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Five Hidden Gems of the National Park Service

by Grant
Hidden Gems of the National Park Service

Bonnie and I are huge fans of the National Park Service. We have visited more than 200 units out of the 419 (and growing) units in the U.S. and its territories. In our visits, we have seen some of the big names in the Park Service (Yellowstone, Acadia, Denali and Everglades), but it is often the lesser-known units that have truly blown our minds. These hidden gems of the National Park Service often capture our hearts in a different way.

Perhaps it is because we have lower expectations, but the smaller, lesser-known parks often make for some of the most profound moments in our travels. Here is a list of five NPS sites that are worth your time and effort to visit.

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Updated April 2019

Weir Farm National Historic Site

Ridgefield, Connecticut

While not terribly far from New York City and not that far off the Interstate, Weir Farm NHS is still a haven nestled in suburban Connecticut.

Weir Farm was the home of Julian Alden Weir, one of the foremost painters of the American Impressionist movement.  Originally purchased as a retreat, he soon moved there and created a studio there, painting many of his finest works at the farm.

Weir Farm is one of those perfectly pastoral places. It truly is begging me to come back and paint there... And I don't paint!
Weir Farm is one of those perfectly pastoral places. It truly is begging me to come back and paint there… And I don’t paint!

His second daughter, Dorothy, herself a talented artist, married the grandson of Brigham Young, the sculptor Mahorni Young, who also located his studio to the farm. Eventually, the farm passed out of the Weir family, but on to other artists, who preserved the farm, the house and the studios.

The farm is so refreshingly pastoral and just begs walking and admiration. Fortunately, Congress dedicated the park to art and there are artists in residence who paint among gardens, fields and ponds. Indeed, the park invites guests to take part in creating art of their own.

A couple of things to note when you go: parking is very limited and will not accept RVs or larger vehicles. Additionally, if you want to tour the house, you have to register for a tour.

Right now, I paint with my camera and my words. One day, I want to return to Weir Farm with a paint brush and canvas. It’s that inspiring of a place.

Read more about our July 2016 visit to Weir Farm.

The serenity and unique nature of Weir Farm are what make it stand out as a hidden gem of the National Park Service.

Pipestone National Monument

Pipestone, Minnesota

Minnesota’s Pipestone National Monument is located near the border with South Dakota and Iowa. It is not terribly far from either Interstate 29 or Interstate 90. This is still a place you have to want to go to and you should!

Winnewissa Falls at Pipestone National Monument
Winnewissa Falls at Pipestone National Monument

Pipestone NM is a Plains Indian quarry,  where they would dig for Catlinite. Plains Indians could use hand tools to cut the soft, reddish Sioux Quartzite. The Plains Indians, primarily the Sioux, but ranging all the way to Texas, would come to this site to extract pipestone to make mouthpieces for ceremonial pipes.

Those of Native American descent can still dig there in active quarries. The site also has a rather nice waterfall, along with a walking trail.

While it is a relatively small site, this site truly celebrates Native American culture.  We had to go a little bit out of our way to visit this site, but it was definitely worth it.

The Native American traditions found at Pipestone and the fact that it is still an active quarry are what make it stand out as a hidden gem of the National Park Service.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Wall, South Dakota

When we visited Minuteman Missile National Historic Site back in 2012, there wasn’t a visitor center yet, just a trailer located next to a gas station not far from Badlands National Park. Now, there is a nice, new visitor center, so we made a point to stop again in 2018 when staying in Wall, SD for a couple of nights.

Minuteman Missile NHS preserves nuclear missile silos left over from the Cold War… So cool! One of the silos allows you to look down at a mock-up of a Minuteman III missile. You can also take a tour of the other silo, which will take you down to the control room underground in a sealed bunker.

The missle control console at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
The missle control console at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

Most folks just breeze past this site on their way to Badlands NP or on to the Black Hills. The history of the American arsenal in the Plains, plus the ability to actually see a launch control room and see a silo up close is just too much to pass up.

One thing to note: the guided tours of the silo require a reservation. I suggest making sure you do that in advance, especially in the summer.

Read more about Wall, SD and the Minuteman Missile NHS Visitor Center.

The fact that you can go down into an old missile control room is what makes Minuteman Missile stand out as a hidden gem of the National Park Service.

Wind Cave National Park

Hot Springs, South Dakota

Wind Cave is a national park, so shouldn’t be overlooked. Unfortunately, it feels like everything else there is in the Black Hills sometimes overshadows this amazing park.

The park is most famous for its amazing underground formations. Taking a tour of the cave, especially the candlelight tour, is worth the trip to the park by itself.

Visitors often ignore the above-ground portion of the park but they shouldn’t. It is full of natural beauty. Also, don’t ignore it in the winter, either. Adding snow to the landscape makes for an amazing site.

Read about our time Exploring the Black Hills in the Winter.

Bison and calf in Wind Cave National Park
Bison and calf in Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave is relatively small, but it is where the Black Hills give way to the prairie, which makes for beautiful, varied terrain, lots of wildlife and one of the best hikes we have ever taken in a NPS unit.

Like Minuteman Missile NHS, be sure to book your tours in advance. When it comes to the hiking, prepare to not see anyone else.

The natural beauty found both above and below ground are what make Wind Cave stand out as a hidden gem of the National Park Service.

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site

Deer Lodge, Montana

The Grant-Kohrs Ranch was one of the first of the major cattle ranches in Montana. The National Park Service preserves it as a working cattle ranch.

The ranch is located in the Deer Lodge Valley along the Clark River and could not be more pretty. As a working ranch, there are plenty of opportunities to learn about how the ranch operated in the 1800s. You can also see the ranch house.

A barn and horse at Grant-Khors National Historic Site
A barn and horse at Grant-Khors National Historic Site

When we were there, the rangers gave a demonstration of prairie wildlife, including the skin of a prairie wolf. It was so much larger than I would have thought!

Our first visit to Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS was short out of necessity. It took us a few years, but we finally made it back for a second visit and are glad we did!

Read more on Visiting Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site.

The story of how a German immigrant became the Cattle King of Montana and the scenic beauty of this land are what make Grant-Kohrs Ranch a hidden gem of the National Park Service.

We found these hidden gems in our travels of the National Parks. Which parks are your unknown favorites that we simply must visit?

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An exploration of five hidden gems of the National Park Service: Weir Farm NHS, Pipestone NM, Minuteman Missile NHS, Wind Cave NP & Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS.
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