The United States got its 62nd national park in late 2019 when White Sands got the designation in December. If you’re jonesing to go check it out, a road trip through New Mexico is pretty easy. But of the 61 other national parks, some aren’t quite so straightforward to get to. They may involve jetting in tiny planes to remote parts of Alaska or flying 13 hours over the Pacific Ocean.
That’s not to say America’s least-visited national parks aren’t worth visiting. It’s just to say that to enjoy their sparsely populated grandeur, it might take some work. Here’s a look at the 10 least-visited parks in America, and why they’re worth the trip.
Editor’s note: Illustrations courtesy of Reservations.com.
10. Virgin Islands National Park — St. John, US Virgin Islands
2018 visits: 112,287
Though it sustained some serious damage during Hurricane Irma back in 2017, the resilience of the vegetation in Virgin Islands National Park is nothing short of spectacular. And this tropical wonderland is the prettiest swath of American paradise you’ll find without crossing half the Pacific Ocean.
Unlike most of the seldom-visited parks, this one’s relatively easy to reach with nonstop flights from many large East Coast hubs to St. Thomas and St. Croix. From there, it’s a short ferry ride over to St. John, where two-thirds of the island is covered in national park land. Inside the park you’ll find one of the most-photographed beaches in the country along the white sands of Trunk Bay. It’s never particularly crowded, per se, but if you want even fewer people check out Hawksnest or Caneel Bay, which feels especially remote during the week.
Snorkeling here is some of the best in America, and Trunk Bay has a 225-yard, self-guided snorkel trail rich in tropical fish and coral reef. The diving is also world-class, though you’ll have to go through an operator as beach diving is prohibited. If the water’s not for you, Virgin Islands National Park has 22 trails that wander through old plantation ruins and tropical forests, a perfect way to stay active before killing the rest of your vacation on the beach.
9. Wrangell- St. Elias National Park and Preserve — Alaska
2018 visits: 79,450
The largest national park in the nation covers 13.8 million acres, stretching from the Gulf of Alaska through the St. Elias mountains. It’s a vast, remote landscape, though as Alaskan national parks go, it’s fairly easy to reach. By “easy,” we mean it’s about a three-hour drive from Anchorage to the closest entry point at Glennallen and upwards of five hours to other parts of the park.
Inside the park, you’ll find some of the most spectacular drives in North America, with nary a car to join you. Stop by one of the ranger stations and get a CD to play in your car as you bump along the Nabesna and McCarthy Roads. This way you’ll get a little explanation of the lakes, towering volcanoes, and thick boreal forest passing by your window. Just remember that the roads aren’t exactly what you’d call “smooth,” and getting from one part of the park to another can take over three hours.
Nature aside, you’ll also want to hit the old mining town of Kennecott. Like a relic frozen in the Alaskan cold, this town of red façades is on the National Register of Historic Places and stands as the best preserved example of the state’s mining legacy. You can take guided tours of the town, and its 14-story mill, before heading out to hike the rest of the park.
8. Dry Tortugas National Park — Florida
2018 visitors: 56,810
Once upon a time, the red-brick hexagonal Fort Jefferson was a prison described by one inmate as “without exception, the most horrible place the eye of man ever set upon.” Now, these are the words of a man going to prison in Florida before the advent of air conditioning and bug spray, so take that for what it’s worth. But in ever-developing Florida, Dry Tortuga National Park and the fort located therein are among the few places that still feel truly remote.
Getting here isn’t easy, but is at least straightforward. If you’ve got your own boat, the park is about a 2.5-hour ride from Key West. Lacking your own boat, you can take a National Parks Service ferry for $175 or jump on a flight for about $300. Once there, you’ll be treated to the clearest turquoise water on the US mainland, where snorkeling with colorful fish can take up your entire day if you want it to. The marsh islands around the fort are also filled with rare birds like the black noddy and red-footed booby.
To make the most of the park, book a campsite and stay overnight. Daytime visitors are all gone by about 3:00 PM, leaving only you and the handful of other primitive campers on the island for the night. It’s a little like being Robinson Caruso, if he had portable battery packs and knew he was leaving the next day.
7. Katmai National Park and Preserve — Alaska
2018 visitors: 37,818
Fat Bear Week sounds like the kinda thing you’d show up to accidentally during a family vacation to Myrtle Beach, and you’d either really love it or it would scar you for life. Fortunately, the real Fat Bear week is something completely different, an annual celebration in Katmai National Park, best known as home to over 2,000 brown bears. In early fall, the bears feast on sockeye salmon to see who can bulk up the most for the impending winter, and people literally take a week to vote on Facebook and crown the fattest.
But you don’t have to enjoy bears competitively salmon-gorging to make the most of Katami. Obviously, bear viewing is the big attraction. But like most national parks in the Last Frontier, this one is full of massive open spaces and few people. Hike through the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, where the 1912 Novarupta volcano eruption left a stark, eerie landscape. Or if you prefer to go in the spring, spend some time at Brooks Falls and wait for the formerly fat bears to emerge from hibernation as salmon dodge them in the Brooks River.
The only part of the park that’s anywhere near developed is Brooks Camp, which you can reach via float plane from nearby King Salmon. Getting to King Salmon isn’t terribly difficult, either, involving a short flight from Anchorage. Because no roads lead into the park, this is literally your only option — unless you want to go by boat, but you’ll need your own vessel as no commercial tours exist.
6. North Cascades National Park — Washington
2018 visitors: 30,085
Lost behind the skyline backdrop mound of Mt. Rainier and the lush rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula is Western Washington’s third national park, just east of Bellingham on the Canadian border. The park is home to some of the most dramatic scenery in the state, where you’ll find aquamarine mountain lakes sitting right under sharp snow-capped peaks — a little slice of Switzerland a couple hours’ drive from Seattle.
The park makes up one-third of the North Cascades National Park Complex, along with the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. Those areas get slightly more visitors but are still worth paddling around while mountains reflect in the water. If you want a stiff challenge, try climbing Desolation Peak, whose trailhead is only accessible by boat and offers a hike that’s nearly all straight-up. Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 here working for the forest service — if you want to impress your friends with some in-hike fun facts.
If you’re into rock climbing, you’ll find a great concentration of climbs here, most notably Cascadian Rock, and others with inviting names like Terror, Torment, and Fury. The good news is that you won’t be sharing the rocks with many other people. Despite being the closest seldom-visited park to a major city, North Cascades somehow still gets forgotten. All the better for you, getting all the beauty of the Pacific Northwest minus the ever-growing population.
5. National Park of American Samoa — American Samoa
2018 visits: 28,626
We can forgive people for never having visited this park in far-flung American Samoa, as even when you account for Alaskan bush flights it’s still the longest to reach. At minimum, you’ll have 13.5 hours of flying from the West Coast, traveling a full 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii. But great things aren’t often gained easily, and such is the case with visits to the National Park of American Samoa.
Of the five islands that make up America’s southernmost territory, three of them — Tutuila, Ta’u, and Ofu — are part of this national park. The scenery looks nothing like the rest of America, including Hawaii, where sheer rock islands covered in tropical plants drop straight into turquoise water and bring to mind visions of Thailand and Indonesia. The waters off Ta’u and Ofu offer clear access to coral reefs and over 900 species of tropical fish swimming around you. Or you can climb to the top of Mt. Alava, a relatively easy 7.4-mile trek that rewards you with a panoramic view of the islands.
Lodging is sparse here, and American Samoa offers the unique experience of a local homestay if you opt to spend the night on Ta’u. It’s the best way to learn about the oldest culture in Polynesia and will also involve a boat ride from a local fisherman. A visit is an almost surreal experience, planting yourself square in a foreign land that’s still somehow a US territory.
4. Isle Royale National Park — Michigan
2018 visits: 25,798
Getting to Isle Royal can be a little like living out Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, as the icy waters of Lake Superior often make for a cold and tumbling ride. Of course, this park off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is closed during the coldest months of the year, so your odds of getting caught in an ice storm are minimal. Still, the trip to this isolated patch of Michigan wilderness won’t be easy, with three hour boat rides leaving from towns four hours NORTH of Green Bay.
The island may be hard to reach, but unlike some of these seldom-visited parks, it offers a full-service lodge at the Rock Harbour Lodge where you can cook in your cabin or eat at the restaurant. If you’d prefer to spend time in the wilderness, you’ll likely have to contend with the abundance of moose who call the island home. Interestingly, they are part of the longest-running predator-prey study in America, examining their relationships with the island’s wolves.
You’ll also be right next to one of the greatest collections of wreck dives in America as 10 major wrecks sit right off the coast of Isle Royale. The cold waters have kept them better preserved than the wrecks you’d find in the Caribbean, and some date back to the 19th century. If you’d rather not bring a wetsuit, you can stay on top of the water and fish to your heart’s content.
3. Kobuk Valley National Park — Alaska
2018 visitors: 14,937
If you saw a picture of someone standing atop a sand dune well north of the Arctic Circle sweltering in 100-degree heat, you might think it’s some sort of scene of post-apocalyptic climate change. But that’s actually not at all uncommon in Kobuk Valley National Park, where glacially formed sand dunes shoot for 25 miles in different directions, and summer temps can reach into the triple digits.
If your desert trek through Alaska gets too taxing, you can always jump in the Kobuk and Salmon Rivers, both of which flow through the park. Much of the park is made up of the wetlands surrounding the rivers, and while you will see plenty of mountains in the Brooks Range, the valley itself is pretty flat. You’ll also definitely want to bring a guide with you as Kobuk Valley’s 1.7 million acres aren’t much for roads or signage. And if you get lost the only thing resembling civilization are a handful of native Inupiat villages.
Getting here is no piece of cake either. No roads go here, and the only planes that fly to the park are air taxis from the thriving metropolises of Bettles and Kotzebue. Those cities are only accessible via flights from Fairbanks and Anchorage, respectively, and during summer it’s possible to be flown in with a packable boat and float your way through the park.
2. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve — Alaska
2018 visits: 14,479
Interestingly, the second least-visited national park in America is only about a hundred miles from Anchorage, making it much easier to reach than some other parks lower down on this list. A short drive from Anchorage to Iliamna and an air taxi later, you’re right in the thick of some of Alaska’s most glorious wilderness, where the Chigmit Mountains stand watch over 6,300 square miles of untamed backcountry.
The coolest adventure in the park is a seaplane flight to Turquoise Lake, which, as the name might imply, shines a bright blue-green in the shadow of the mountains. You can spend a couple of days camping here if you like, where typically your neighbors will only be moose, birds, and the occasional bear. If you need something more than a tent, you can spend the night at the Silver Salmon Lodge, which offers fully furnished guest cabins and a full-service restaurant.
You’ll also find rugged Alaskan tundra at the Turquoise-Telaquana Plateau, thick forests along the coast, and miles of designated Wild and Scenic Rivers. If you’re looking to experience Alaskan wilderness in all of its grey-skied glory, you’ll get the best of it here. And best of all, it won’t take you days to reach.
1. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve — Alaska
2018 visitors: 9,591
To put this into perspective, Great Smoky Mountain National Park got 11.3 million visitors last year — which means it got an average of three times more visitors per day than the Gates of the Arctic gets in an entire year. Its sparse visitation is understandable, though; Gates of the Arctic requires flying from Fairbanks to Bettles, Alaska, then taking an air taxi into the park. Once you’re there, you won’t find much in the way of amenities. And by that we mean no roads or toilets.
That said, if you’re looking to unplug and disconnect, this is about the ultimate place. Spread across the park’s 8.5 million acres, you won’t find more than about 50 people, and needless to say you won’t find cell service or WiFi either. You will, however, find adventures like kayaking down the Noatak River, where you’ll truly get the feeling you were the first person to ever explore the area. Hikes along the Central and Eastern Brooks mountain ranges — effectively the northern terminus of the Rocky Mountains — are equally awe-inspiring. You can summit the highest ones at about 9,000 feet and many at 3,000. No matter how high you are, gazing out at the park will give you the feeling that the land around is all yours. Or better, belongs to no one at all.
The National Parks Service doesn’t give recommendations on what to do at Gates of the Arctic because everything here is dependent on your skill level.You’re best advised to take a guide along with you and learn how to traverse the most untamed national park in America somewhere other than the internet.