The 15 Least-visited National Parks Have All the Beauty, and None of the Crowds
All of America’s national parks have their own treasures to offer visitors, but some are more popular than others.
Each year, the National Park Service tracks the total number of visits made to each of the parks, revealing the most and least visited. While the country’s least-visited parks can take a bit more planning to reach, they offer incredible experiences to all those who make the trek: Watch synchronous fireflies, hike among the world's oldest trees, take in views of the Northern Lights, or enjoy wildflower blooms at these lesser known national treasures.
These 15 national parks had the fewest visitors in 2018, despite the fact that avid travelers that make it their mission to visit all the parks have touted them as the best in the country. If you're looking for adventure and scenery without the crowds, here are the parks to travel to next.
15. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Voyageurs National Park, in Minnesota, is over 40 percent water, with a network of lakes and interconnected waterways that give visitors the feeling that they’re exploring their own private islands. Last year, the park had 239,656 recreation visits.
When the lakes freeze over in the winter, there are scenic cross-country skiing and snowmobile options, while spring and summer bring edible blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and hazelnuts. Namakan Lake offers incredible fall colors among the maple and aspen trees that line its shores.
The park’s dark skies allow for views of shooting stars, the Milky Way, and the occasional aurora borealis. Stay for the sunset here and you’ll be treated to a stunning reflection of pink and purple hues against the water.
14. Pinnacles National Park, California
You can admire the wildflowers while hiking along the park’s many trails, like the High Peaks Trail, and be sure to keep an eye out for the peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and California condors that call the park home.
Pinnacles is also home to two systems of talus caves formed by huge boulders that sit in between ravines, inviting visitors to walk through caves below “rocks the size of houses.”
13. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Guadalupe Mountains National Park combines mountain and canyon scenery with desert terrain and impressive dunes. The national park is home to more than 80 miles of hiking trails that weave through the desert, canyons, and even to the “Top of Texas” at the Guadalupe Peak Trail, where those who make the hike can see mesmerizing views from every angle.
Four of the state’s highest peaks are located within the park, which also offers spectacular foliage viewing in the fall. Hit the McKittrick Canyon Trail in the northern portion to see just how magnificent the park's fall colors can be.
12. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Thanks to drastic elevation changes (from 5,000 to 13,000 feet) at the Great Basin, the park is immensely diverse in its lflora and fauna. Here you'll find everything from deserts and playas to mountains, fossils, springs, caves, and glaciers. The park is home to 73 different mammal species, more than 200 bird species, 11 species of conifer trees, and more than 800 plant species (like alpine wildflowers that cover its grounds in the spring).
In the fall, pine nuts adorn the park for picking, while mule deer make their seasonal migration through the park during the winter. Visitors will also find the oldest trees on earth and ancient caves at Great Basin.
11. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
South Carolina’s Congaree National Park is home to both the country's largest expanse of old-growth forest, and some of eastern America’s tallest trees. Some of the trees reach as high as 170 feet, and visitors can admire them on the more than 25 miles of hiking trails — or even by canoe or kayak.
The park is also one of the few places in the world where travelers can witness two magnificent natural displays. These include synchronous fireflies, which typically appear between mid-May and mid-June, and a fascinating view that occurs when the park experiences flooding. Thanks to elevated pathways that line the park, those who happen to visit when heavy rainfalls occur can see close to 90 percent of the park completely submerged underwater.
10. Virgin Islands National Park, Virgin Islands
Close to half of Virgin Islands National Park is underwater, inviting visitors to don a snorkel to explore what awaits underneath the park's surface. Mangrove shorelines and seagrass beds are teeming with marine life, and the park's various hiking trails also often lead to secluded locations to swim and snorkel.
Two-thirds of the island of St. John resides within the park, where magnificent beaches like Trunk Bay can be found, while the park's calm waters make it ideal for boating enthusiasts.
9. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska
At 13.2 million acres, Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the nation’s biggest — but only saw 79,450 visits last year.
The park is roughly the same size as Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and all of Switzerland combined. It’s home to the nation’s largest glacial system (close to 35 percent of the park is covered in glaciers), which is why National Park Service representatives say visitors following any braided river or stream to its source are sure to find a receding, advancing, or a tidewater glacier to admire.
The park has 16 of the country’s tallest mountains, and visitors can even see Mount Wrangell (one of the world’s largest active volcanoes) smoking on clear days.
8. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Most of the national park, which includes seven small islands, is part of the Florida Keys reef system — the third largest in the world — and its remote location offers visitors a rich abundance of marine life and shipwrecks to explore.
Head to Garden Key to explore Fort Jefferson, one of the nation's largest 19th-century forts, where you can camp and take in the night sky views the park is known for.
7. Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Designated a national park and preserve in 1980, Katmai National Park and Preserve on Alaska’s northern peninsula is home to dramatic landscapes and a rich array of wildlife. The national park is almost exclusively accessed by plane or boat, and various operators offer air taxi flights and flightseeing tours.
Flightseeing tours are one of the “more dramatic” ways to see the national park and preserve, according to park representatives, as the aerial view reveals the vast size and diversity of the park and its combination of tundra, freshwater lakes, and volcanoes. Those flying over can also take in views of the bears and moose that live in the area.
6. North Cascades National Park, Washington
Though the North Cascades National Park Service Complex is one of the world’s snowiest places, it still provides visitors with a range of activities year-round — from river rafting trips to horseback riding, backpacking, climbing, and hundreds of hiking trails. The alpine landscape hosts short and scenic strolls for beginner hikers, and more lengthy trails that pass alongside glaciers for the more advanced.
5. National Park of American Samoa, American Samoa
This national park is one of the most remote, with secluded villages, coral sand beaches, and open vistas of land and sea in place of tourist facilities. Those who visit can bring their own snorkel gear to explore an underwater world home to over 950 species of fish and over 250 coral species.
Attractions include hiking trails along cliffs with ocean views, islands dotted with tropical rain forests, and preservations of the Samoan culture. The park even offers a homestay program for visitors looking to stay with local Samoan families and learn about the culture.
4. Isle Royal National Park, Michigan
Isle Royal National Park is located on an isolated island that sits in the middle of Lake Superior. The national park is only accessible by boat or seaplane, and transportation services are available from nearby locations.
Once at the park, travelers will find forests, rugged shorelines, backcountry trails, and some 400 satellite islands to explore by boat. Thanks to the cold waters of Lake Superior, the national park is also a prime location for scuba diving as sunken shipwrecks have remained intact.
3. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
Half a million caribou migrate through Kobuk Valley National Park, tracking across the sculpted dunes. The park is home to the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, the largest active sand dunes in the Arctic, which formed over thousands of years as glaciers gradually ground the rocks beneath them. The Ice Age relics are also often dotted with the tracks of bears, wolves, foxes, and moose that roam the park.
The Kobuk River weaves through the park, offering visitors a unique vantage point to view the flora and fauna by boat.
2. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska
The park offers an iconic Alaskan experience, where visitors can get magnificent views of turquoise lakes, brown bears, soaring mountains, and glaciers. Take all of it in while kayaking, hiking, power boating, or biking along the lakes and rivers.
1. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska
With no roads or trails and a landscape carved by glaciers, Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is for the traveler looking to truly get away from it all.
Park representatives refer to the area as “one of the last truly wild places on Earth.” The park’s natural habitats can indeed be harsh, and only experienced wilderness travelers are advised to visit. However, there are also companies that can organize day trips and overnight camp-outs to give visitors at every level the chance to enjoy aurora-lit skies and a natural setting unlike any other.