all of the 58 designated National Parks.
If you’re looking for a memorable road trip destination, we’ve highlighted some of the most unique, and dare I say, weird National Parks that you can visit here in the US.
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
The dunes here are the tallest in North America, ranging from 7515 feet to 13,604 feet. Rent (or buy) a sandboard or a sand sled from one of two retailers in the San Luis Valley as the park does not offer rentals. These boards have a special slick base and specifically designed for the sand. You are welcome to surf anywhere on the dunes, just stay away from vegetation.
There is a small hike to get to the dunes from the parking area. If you travel about .7 miles you’ll reach the small and medium sized dunes. For larger ridges, you’ll need to walk at least 1.25 miles.
Storms in the area can bring wet conditions during any time of year, so be prepared for varying conditions when you visit. Typically the fall is the best time to visit, with calm conditions and a pleasant weather in the 60s and 70s during the day. Be sure to check the weather page on the website for the forecast before you visit. You can also check out the park’s webcam for a sneak peak of what you’ll see!
If sledding or surfing isn’t for you, you can also camp, hike, backpack, fat tire bike, splash around in Medano Creek, stargaze, or explore the area by horseback.
- Non-Commercial Vehicle and Occupants - $15.00 (valid for 7 days)
- Oversized Vehicle for 15+ passengers - $7.00 per passenger (valid for 7 days) Passengers under 16 are free
- Motorcycle and Riders - $10.00 (valid for 7 days)
- Annual family pass - $30 (valid for two adults + others in vehicle)
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
How often do you have the chance to explore active volcanoes? On the big island of Hawaii, about 30 miles from Hilo, is the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Established in 1916 this park is certainly one of the most unique in the United States. There are 5 volcanoes on the big island which include Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualālai, Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Mauna Kea is the tallest sea volcano in the world and the tallest mountain in the state of Hawaii. Mauna Loa is the largest volcano in the world based on its area and volume. However, the most famous of these 5 volcanoes is Kilauea. Why? Well, it has been continuously erupting since 1983.
Volcanoes are constantly changing our world’s landscape, and the volcanoes here reflect 70 million years of evolution. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory has allowed scientists to conduct a great amount of research on this natural phenomena, making Kilauea one of the most understood volcanoes in the world.
Drive, bike, backpack, hike and even camp at this incredible park. The National Park Service recommends at least 3-5 hours to explore this park properly, but you can easily spend the whole day (or several) exploring the area. While the park’s Visitors Center is open from 9am-5pm, the national park is open 24 hours a day. If you only have 3 hours, a drive around the Crater Rim is recommended. This 11-mile road will lead you around the caldera and offers scenic views and stops. Some areas may be closed due to volcanic activity.
If you have more time, you will want to explore the East Rift and coastal areas by taking the Chain of Craters road. Day hikes are great for those that want to get out of the car and explore everything up close. Bring plenty of water, food/snacks, and your binoculars!
For the current condition of the volcanoes, be sure to check in on the website for more information. It will go over how the lava is behaving that week so you don’t encounter any surprises on the road!
- $20.00 per vehicle (valid for 7 days)
- $10.00 per individual or bicycle (valid for 7 days)
- $15.00 per motorcycle (valid for 7 days)
- $25.00 Hawaii Tri-park Annual Pass
Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park may be one of the nation’s most well-known parks, but during your time here be sure to spend a day at the Grand Prismatic Spring in Wyoming. This natural hot spring is one of the three largest hot springs in the world and the largest in the US.
The Grand Prismatic Spring is located in the Midway Geyser Basin. The spring spans about 300 feet in diameter and the water temperatures reach up to 189 degrees Fahrenheit.
Why is this hot spring so special? The outer edges of the spring change color throughout the seasons, from red and orange hues in the summertime, to green in the winter. No matter the season, the water in the center always remains a bright blue. The changing rainbow colors of the spring are due to bacteria that live in the outer circles of the spring. The center of the spring is the hottest which doesn’t allow for much life, however on the outskirts of the spring, as the water cools, various bacteria calls this area home. Each ring of color is associated with a different bacteria due to the varying temperatures and environment. One particular type of bacteria that live here, Synechococcus, receives its energy through photosynthesis. The chemical compounds of this bacteria reflect certain wavelengths of light. Chlorophyll is the primary pigment of photosynthesis which appears green in color, but when the sunlight is stronger another pigment, Carotenoid, can overpower the chlorophyll to create more orange, red and yellow hues.
You can explore this area through the Fairy Falls trail for an aerial view. Another option is to follow a .8 mile loop which also passes by the Excelsior Geyser. For those that want a bird’s eye view, take a Helicopter tour of Yellowstone.
- Private, non-commercial vehicle - $30 (valid for 7 days)
- Motorcycle - $25 (valid for 7 days)
- Individuals by foot, bicycle, ski, etc. - $15 per person, under 16 years free (valid for 7 days)
- Non-commercial bus or vehicle with 16+ people - $15 per person, under 16 years free (valid for 7 days)
- Annual passes are also available
Sailing Stones of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park
Racetrack Playa is a (mostly) dry lake bed in Death Valley National Park in Inyo County, California. During most of the year when the lake bed is dry, the surface is covered in small hexagonal cracked shapes in the mud. What makes this area particularly fascinating is the appearance of large stones that seem to be sliding across the lakebed with no human or animal intervention.
This geological phenomenon occurs when extremely thin sheets of ice below the rocks (we’re talking just a few millimeters here) start to melt during a light wind across the playa. They are known to move up to 5 meters per minute.
If you want to see this up close, you’ll need a 4 wheel drive or high ground clearance vehicle. This is a remote area of Death Valley, so be prepared for extreme temperatures and rough roads. There are no close gas stations and much of the area is without cell reception. The area is notorious for getting you stranded with a flat tire, but if you’re looking for an incredible experience and photographs, this is a great road trip destination. Just be prepared for everything, including flash floods!
- No admission fees
Mammoth Cave National Park
The world’s longest cave system is located at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Dark, damp and perfectly strange, this limestone labyrinth is over 400 miles long. Caves are still being discovered, but so far it is known to encompass about 80 square miles!
The easiest cave tour is about 75 minutes long and takes you .25 miles (Frozen Niagara Tour). If you’re up for an adventure, the longest and most challenging tour is the Wild Cave Tour. This is a 5-mile adventure which takes about 6 hours. You will be crawling, climbing and squeezing through small spaces, so this is not for the claustrophobic!
One of the benefits of an underground National Park is that it can be visited all year round. Temperatures inside usually fall between the mid-50s and low 60s. Summer is the most popular season to visit, however, tours are much less crowded during other seasons.
Located about nine miles northwest of I-65, it is roughly 85 miles from Louisville, Kentucky, or Nashville, Tennessee.
- Much of the park is free, however, there are fees for tours, camping and picnic shelter reservations.
- Tours range from $5 to $55 for adults, $3.50 to $20 for children depending on the tour.
- Reservations recommended but not required.
What are the most unique and strange National Parks that you've visited and why?
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