Posted on June 14 2021
By Ali Harford
In 2020, 237 million people visited U.S. national parks. That’s a crazy number of people, and the total was down 28% from 2019 due to park closures and restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s no secret that the most popular parks—Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Zion, and Rocky Mountain—get overly crowded during peak seasons.
This summer, if you’re looking to venture into the wilderness and escape the crowds, consider visiting the 10 least visited, and least crowded, national parks based on 2020 visitor statistics from the National Park Service. These parks are tricky to get to, but once there, you’ll experience lasting solitude.
Gates of the Arctic has no set routes in place and no visitor services at all—visitors have to be completely self-sufficient and are allowed to wander wherever they want across the 8.4 million acres of the park. However, the winter isn’t for the easily chilled: temperatures range between -20ºF and -50ºF from November to March. The only way to get to the park is by plane or boat. According to the park’s website, “this is a place for discovery and exploration.”
American Samoa is located 2,600 miles southeast of Hawai’i, making this park almost as out-of-the-way and difficult to get to as those in Alaska. Here, visitors can find “secluded villages, rare plants and animals, coral sand beaches, and vistas of land and sea,” according to the park website. Almost all the land area of the park is tropical rainforest, and 4,000 acres of the park is underwater.
Photo via the Public Domain
Lake Clark was established to preserve the ancestral homelands of the Dena’ina people and is also the headwaters of the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Here, visitors can experience a “rich cultural wilderness” and partake in monitoring the return of the sockeye salmon to Lake Clark via the Newhalen River. The park is only accessible by plane or boat.
Isle Royale is a “rugged and isolated island” in the middle of Lake Superior where visitors can backpack, hike, boat, and scuba dive. “Amid stunning scenic beauty,” the website says, “you’ll find opportunities for reflection and discovery.” The park is accessible only by ferry, seaplane, or private boat.
Did you know Death Valley is also in Nevada? The Nevada side of the park is much less popular than the California side, but offers the same stunning landscape. Death Valley is a land ruled by extremes, the website says, but still harbors “a great diversity of life” in fields of wildflowers and lush oases. Access to the Nevada side is available by road, but crosses through barren desert and the tiny town of Beatty.
Half a million caribou migrate through Kobuk Valley every year—if visitors to the park time it right, they can witness the migration. The valley and sand dunes were carved by the Kobuk River, an “ancient and current path for people and wildlife,” according to the park website. There are no roads leading to the park, meaning it’s only accessible by plane, boat, or on foot.
Photo via Wikipedia
Wrangell-St. Elias protects 13.2 million acres, making it the largest park in the United States. It contains some of the largest volcanoes and glaciers in North America—but only one volcano, Mount Wrangell, remains active. The park’s landscape is also defined by its braided rivers that flow from glaciers. The park is accessible by road, but the visitor center is closed October-April.
North Cascades is three hours from Seattle and features jagged peaks and more than 300 glaciers. The park is also bear territory, so visitors have to educate themselves on how to hike and recreate safely. Access is limited during the winter months, November-March, due to snowfall on the roads.
Dry Tortugas is 70 miles west of Key West and is mostly open water with seven small islands—less than 1% of the park is dry ground. Visitors can enjoy snorkeling, diving, and swimming, or they can visit Fort Jefferson. The park is accessible only by boat or seaplane, but visitors can bring private boats.
Katmai was declared a national monument in 1918 to “protect the volcanically devastated region surrounding Novarupta and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes,” according to the park website. The park is also home to salmon and brown bears, and preserves “unique opportunities to explore vast wilderness.” Similar to other parks in Alaska, Katmai is accessible only by plane or boat.