Some national parks are more popular than others, and one of them is the least visited of all. Maybe that means it’s not worth seeing, but it could be that it’s simply the park service’s best-kept secret.
There are 63 national parks in 30 states and two U.S. territories. Many of them, like the Great Smoky Mountains and Yellowstone, welcome several million visitors a year. Others have a much lower profile and a guestbook with many blank pages to fill.
If you hate big crowds, maybe these less visited places are a perfect match.
About the United States National Park System
Yellowstone, located in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, was the first national park established in 1872. This was 44 years before President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service (NPS) to oversee all national parks. The park service maintains 423 different sites essential for scenic, historical, or cultural reasons. These places, including the national parks, are known as NPS units. They cover 84 million acres in the U.S. These units can be national parkways, recreation areas, monuments, seashores, and battlefields.
How many people visit these places? The NPS reported 297 million recreation visits in 2021. That’s an increase of around 60 million over the previous year when many parks shut down because of the pandemic. Judging from the big crowds these days, you might think visits to national parks are at an all-time high. However, the attendance record was in 2017, with almost 331 million visits. (That’s for all 423 NPS units, not just the 63 national parks.)
Seldom Visited National Parks That You Need to Visit
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular, with 14.1 million visitors. Next up is Zion National Park, with 5 million, and Yellowstone, with 4.9 million.
These are huge numbers, with millions more guests than they welcome at the least-visited national parks. Let’s find out where these parks are and what they offer.
North Cascades National Park, Washington
Average Yearly Visits: 17,855
About The Park: These rugged evergreen slopes in northern Washington are sometimes called “the American Alps.” The park covers over half a million acres of alpine wilderness. It’s a three-hour drive from Seattle and borders Canada’s British Columbia.
Why It’s Worth A Visit: Do you love waterfalls as much as we do? That’s what gives the park its name, and one of these waterfalls is the tallest in Washington. The park also has more than 300 glaciers and 300 lakes. One of them, Diablo Lake, has a surreal milky-green hue.
A boardwalk offers impressive views of the jagged peaks, up to 8,000 feet tall. There’s one road running through the park, but it’s a state highway and a 30-mile scenic route.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Average Yearly Visits: 144,875
About The Park: Near the Utah line in east-central Nevada, this 77,000-acre park has gorgeous mountain and desert landscapes. It’s also an International Dark Sky Park, so they say “half the park is after dark.” It’s a few miles from the town of Baker and not far from Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
Why It’s Worth A Visit: It’s a mystery why so many people pass it by, especially with no admission fee. It’s home to some of the oldest living trees globally, and the bristlecone pines may be 4,000 years old.
You can see remnants of the glaciers that helped create distinctive rock formations. Enjoy the 12-mile scenic drive to Wheeler Peak and its dramatic elevation gain of 6,235 feet. Underground, Lehman Caves are home to 10 different kinds of bats.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Average Yearly Visits: 25,844
About The Park: There’s no surprise why this watery wonderland has so few visitors. It’s an island off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. To get here, you have to come by plane or float across part of Lake Superior. There are 206 acres of isolated wilderness on Isle Royale and some smaller islands around it.
Why It’s Worth A Visit: Parts of the park are so pristine they are designated as a United States Biosphere Reserve. There are 165 miles of trails to explore, including a long, challenging route around the entire Isle of Royale.
The abundant wildlife includes coyotes, moose, and gray wolves. You can do backcountry camping or take advantage of the 36 established campsites.
Denali National Park, Alaska
Average Yearly Visits: 229,521
About The Park: Denali covers some 6 million acres north of Anchorage, but there’s a prominent centerpiece. It’s the 20,310-foot mountain that’s the tallest in America. For decades, visitors knew it as Mount McKinley. It’s one of eight national parks in Alaska, more than any other state.
Why It’s Worth A Visit: There’s so much to see in Alaska, and it’s such a vast territory that Denali sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. It shouldn’t, though.
You can catch a free bus ride to take in the sights. You might glimpse moose, caribou, brown bears, gray wolves, and Dali sheep. At Wonder Lake, which has a campground, you can see a mirror image of the signature peak.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Average Yearly Visits: 243,291
About The Park: Thirty miles south of Carlsbad Caverns, this is one of Texas’ two national parks and the site of its tallest peak. This 86,000 park is in west Texas, just below the New Mexico boundary line in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Why It’s Worth A Visit: Big Bend National Park, 230 miles to the southeast, gets more attention, but this park has its charms. Guadalupe Peak, which is 8,751 above sea level, is Texas’ tallest.
Another striking feature is a thousand-foot limestone cliff, El Capitan. Many of the park’s visitors are hikers who enjoy 80 miles of paths, including the gloriously scenic McKittrick Canyon Trail.
What Is the #1 Least Visited National Park in the US?
There’s one more park with even fewer visitors, and it’s in northern Alaska. It’s easy to see why the Gates of the Arctic Park & Preserve recorded only 7,362 visitors last year. There are no roads, so if you go there, you have to hike in or arrive by seaplane.
Once you get there, you’ll be surrounded by 8.4 million acres of wilderness, much of it frozen. The wildlife you might encounter includes caribou, lynx, muskox, and snowshoe hares.
It’s also home to six different waterways the government officially designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers.
Are These National Parks Worth It?
Just because a park doesn’t have millions of guests a year doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting. There may be some perfectly reasonable explanations why they don’t have more guests. Maybe they’re too remote or a little too far off the more traveled highways.
There’s also the hype factor. There’s no doubt that the right kind of promotion can drive traffic. Nearly everyone’s heard of the Smoky Mountains and Yellowstone, but maybe not the North Cascades, Great Basin, or Isle Royale.
In some cases, like the park in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas, more popular attractions nearby might overshadow them. Does that mean that you should bypass these least-visited national parks?
We say no way.
Have you visited any of these hidden gems?
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