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Don’t miss these 10 underrated national park sites

Part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Barataria Preserve is a living laboratory of Louisiana’s endangered wetlands. Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

Despite not being household names like Yosemite or Yellowstone, the national parks, monuments, preserves, and historic sites of our country’s central corridor still have much to offer. These local gems lure visitors with scenic beauty, fascinating history, tales of iconic figures, and rare natural phenomena.

Check out these 10 underrated National Park Service sites that are well worth a visit—and don’t require traveling thousands of miles or contending with hordes of tourists.

1. George Washington Carver National Monument

Diamond, Missouri

Ranger standing beside a statue of George Washington Carver as a boy

Wander the woods that George Washington Carver explored as a boy at the first national park unit to honor an African American. Photo courtesy National Park Service

George Washington Carver was an accomplished agricultural scientist, botanist, and inventor born into slavery during the Civil War. This national monument, the first national park unit to honor an African American, interprets his life and achievements. Enjoy exploring the woods Carver wandered through as a boy, where he developed such an aptitude for nurturing plants that he became known as “the plant doctor.”

You’ll discover his passion for agriculture at this park that also preserves his birthplace site. Carver devoted his life to research and encouraging the production of crops other than cotton, specifically soybeans and peanuts. He taught agriculture at Alabama’s Tuskegee University for 47 years. Admission is free.

You may also like: Show-me history: touring Missouri's historic sites

2. Ozark National Scenic Riverways

Van Buren, Missouri

Man sitting on the riverside by a fire and small tent

In the summer, paddlers seek out the Current River, which is part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Photo courtesy Missouri Division of Tourism

Ozark National Scenic Riverways is the first national park area designated to protect a river system. It’s home to freshwater springs, caves, trails, and historic sites such as the picturesque Alley Mill, which was completed in 1894. But the clear, cold, spring-fed Current and Jacks Fork rivers are the focus of this central Missouri park.

A paddler’s paradise, the park offers 134 miles of scenic riverways for canoeing, kayaking, fishing, tubing, and swimming. Don’t miss the aptly named Big Spring—it’s one of the world’s largest freshwater springs, expelling enough water daily to fill a football stadium.

Visitors can see the exteriors of the park’s historic lodge and cabins, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and presently closed for a massive rehabilitation project. Admission is free.

You may also like: 10 refreshing swimming holes in the Midwest and South

3. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Strong City, Kansas

Man standing on a patio looking out toward tallgrass prairie

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve protects a nationally significant remnant of a once-vast tallgrass prairie ecosystem. Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism

Tallgrass prairie once covered at least 250,000 square miles of North America. Over time, farmland took over more than 95% of it. Relatively small pockets remain today, concentrated in the Kansas Flint Hills.

To see a part of what’s left of this once-vast ecosystem, explore the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Located on land originally owned by rancher Stephen F. Jones, the site preserves his home, a 3-level barn, and other historic buildings that are included on self-guided or ranger-led tours.

Two hikers walking toward a structure at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Hikers explore the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the heart of the Kansas Flint Hills. Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism

Experience the tallgrass prairie up close on walking and hiking trails throughout the rolling hills. The Scenic Overlook Trail, approximately 6 miles round-trip from the visitors center, offers a chance to see grazing bison. You can also peer into the Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse, a 1-room school that operated from 1882 to 1930. Admission is free.

You may also like: A guide to visiting Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas

4. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

Southern Illinois

For decades, the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail commemorated the famed expedition’s routes from the St. Louis area to the Pacific Ocean. In 2019, the trail was extended to memorialize the preparatory section from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Wood River, Illinois.

Replica of Lewis and Clark's keelboat

At the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site, you can admire a replica of the explorers’ keelboat. Photo courtesy Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau

Among the trail’s several sites in Illinois, the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site in Hartford interprets the little-known story of the Illinois preparation phase of the Corps of Discovery. A full-scale keelboat illustrates how hundreds of bundles and barrels of supplies were packed for the long journey. Admission is free.

You may also like: Check these Midwest adventures off your bucket list

5. George Rogers Clark National Historical Park

Vincennes, Indiana

Walkway leading to a memorial monument with tall stone columns

At George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, a memorial honors Clark’s heroics during the Revolutionary War. Photo courtesy National Park Service

It was the stuff of legend. In 1779, Revolutionary War officer George Rogers Clark led an epic 18-day trek through freezing floodwaters from Kaskaskia in present-day Illinois to Fort Sackville in Vincennes.

With approximately 170 Americans and Frenchmen, he captured a British garrison. Because of this victory, coupled with Clark’s other masterful military campaigns, the British ceded a vast area of land west of the Appalachian Mountains to the United States.

At the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, a visitors center displays exhibits about Clark and 18th-century frontier life. A Roman-style temple, a memorial to Clark, stands on what was believed to be the Fort Sackville site. The monument includes a statue of Clark and 7 murals depicting the expedition. Admission is free.

You may also like: 8 military museums in the South

6. Fort Smith National Historic Site

Fort Smith, Arkansas

Historic displays at Fort Smith National Historic Site

Fort Smith National Historic Site examines the site’s military history and its role as a federal court. Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism (ADPHT)

The Fort Smith National Historic Site preserves and interprets almost 80 years of history at the edge of the American frontier. Exhibits examine the stories of the soldiers who were stationed at the fort, the scandals that shook it, the outlaws who were tried and hanged here, and the lawmen who served justice.

The site not only relates Fort Smith’s military history from 1817 to 1871 but also explores Western expansion, the tragedy of the Trail of Tears brought on by the Indian Removal Act, and the fort’s years as a federal court, from 1872 to 1896. Federal Judge Isaac C. Parker heard thousands of criminal cases here, sentencing 160 people to death. Reconstructed gallows stand on their original site. Admission, $10.

You may also like: Discover art, nature, and history by visiting these Southern cemeteries

7. Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs, Arkansas

Hubbard Tub Room on display

Hot Springs National Park preserves the history of the bathing industry born from the area‘s ancient thermal springs. Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism (ADPHT)

It’s not often that bathing is the main attraction of a national park, but ancient thermal springs in this central Arkansas city were thought to have medicinal properties for centuries, and 8 of the bathhouse buildings that drew those seeking the springs’ healing properties have been preserved at Hot Springs National Park.

Among those remaining on Bathhouse Row is the Fordyce Bathhouse, which serves as the visitors center.

On self-guided tours, admire marble partitions, the stained-glass ceiling in the Men’s Bath Hall, marble and stained-glass transoms, and tile floors that exude Gilded Age opulence. In the park, you can camp, hike 26 miles of trails, and explore the area’s fascinating geology and history. Admission is free.

You may also like: A guide to visiting Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas

8. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve

South Louisiana

Man walking through the Barataria Preserve

Explore swampland and marshes on trails through the lush Barataria Preserve. Photo courtesy Louisiana Tourism

The diverse sites of this historical park, named after the French pirate Jean Lafitte, range from a battlefield to bayous and prairies across south Louisiana that safeguard history and nature.

At the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, learn how Acadians from Nova Scotia in Canada were deported and became Louisiana’s Cajuns. The Acadian exiles who settled along the bayous created a distinctive culture that’s now shared through music, walking tours, and boat tours at the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux.

Near Marrero, the Barataria Preserve includes trails, picnic areas, fishing, and wildlife viewing through bayous, a hardwood forest, swamps, and marshes. At Chalmette Battlefield, learn how Lafitte and his followers, known as Baratarians, aided the American cause in the Battle of New Orleans. Admission is free.

You may also like: Savor the cuisine, music, and history of Louisiana’s Cajun Country

9. Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Natchitoches, Louisiana

Nurtured by French and Spanish colonial ways, Creole culture also draws from African and Native American influences. This historical park preserves 2 of the most-intact Creole cotton plantations in the United States, where enslaved people constructed the buildings and worked the land.

Oakland Plantation, a National Historic Landmark, is made up of nearly 60 historic buildings, including the cook’s cabin, a mule barn, an overseer’s house, a tenant cabin, and the Oakland Main House.

A cluster of brick cabins in a field

A handful of slave cabins that were later converted to tenant housing have been preserved at Magnolia Plantation. Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

Twenty historic buildings remain at Magnolia Plantation, such as the plantation store, the blacksmith shop, and a gin barn. Self-guided and ranger-led tours shine a light on the park’s history and the indelible imprints that slavery left on the area. Admission is free.

You may also like: Discover 10 important civil rights sites in the Midwest and South

10. Gulf Islands National Seashore

Southern Mississippi

Sunset casting a warm glow over Davis Bayou

Sunset at Davis Bayou, one of the natural treasures at Gulf Islands National Seashore. Photo courtesy National Park Service

America’s largest national seashore, Gulf Islands stretches for 160 miles and includes 12 unique places to visit in Florida and Mississippi. The Davis Bayou Area near Ocean Springs in Mississippi offers a campground, a boat launch, a fishing pier, a picnic area, trails, and boardwalks overlooking the bayous.

Mississippi’s portion of the park also encompasses several islands, including Ship Island, located about 12 miles off the coast. Accessed by excursion boats from Gulfport, the island features beaches with swimming areas and activities like fishing, beachcombing, and snorkeling.

Another worthwhile stop: Tour historic Fort Massachusetts, which was completed in 1866. Davis Bayou admission is free; Ship Island ferry tickets are $44 for adults on weekdays.

Kim Hill is a freelance writer from St. Louis.

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