Perfect for Explorers: 10 of America's Least-Visited National Parks
The numbers in this piece were updated in 2022 to reflect 2019 (pre-pandemic) visitor numbers per the National Park Service's annual visitation reports.
The historic cabins, fishing camps, and lodges of Isle Royale National Park are featured front-and-center in our summer 2016 issue of Preservation magazine, which commemorated the centennial of the National Park Service.
Because of its remote location in Lake Superior, Isle Royale is one of the least-visited national parks, receiving just 26,410 visitors in 2019. (By comparison, over 4 million people made the trek to Yellowstone in the same year.)
Below are ten of the least-visited National Parks. All of these parks are located in some of the nation’s most remote or cold areas, and they’re just waiting for (seasoned and well-prepared) outdoor enthusiasts to discover them.
10) Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Gunnison National Park (pictured at top) in western Colorado holds the eponymous Black Canyon, whose granite walls plunge 2,700 feet down to the Gunnison River below. Hiking around the rim is one of the best ways to see the breathtaking views that the park has to offer.
Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and back-country backpacking draw visitors to the park in the winter. In the summer months, camping, rock-climbing, hiking, rafting, and kayaking are all popular activities.
9) Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
According to the NPS, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is the world’s “premier example of a fossil reef from the Permian Era,” captured in the limestone that also makes up the thousand-foot-high cliff of El Capitan (which shares its name with another mountain in Yosemite,) the park’s most iconic and striking feature.
Fossil lovers, hikers, and history buffs will all find plenty to keep them happy at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. For a taste of pioneer history, head to the early settlement of Frijole, now a cultural museum, and the ruins of Pinery Station, a National Register listed former relay station on the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach route.
8) Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Congaree National Park holds the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States. Hiking, camping, canoeing, and kayaking are all popular activities at Congaree, and its wetlands, lakes, creeks and sloughs provide a home for aquatic life of all kinds, including fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and insects. It's also a prime destination for birdwatchers and researchers hoping to learn more about this unique and preserved ecosystem.
This site was re-designated in 2003 (though it had been a National Monument since 1976) to protect the old growth forest from timber harvesting.
7) Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Boasting one of the “darkest skies in the country” at nighttime, in tandem with what is purportedly the best visibility of the Milky Way in the continental United States, Great Basin National Park is a mecca of sorts for stargazers. The geological wonders of the Lehman Caves are another big draw at this Nevada park, their marble stalactites seemingly frozen in time.
Other highlights include the 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak and plenty of creeks frequented by fishermen. In the winter, the area becomes a haven for skiers and snowshoers.
6) Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Dry Tortugas National Park is another NPS site that receives a shout-out in our Summer 2016 issue—we explore how NPS staff are mitigating the effects of climate change at the park, particularly as they affect the nineteenth-century structure of Fort Jefferson.
Aside from exploring the fort, there are also a wealth of natural resources available to Dry Tortugas visitors. Camping, snorkeling, diving, boating and swimming are big draws for guests to partake in in the turquoise-blue waters just offshore from the keys that comprise the park. One of the most popular snorkeling attractions is the wreck of the Avanti, a steel-hulled sailing vessel that ran aground on the reef surrounding the keys in the early 1900s. The park is only accessible by boat or plane.
5) North Cascades National Park, Washington
Located less than three hours from Seattle and just a stone’s throw from British Columbia, North Cascades National Park is a repository of mountains, glacial lakes, and cultural history. Abandoned mines share a landscape with historic lodges and prehistoric cultural resources that provide insights into the last 9,600 years of human activity in the area.
Due to its proximity to Seattle, North Cascades is much more day-trip friendly than many of the other parks on this list. Hiking, biking, fishing, rafting, and rock climbing drew 20,677 visitors to North Cascades in 2015. If you’re interested in staying overnight but camping isn’t your speed, places like the Skagit River Resort and the North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin offer comforts and amenities that you won’t find outdoors.
4) Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
Rounding out the trio of Alaska sites on the list is Kobuk Valley National Park. One of its biggest claims to fame are its sand dunes, geological oddities that cover a large expanse of the roughly 1-million-acre park (about the size of the state of Delaware.) The dune fields were created after glacier movement left silt and sand deposits in and around the Kobuk River during the Pleistocene era.
This park is also extremely geographically isolated, and no visitor facilities exist inside the park; commercial flights fly daily from Anchorage to Kotzebue, where the park’s information center is located. The park is also accessible by dogsled and snowmobile. As with most sites in Alaska, it’s best to visit during the summer months. Mid-June to late July is the best time to go to see wildflowers in full bloom. Caribou begin to migrate in late August, when the colors on the tundra start to change.
3) Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Located on an island in Lake Superior off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Isle Royale National Park is a haven for backpackers and fishing enthusiasts in the summer months, even as they keep a lookout for the moose and wolves that make their homes on the island.
Isle Royale is chock-full of human history in the form of lighthouses, docks, fisheries, and cabins, relics from before the island was claimed as a National Park in the 1930s. Rock formations like the Greenstone Ridge, believed to be part of the largest lava flow on earth, give geologists a glimpse of the large glacier movement that created Lake Superior and its surrounding topography.
2) Lake Clark National Park, Alaska
Much like the Gates of the Arctic, Lake Clark National Park is only accessible by small plane (and boat, when weather and tides permit.) However, it is only 100 miles southwest of Anchorage, making it considerably less isolated.
The park also contains a number of structures that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, such as the log cabin built by self-educated naturalist Richard Proenneke, where he lived by himself for nearly 30 years. The Athabascan people, who have lived in the Lake Clark region for thousands of years, still maintain their subsistence lifestyle on the land by hunting and fishing.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Lake Clark National Park are its two active volcanoes, Mount Iliamna and Mount Redoubt, which could be seen throwing ash into the air from Anchorage in 1990.
1) Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska
There are no roads within the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, but don’t let that stop you—it’s accessible by “pre-arranged travel,” i.e. a commissioned small plane. The entirety of the park is north of the Arctic Circle, in the Brooks mountain range, so pack your parka (and mittens, boots, crampons, and compass.)
The 1980 legislation that created the park protected 8.4 million acres of “intact, undisturbed arctic ecosystems,” with an emphasis on preserving the means for the subsistence lifestyle of local Native American tribes, as well as the habitat of caribou, grizzly bears, moose, wolves, and birds of prey.