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10 Extremely Unexpected Features of U.S. National Parks

It isn't all hiking trails, lakes, and pine cones.

The National Park system is full of majestic mountains, soaring skies, and roaring rivers. From coast to coast, national parks are incredible places to see some of Mother Nature’s most impressive feats. Not as well-known are some of the quirky and unexpected features of national parks, some of which are even hidden in caves or under the sea.

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A Roller Staking Rink

WHERE: Anacostia Park, Washington, DC

A national park isn’t usually the first place that comes to mind for great roller skating. That’s because there is only one roller skating pavilion in the entire national park system. Among the many nice features of Anacostia Park in Washington, DC is a large roller-skating rink with beautiful views of the Anacostia River. Admission and skate rental are free, but the outdoor rink is only open seasonally so plan accordingly.

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A Ghost Town

WHERE: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

The Elkmont Campground in the Great Smokies National Park in Tennessee is best known for its rare synchronous fireflies. A less well-known attraction is the abandoned remains of the once-thriving town of Elkmont. The town was originally built in the 1800s to support a logging community, before becoming a vacation destination at the turn of the century. When Elkmont became part of the Great Smokies National Park in 1934 some residents fled. Others opted to stay in their homes for the remainder of their lives. As the last residents passed away, many buildings stood unoccupied and the area became known as Elkmont Ghost Town. Today, the National Park Service is restoring some of the ghost town’s buildings as a reminder of a way of life that no longer exists. If visiting during firefly season, be sure to enter the lottery for a campsite spot well in advance of your visit.

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A Preserved Missile Launcher

WHERE: Everglades National Park, Florida

Many visitors seek out national parks for peace and tranquility. Others go to national parks in search of military relics. Everglades National Park in Florida is home to one of the best-preserved Cold War sites in the country. The US Army Corps of Engineers completed the HM 69 Nike Missile Base just after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1965. It remained an active military installation until 1979. Today, visitors can see two Nike Hercules missiles, a missile assembly building, a guard dog kennel, and barracks which once housed the approximately 140 soldiers who were stationed there. The missile site is open seasonally and ranger-led programs are available.

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A Speakeasy

WHERE: Denali National Park

Denali National Park in Alaska is home to North America’s tallest mountain, an incredible variety of wildlife, and a “secret” speakeasy, The Spike, named for the golden railroad spike located inside the bar, does not have an official address. Instead, those who know about the speakeasy pass their knowledge on to others. The speakeasy, located inside two old railway cards, is primarily a bar for national park employees. However, many visitors report being allowed in if they find the bar.


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WHERE: Biscayne National Park

Many national parks are full of beautiful trees, mountains, and open skies. In contrast, Biscayne National Park in Florida is 95% underwater and is better explored by canoe than by foot. The park’s Maritime Heritage Trail includes six shipwrecks that can be seen by snorkeling or SCUBA diving. The oldest wreck dates to 1878. Landlubbers can get a look at the national park’s wrecks here.

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A Castle Built in Roaring ‘20s

WHERE: Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada

In the 1920s a prospector known as “Death Valley Scotty” swindled wealthy investors into investing in his gold mine, which didn’t exist. One of Scotty’s investors called his bluff but was amused by the scheme. The two became friends and when the investor built a castle in the desert, he included a room for Scotty. Once completed, the lavish home became known as Scotty’s Castle. After Scotty died, the federal government bought the property. It is now part of Death Valley National Park, which spans California and Nevada. The castle is currently being renovated due to extensive flood damage, but tours of the grounds are available.

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Sand Sledding

WHERE: Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

The tallest dunes in North America are in the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. Walking among the dunes is a beautiful and unusual hike. However, the main attraction for many visitors is climbing up the dunes and sledding down. Sand sledding is similar to snowboarding, but you will need a specialized board. If you don’t have one, don’t worry. Several locations near the park rent boards. Bring sunglasses and a bandana for protection from the sand.

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Pop Stars Under the Stars

WHERE: Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Virginia

Most national parks are full of natural beauty. Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia has some pretty hikes, but it stands out for being the only national park in the country dedicated to showcasing some of the country’s best talent. The park has stages set deep in the woods. Performers such as Diana Ross, Sting, John Legend, and KRS-1 have all played there. The park also frequently hosts the National Symphony Orchestra playing along to movies like Star Wars and Harry Potter.

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A Methodist Church Inside a Cave

WHERE: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky isn’t just home to the largest underground cave system in the world. It is also home to the  River Styx, named after the river Hades used to ferry the dead to the underworld, and Gothic Avenue where early visitors wrote their names using smoke from candles. The cave system also features an underground Methodist Church where services were held deep underground in the 1800s. While no longer in use, Pulpit Rock, where the preacher stood, is still visible along with marks from lanterns parishioners used to light their way to services.

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A Sidetrip to Mexico

WHERE: Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park in Texas is a fantastic place to take a scenic drive and visit historic ranches. Because the park shares a border with Mexico, it’s also possible to take a quick trip abroad from right inside the national park. Be sure to bring your passport since both Mexico and the United States require proper documentation to enter.