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Room to Breathe
Now that summer is here and winter is a distant memory, it's time to get outside and enjoy the sunshine. But skip the cliché trip to the Grand Canyon and its 4.3 million yearly visitors and instead check out one of the equally stunning parks that get far less attention from fellow vacationers.
Here's a rundown of some of the hidden gems of the U.S. park system that will still satisfy your inner explorer, and don't require an expedition team to reach. Each park is packed with enough science and natural beauty to stimulate your mind and soul, but each has fewer than 100,000 visitors per year.
City of Rocks National Reserve, IdahoSlide 2 of 21
City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho
96,649 visitors per year
Just like the name implies, City of Rocks National Reserve is dominated by granite spires and sculptured rock formations up to hundreds of feet high. Some of the granite towers are over 60 stories tall and 2.5 billion years old. Over 500 rock climbing routes have been mapped out along the rocks smooth faces.
The uplifted and eroded rocks are like an open window into the Earth where visitors and scientists alike can view tectonic events that raised the mountainous interior of the western United States along with weather events that shaped the landscape.
Visitors can also still see remnants of the California Trail wagon ruts and signatures in axle grease that are found in the area that was once a landmark for California-bound emigrants.
Web site: http://www.nps.gov/ciro
More info: 200 miles (322 km) southeast of Boise in Almo, Idaho 83312-0169.
Phone: (208) 824-5519.Slide 3 of 21
Cumberland Island National Seashore, GeorgiaSlide 4 of 21
Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia
77,588 visitors per year
A trip to Cumberland Island will take you back in time to the days of barrier islands along the Atlantic coast. The island is Georgia's largest at 17.5 miles (28 km) long and is the southernmost barrier island. Cumberland is home to pristine beaches and dunes, maritime forests, freshwater lakes, and even the remains of centuries of human life. Cumberland has the oldest known ceramics in North American and shell middens dumps for domestic waste from early natives.
The island's salt marshes contain dense strands of herbs and grasses that are able to withstand the harsh, salty water and trap sediments crucial to the aquatic food web. Gnarled live oak trees covered with a Spanish moss canopy paint an idyllic Southern Gothic image on the island. Wild horses one of the most well-known features of Cumberland roam the island's 36,415 acres (147 sq km). Cumberland Island is a crucial stopover for many birds migrating on the transatlantic migratory flyaway. There are no bridges to Cumberland; ferries make only two trips per day, and the number of visitors is capped at 300 per day.
Web site: http://www.nps.gov/cuis
More info: 300 miles (482 km) southeast of Atlanta in St. Marys, Ga. 31558-0806.
Phone: (912) 882-4335.Slide 5 of 21
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, ColoradoSlide 6 of 21
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado
64,251 visitors per year
Florissant National Monument is a 6,000 acre (24 square km) fossil hunter's delight. The park is a treasure trove of paleontological history containing some of the world's richest plant and insect fossils preserved 8,400 feet (2.5 km) above sea level by volcanic ash from the Thirtynine mile volcanic area.
Over 50,000 specimens of more than 1,700 different species have been described, mostly plants and insects, but also some of the largest-diameter petrified Sequoia trees in the world. The world's only known petrified trio of redwood trees is found at Florissant. The fossils are relatively young, geologically speaking. Most date to the Eocene Epoch 34 million years ago.
Those that venture to Florissant will also find eagles, Tiger salamanders, mountain lions and beetles.
Web site: http://www.nps.gov/flfo
More info: 100 miles (161 km) southwest of Denver in Florissant, Colo. 80816.
Phone: (719) 748-3253.Slide 7 of 21
Chiricahua National Monument, ArizonaSlide 8 of 21