Each year, people from around the world flock to at least one of our nation’s 61 national parks in search of serenity and adventure. What they often find instead are hoards of selfie-stick-bearing tourists, all struggling to catch a glimpse of a moose or the erupting Old Faithful geyser. But there are other ways to find that quiet solitude nature can give us.
While over 300 million people visit US national parks each year, many stick to the same big-name parks. There are, in fact, several parks teeming with natural splendor that hardly get a visit. If you’re in search of adventure, vast areas of untouched wilderness are waiting to be explored at some of the least-visited national parks in the United States.
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is situated in south-central Alaska, about 100 miles south of Anchorage. Here, the Alaska and Aleutian Ranges, which lie adjacent to Bristol Bay, intersect, hosting a range of ecosystems from alpine tundra to coastal forest and salt marsh. Home to the largest salmon run in the world, the land is vital to the economic sustainability of the local Dena’ina natives. The park is accessible only by air taxi or boat. Adventurers travel there to the park to explore the active volcanoes, catch salmon, or paddle one of the many bodies of salt or freshwater.
Big Bend National Park
Located on the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert near Texas’s border with Mexico, Big Bend National Park is one of the least-visited parks in the continental US — seeing one-twelfth of the visitors to Yosemite National Park. It’s home to over 300 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. In the heart of the park lie the Chisos Mountains, which protrude nearly 8,000 feet from the lowlands, adding to the area’s ecological diversity. Around the Rio Grande River – which contains a large bend from which the park’s namesake was derived — visitors will also find deep canyons, forested oases, and vast, untouched desert. Much of the park is undeveloped, making it perfect for paddling, backpacking, hiking, and simply enjoying the landscape’s natural beauty.
North Cascades National Park
The proximity of North Cascades National Park to Seattle makes it more accessible than the remote wilderness of Alaska. Yet it still manages to remain overlooked by the crowds heading to more popular parks like Yellowstone, Arches National Park, and the Grand Canyon. Spanning over a half-million acres in northern Washington, North Cascades is home to over 300 glaciers and spectacular landscapes, from massive rock faces and monoliths to alpine tundra and glacial-fed lakes and streams. The park, which can be accessed by car but has limited man-made structures and roads within its boundaries, is popular for technical mountaineering, backcountry skiing, fishing, and backpacking.
National Park of American Samoa
Located in the heart of the South Pacific, the National Park of American Samoa provides an experience unique to most other US national parks. On three islands approximately 2,600 miles south of Hawaii, there lies a remote paradise with coral reefs, beaches, mountains, volcanoes, and rainforests. These ecosystems are home to a variety of rare wildlife — like the endangered flying fox — that can’t be found elsewhere in the United States. To reach the park, visitors must fly into Pago Pago on American Samoa’s main island. From there, the other islands can be reached by flights offered through a local operator.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park, which lies nearly 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, consists mostly of water with a few small islands scattered throughout. Consequently, the park is accessible only by boat or seaplane. While there are opportunities to hike and camp on the islands, less than one percent of the park is made up of dry land, making it perfect for boating, fishing, snorkeling, and diving. The real draw of the park is its colorful reefs and wildlife,such as hundreds of bird species and the sea turtles that give the park its name — as tortuga is turtle in Spanish.
Great Basin National Park
Nevada, which is often associated with flat, barren landscapes, is actually home to glacier-capped peaks, ancient bristlecone pine groves, and deep limestone caves. In Great Basin National Park, situated in eastern Nevada, the 13,000-foot Wheeler Peak provides hiking and climbing opportunities while the dark, unpolluted skies are perfect for stargazing. The Lehman Caves and their limestone formations give visitors a glimpse into the vast depths of the earth below the park.
Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale and the 450 rocky and forested islands that surround it in Michigan’s Lake Superior make-up Isle Royale National Park. Ferries from Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin provide access to the main island, which does have some facilities like a lodge and campground. The island — which is famous for a wolf and moose population that likely migrated across the frozen lake in the late 1940s — offers great hiking, backpacking, paddling, boating, and fishing opportunities. Perhaps because access is only by boat, Isle Royale receives far fewer visitors than its wooded and watery scenery merits.
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
Located in the remote Brooks Range of northern Alaska, the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is the second largest and northernmost national park in the US. The park, which sits entirely north of the Arctic Circle, is devoid of roads and trails and received only 9,600 visits in 2018 — compared to the Great Smoky National Park’s over 11 million. Visitors backpack, paddle, and view wildlife and the northern lights from the 8.4 million acres of glacier-carved valleys and mountains. Before venturing into a remote landscape like this, be sure you are proficient in backcountry travel and survival skills.
Kobuk Valley National Park
Kobuk Valley National Park is another remote, difficult-to-access, Alaskan wonder. Each year, a half-million caribou migrate through the park’s sand dunes, providing food for the native communities of the region. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are the largest dunes in the Arctic and provide a natural habitat for a wide variety of arctic wildlife. The dunes and almost 1.8 million acres of remote backcountry that surround it provide opportunity for backpacking, paddling, fishing, photography, and sightseeing.