21 Excellent Side Trips for Your Next National Park Visit


Planning a trip to a national park? Consider adding a nearby national wildlife refuge or national monument to the itinerary. With many public lands next door to some of the country’s most visited canyons, waterfalls, and mountain peaks, these lesser-known natural gems are a great way to avoid the crowds while still getting to experience all that nature has to offer!

Whether your national park adventure is during National Park Week, in the summer or a last-minute trip, pair it with one these neighboring public lands:

1. National Elk Refuge 

Mountains lie in the background against a bright blue sky, a vast green field lies before it with purple vegetation and a trail.

Within view of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, the National Elk Refuge is an easy detour to see the wintering grounds for an estimated 11,000 elk in the Jackson elk herd, or enjoy a winter sleigh ride. Besides elk, many other animals thrive on these grounds including bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and over 150 species of birds. No matter the season, the refuge offers visitors a number of recreation activities -- from hunting and fishing to wildlife viewing and photography. Plus, visitors will witness unbelievable views of the Teton Range. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

2. Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument

a person stand in an opening in a rock formation

If you’re visiting Glacier National Park in Montana, we recommend adding Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument to your trip. Famous for its riverside cliffs, the monument spans 149 miles of the Upper Missouri River and includes six wilderness study areas. This amazing landscape has remained largely unchanged in the more than 200 years since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled through it on their epic journey. Within the monument you can float the river, fish, hike, hunt, sightsee by car, find solitude, enjoy a sense of exploration in a remote setting, or simply marvel at the variety of natural beauty. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

3. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Orange sunset reflect off the water, shadows of a bird and trees sit in the forefront.

Adjacent to the Canaveral National Seashore in Florida, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was once a part of the 140,000 acres of land acquired by NASA for the John F. Kennedy Space Center. In 1963, the wildlife refuge was established on some of the unused land. Today, the refuge is home to over 1,000 species of animals and plants, making it an ideal place for birdwatching, hiking, and fishing. If you plan it just right, you can see a NASA rocket launch. Photo by Mike Ballard  (www.sharetheexperience.org).

4. Pompeys Pillar National Monument

Pink sun rests in the background of a vast forest of trees, a staircase, and large rock formations

If you are planning on taking the scenic Beartooth Highway to Yellowstone National Park, consider jumping off the interstate just east of Billings, Montana, to check out Pompeys Pillar National Monument. While Pompeys Pillar may be small in size at 51 acres, its historical significance is monumental. Scrawled into the sandstone pillar that juts skyward from the banks of the Yellowstone River is William Clark’s signature, the only remaining physical evidence visible on the Corp of Discovery’s trail. Clark’s signature along with other signatures and Native American pictographs can be seen from the wooden boardwalk that winds its way to the top of the pillar, which looks out over the Yellowstone valley framed by three mountain ranges. This national monument is a convenient stop to take a quick nature walk, soak in the history, and breathe some fresh air. Nearby Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness in Montana and Idaho’s South Fork of the Snake River also make great additions to a Yellowstone trip. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management. 

5. Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

Blue water surrounded by dry land and green vegetation

Just 48 miles from the Furnace Creek entrance of Death Valley National Park, Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge’s landscape is light-years away from the hottest, driest, and lowest national park. The Nevada refuge is home to the ice blue spring pools of the largest remaining oasis in the Mojave Desert. Recognized as a wetland of international importance, this refuge is 24,000 acres of spring-fed wetlands and a habitat to the highest concentration of endemic species in the country. This national treasure also holds the 500+ feet deep Devils Hole and bodies of fossil water (melted ice from the last ice age), and is truly unique amid the harsh desert landscape that surrounds it. What are you waiting for? Plan your trip today! Photo by Richard Gibson (www.sharetheexperience.org). 

6. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

Sun rises in the background illuminating shadows of trees, a body of water, and banks of land

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, the Virginia portion of the 37-mile Assateague National Seashore, holds 14,000 acres of beach, dunes, maritime forests, and marshes. Originally established as a habitat for migratory birds, the refuge is now home to diverse plants and wildlife, including the famous Chincoteague ponies. Visitors flock to the refuge to see these majestic creatures and experience the refuge’s spectacular white-sand beaches that offer fun for the whole family. Photo by Tom Swift (www.sharetheexperience.org).

7. Merced River Recreation Area

Massive field of orange, purple and green flowers and vegetation

As the relatively tranquil Merced River leaves the incomparable Yosemite Valley, it wastes no time taking a headlong plunge through the Sierra foothills on its way to the Central Valley. Here, along California’s Highway 140, which provides access to Yosemite National Park, whitewater rafters and kayakers enjoy a long series of Class III and IV rapids with guided whitewater trips available from local outfitters. For those who want more tranquil adventures, several campgrounds are available at the Bureau of Land Management Merced River Recreation Area in Briceburg, with access to hiking and mountain biking opportunities. Spring wildflowers are spectacular within the canyon and peak in March and April. Photo by Bureau of Land Management. 

8. Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

Three geese fly over marshy waters with sprouting green vegetation and a walk up to a small pavilion

Near Washington’s iconic Olympic and Mount Rainier National Parks is Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. With Mount Rainier as a backdrop, the refuge boasts remarkable landscapes and an abundance of wildlife -- all just 45 minutes south of the Seattle airport. The refuge was established to preserve a rich combination of the Nisqually River’s fresh water and the Puget Sound’s salt water, an area where birds flock and salmon eggs hatch. Whether boating or hiking, visitors can see unique ecosystems and diverse wildlife at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Kerry Serl (www.sharetheexperience.org).

9. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Single bird flies over water illuminated by sun

While visiting North Carolina’s Outer Banks, venture from Cape Hatteras National Seashore to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is a paradise for both birds and birders -- with the best birding in fall and winter. Pea Island is home to over 365 species of birds, 25 species of mammals, and 24 species of reptiles, including Loggerhead sea turtles. For a fun family adventure, consider taking one of the refuge’s summer guided canoe tours. Photo by Melanie Hendrickson (www.sharetheexperience.org).

10. Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument 

Photo of large orange and red canyons, a single long stream running between them

One of the most well known national parks, Grand Canyon National Park is overwhelming in its immense size and depth. Lesser known but just as grand is Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, located 30 miles southwest of St. George, Utah. This monument of colorful vistas and deep canyons has no paved roads but is worth the effort to explore. You can take a scenic four-wheel-drive, hike in the backcountry, or discover some of the area’s archeological and historic sites. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management. 

11. Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Two grown bison and one baby bison, graze in field surrounded by large mountains

About 80 miles from Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the largest urban refuges in the country -- Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. A former war-time manufacturing site turned wildlife sanctuary, this 15,000-acre Colorado refuge supports 330 species of wildlife and has 10 miles of hiking trails. Take a trip on the wildlife drive to see bison, coyotes, and bald eagles. Photo by Rich Keen, DRPA. 

12. Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

Blue waters separate large snow covered mountains from mossy green lands

When visiting Kenai Fjords National Park, adventure to Alaska’s nearby Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Nearly two million acres in size, the refuge is characterized by diverse habitats and wildlife, earning it the name “Alaska in Miniature.” Moose, bears, bald eagles, and salmon are just a sampling of the wildlife variety here. Fishing, canoeing, and hiking opportunities also draw visitors from around the world. End the trip by spending the night in one of the refuge’s 16 log cabins or watching the midnight sunset at a roadside campground. Photo by Gareth Blakemore (www.sharetheexperience.org).

13. Red Cliffs National Conservation Area

Some green vegetation and a small waterfall leading into a stream are surrounded by large red cliffs

The soaring pink, cream, and red sandstone cliffs of Zion National Park in Utah welcome over 4 million visitors each year. About an hour away and occupying a similar landscape is Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. Red Cliffs has 130 miles of hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian-riding trails to explore without the crowds that fill its more famous neighbor. Also home to the endangered desert tortoise and other threatened species, Red Cliffs is a place to make memories. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management. 

14. Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

Large white tipped mountain sits behind vegetation and water

As the deepest and most pristine lake in the United States, Crater Lake National Park in Oregon is a natural treasure. Less than 30 miles away, Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge embraces a more understated, simple beauty. Comprising 15,000 acres, most of which are freshwater cattail marshes and open water, the refuge serves as nesting habitat for waterfowl species such as the American white pelican and several heron species. Offering outstanding hunting, fishing and canoeing opportunities, the refuge isn’t just for the birds. Photo by Bureau of Reclamation.

15. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Red cliffs and bricks sit above open green and brown land

Preserving the archeological sites of the Ancestral Pueblo people, Mesa Verde National Park and its neighboring Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado offer a spectacular look into the lives and cultures of those who came before us. The national monument is presented as an “outdoor museum” of over 6,000 sites. Even better, this national relic can conveniently be explored by foot! Wandering through this amazing landscape by centuries old archaeological sites will feel like you’re traveling through time. Photo by Bureau of Land Management. 

16. Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge

Lots of birds gather on red rocky edge

The rocky coastline of Maine is home to America’s first national park east of the Mississippi River: Acadia National Park. Scattered along the same stunning shoreline, Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge supports an incredible diversity of habitats, including coastal islands, forested headlands, estuaries, and freshwater wetlands. Eight of the islands within the refuge are used to re-establish seabird breeding populations, such as the Atlantic puffins. The refuge has two visitors offices: one is in Milbridge (approximately 45 miles east of the national park) and the other in Rockland (about 80 miles south). Take a walk on the winding trails or explore a blueberry field. It’s the perfect place to start your Maine vacation. Photo by Rosie Walunas, National Wildlife Refuge. 

17. Mojave Trails National Monument

Beautiful pink and red sky illuminates large land formation and field covered in purple, yellow and blue flowers

Comprising a stunning mosaic of rugged mountain ranges, ancient lava flows and spectacular sand dunes, Mojave Trails National Monument in California is a less well-known neighbor of Joshua Tree National Park. Also protecting irreplaceable historic resources, including ancient Native American trading routes, World War II-era training camps, and the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of Route 66, Mojave Trails is its own destination. If you plan a trip in the springtime, you might be lucky enough to witness a spectacular desert superbloom with wildflowers stretching as far as the eye can see. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

18. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Pink Pelican splashes into water

Compared to the vastness of Everglades National Park in south Florida, nearby J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island offers a more compact natural paradise -- one with a personal, family-friendly feel. Calm, shallow water is what makes both the Everglades and “Ding” Darling Refuge irresistible to colorful wading birds, as well as alligators and crocodiles. While the Everglades is a freshwater cypress swamp, “Ding” Darling Refuge is part of a saltwater coastal ecosystem, covered with dunes, maritime hammocks, and mangrove forests. Make sure to put this subtropical wonderland on your Florida bucket list. Photo by Scott Stoner (www.sharetheexperience.org).

19. Denali Highway

Long paved road spirals through vast green lands and mountains covered in snow

For those who want to take the scenic route to Denali National Park, or just enjoy the amazing scenery of the eastern Alaska Range, the 135-mile long Denali Highway is the place to go. Built in 1957 as the original access road to the park, the road is still mostly gravel. A popular summer destination for those wanting to slow down to enjoy their Alaska adventure, the corridor offers opportunities for dispersed camping, cycling, fishing and birdwatching just to name a few. The Tangle Lakes area constitutes the headwaters of the Delta River Wild and Scenic River, a popular canoeing destination. There are several Bureau of Land Management-maintained trails and two developed campgrounds. This is a stretch of wild Alaska that is unspoiled, accessible, and very photogenic. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management. 

20. John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge

Yellow and orange lit water surrounded by trees and vegetation

People often visit Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. It might surprise them that nearby this urban setting is John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge preserves Tinicum Marsh, a thriving sanctuary teeming with a rich diversity of fish, wildlife, and plants native to the Delaware Estuary. Healthy and productive expanses of freshwater tidal marsh, open waters, mudflat, and woodlands support the hundreds of species that breed, rear their young, rest during migration, or call the refuge home year-round. A short visit to this natural oasis will renew your spirit and help you face the city again. Photo by Ryan Doyle (www.sharetheexperience.org).

21. Ironwood Forest National Monument

large mountains rest behind vast open space filled with cacti and green vegetation

A stone’s throw from Saguaro National Park is the 129,000-acre Ironwood Forest National Monument. Ironwood Forest gets its name from one of the longest living trees in the Arizona desert. Keeping company with the ironwood trees are mesquite, palo verde, creosote, and saguaro -- blanketing the monument floor beneath rugged mountain ranges named Silver Bell, Waterman, and Sawtooth. In between, desert valleys lay quietly to complete the setting. The national monument also contains habitat for the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl and desert bighorn sheep dwelling, which makes hiking, wildlife watching, and photography favorite activities in this desert jewel. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.