While there are over 400 national park units, only 63 of them have received the designation of “national park.” For some of them, you’ll need several days or even multiple trips to experience all they have to offer.
However, there are a handful of parks that we’d classify as one-trick ponies. We’re not saying they’re any less deserving of the designation. We just think it’s only going to take one trip to experience.
Let’s get started!
Not All National Parks Are Created Equal
One incredible thing about America’s national parks is their uniqueness. States like California, Utah, and Colorado all have multiple parks, and they’re all very different. Some of the major differences between parks are their sizes, landscapes, and even the wildlife that calls them home. While all the parks are beautiful in their own way, they’re most definitely not equal when it comes to keeping your attention and attracting guests.
Parks like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Zion National Park, and Yellowstone National Park can attract such massive numbers because their infrastructure can handle large crowds.
Some parks have breathtakingly beautiful landscapes but are very remote locations and simply can’t develop the infrastructure needed to support more guests.
5 National Parks That Might Leave You Disappointed
It’s not that these national parks aren’t great; it’s just that they don’t stand out from the rest. While you should still visit these parks, you’re likely not going to want to plan to spend more than a day. Let’s take a look!
1. Gateway Arch National Park, Missouri
It’s hard to miss Gateway Arch National Park if you drive through St. Louis. The park sits on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River and welcomes you as you enter the city. It was completed in 1965 and typically sees over 2 million guests each year. However, this is one national park that you’re likely only going to visit once.
While it may be the world’s tallest arch (630 feet), at just over 90 acres, it’s also the smallest national park. Besides the museum and paying to enjoy the view from the top of the arch, there’s not much to do or see at this park. It’s a great spot for a picnic or to let kids run off some energy, but you’re not likely to spend more than a couple of hours exploring this park.
No Natural Attractions
When most people think of national parks and arches, those made of limestone or other natural materials come first to their minds. However, Gateway Arch National Park offers no natural attractions. While the arches in Arches National Park in Utah required thousands of years of erosion, construction of the Gateway Arch only took a couple of years.
If you’re expecting majestic natural beauty, you’re not going to find it here. While the arch does provide a unique view of the city and a spot to watch boats pass on the Mississippi River, its natural beauty is severely disappointing.
2. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Cuyahoga Valley National Park sits between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. It became a national park in December 1974 and typically welcomes 2.2 million visitors each year. While you can find thick forests, rolling hills, and open farmlands, it’s what you’d expect from any midwestern state park.
Not a Destination Park
Aside from the park itself, there’s not much to do in the area. Discovering all the park offers doesn’t take more than a day either. This park is a great side trip or a place to stop while passing through, but not a destination park where you would want to plan an entire vacation around.
While most national parks have multiple hiking options, there are minimal hiking opportunities at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. There are three different hikes (Ledges Trail), Brandywine Gorge Loop, and Blue Hen Falls) located within the park boundaries. The longest of these hikes is 3.5 miles, so more experienced hikers will likely be slightly disappointed.
3. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Hot Springs National Park is a very unique national park and received its designation in March 1921. The park was formerly the smallest national park until Gateway Arch National Park stole the crown in 2018.
The government set aside the land before establishing the National Park Service (NPS). Many believed the springs contained medicinal benefits. Once it received federal protection in 1932, the area quickly gained popularity as spas and other luxury services capitalized on the park’s natural resources.
One of the largest attractions for guests of this park is the collection of bathhouses. These facilities use the hot spring water from the park in their luxury spa treatments and services. Visitors to the national park can pay a premium price to get pampered in the same bathhouses that mobsters like Al Capone and Major League Baseball players used in the early 1900s. The park’s reputation is more for the spa services and unique architecture and less for their landscapes.
Limited Outdoor Recreation
The park contains two primary areas for hiking, the Hot Springs/North Mountain Trails and the West Mountain Trails. Most of the hiking trails are very short, but many are part of an interconnected network of trails. If you’re hoping to get in a longer hike, you’ll likely need to do some planning or take the Sunset Trail, which is a circuit of trails that combine for a 15-mile to 17-mile loop.
However, most guests aren’t coming here for outdoor recreation as the historic district gets most of the attention because it attracts the most tourists.
4. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Approximately 70 miles west of Key West is Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the unique parks managed by the NPS. This park consists of seven islands, one of which is home to the 19th century Fort Jefferson. The park sees approximately 80,000 visitors each year, not because of its lack of beauty but its location.
Water, Water Everywhere
While many national park guests enjoy hiking or strolling through the various parks, visitors to Dry Tortugas National Park may struggle to find a place to walk. This is because approximately 1% of the 100-square miles is dry ground.
To fully enjoy this park, you’ll likely need a boat, airplane, or excellent swimming skills. Many enjoy snorkeling and looking for sea life, but there are strong currents with no lifeguards on duty and always the potential for hazardous marine life.
The NPS has no plans to construct a 70-mile bridge to connect this national park to Key West. So until that changes, the only way to reach this national park is via boat or seaplane. Navigating the park can be rather difficult, and many often opt to sign up for chartered tours to get the most of their time at the park. However, some of these tours can cost about $200 per person, making it less than ideal for many families.
5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The incredible rock formations and changing landscapes make Badlands National Park a must-see. Despite the park being over 242,000 acres, you can see most of what makes the park unique in a single day. The park welcomes approximately 1 million guests each year, a majority of which are in July and August. While this park is inspiring, you’re likely not going to feel the need to rush back to see it again.
Lots of Rocks
Much of what makes Badlands National Park unique is the rocks. The rugged terrain is the result of weathering from the intense weather conditions. You can find sandstone, siltstones, mudstones, claystones, limestones, volcanic ash, and shale in the park. It can be enjoyable to see how the various rocks have all eroded differently and their various layers, but most guests can only enjoy looking at rocks for so long.
See It By Car
The park’s infrastructure has made it very easy to see by car. This can allow you to see a vast majority of the park in a full day. While hiking can provide you with more unique views, you’re not missing much if you’re only exploring by car. Many will stay in the area for multiple days to enjoy the views and the wide-open spaces but typically see all they need to at Badlands National Park in a single day.
Should You Still Make A Trip to These National Parks?
All 400 units managed by NPS are very special and worth visiting. However, once you experience some of them, you’re likely to be content never visiting again. Visiting a park only once doesn’t take away from the park’s significance whatsoever. There’s so much to see and do when it comes to the national parks that you’ll struggle to see and experience all they have to offer in a lifetime. So while you may not be rushing back to these parks once you visit them, they’re still worth seeing.
What national parks would you say you’re not in a hurry to visit again?