Off the Beaten Path
Since 1872, the year Yellowstone, the first national park in the United States, was established, outdoor enthusiasts young and old have ventured to these protected wildernesses to explore and be nourished by nature. But as the national parks' popularity has soared, record numbers of visitors have made their way to well-trafficked destinations like the Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, and Rocky Mountain National Parks. Yet, as visitation data from the National Park Service reveals, some parks have remained under the radar despite their spectacular sights, making them perfect getaways for the solitude-seeking or crowd-shy. Ahead, learn about 10 less frequented national parks that are more than worth the trip.
Gates of the Arctic National Park in Bettles, Alaska
On any given day, there are perhaps more caribou than people roaming this national park and preserve in northern Alaska. This go-to spot for aspiring loners had just 10,518 recreational visits in 2019. If you venture to the "Gates"—a reference to the peaks Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain that flank the North Fork of the Koyukuk River—you’ll have no roads or trails to constrain you, only 13,238 square miles of crystal-clear rivers and mountainous wilderness.
Kobuk Valley National Park in Kotzebue, Alaska
Located in northwestern Alaska, this prime parkland that comprises 2,736 square miles of unadulterated backcountry was explored by just 15,766 souls in 2019. Even so, the Kobuk River is a favorite among summer boaters and winter sledders, the Baird Mountains are a hiker’s paradise, and wildlife spotters seek out the 25-mile stretch of sand dunes, where more than 250,000 caribou cross biannually.
Lake Clark National Park in Port Alsworth, Alaska
Whether you’re backpacking through the bog or you're admiring the vibrant sockeye salmon of Lake Clark or the majestic brown bears along the coastline of Crescent Lake, you’ll have no shortage of personal space at this national park and preserve in southwest Alaska that spans 6,297 square miles and saw just 17,157 recreational visitors in 2019. But while it may lack in people, it’s packed with history; human presence in the region goes back more than 10,000 years, and it is the ancestral home of the Dena'ina hunter-gatherers.
Isle Royale National Park in Keweenaw County, Michigan
If you have camped or backpacked in this 893-square-mile park, a cluster of islands and their surrounding waters in the upper reaches of Lake Superior, you are one of a rare breed; in 2019, the park had only 26,410 recreational visitors. But with 18 resident species in the park, including red squirrels, striped skunks, and gray wolves, those who do choose to visit won't be starved for company.
North Cascades National Park in Whatcom, Skagit, and Chelan Counties, Washington
Despite a 27 percent increase in the number of recreational visitors over the previous year, 2019 brought only 38,208 visitors to this 1,070-square-mile parkland in the northern reaches of the Cascades in western Washington. If you’re planning to visit, you'll be able to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, kayak Devil’s Creek on Ross Lake, or climb Ruth Mountain. Your alone time will be interrupted only by sightings of such animals as American pikas, mountain goats, and moose.
Wrangell–St. Elias National Park in Valdez-Cordova, Yakutat City, and Southeast Fairbanks in Alaska
In a 6.2 percent drop from 2018, this national park and preserve in south-central Alaska welcomed a mere 74,518 outdoor enthusiasts in 2019. At 20,000 square miles, this is the largest national park in the United States—larger than Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks and Switzerland combined—but it receives a modest number of visitors. The park spans diverse ecosystems, from temperate rainforest to tundra, creating opportunities for hiking, climbing, skiing glaciers, or spotting wildlife, including lynxes and swans.
Dry Tortugas National Park in Gulf of Mexico, Florida
Bypass the bustle of Florida’s beaches and enjoy water views in peace at this lightly trafficked national park that comprises just 1 percent dry land—the rest is open water. Situated west of Key West, the 100-square-mile chain of seven islands received just 79,200 recreational visitors last year. This low number may come as a surprise given the park's snorkeling-friendly blue waters and ample opportunities for camping and stargazing at unspoiled sites like Garden Key, the second-largest island in the archipelago.
Katmai National Park in King Salmon, Alaska
While salmon and brown bears abound in this national park and preserve on the Alaska Peninsula, bipeds are few and far between. Just 84,167 journeyed to the southern Alaska haunt in 2019 to wander 6,395 square miles of wilderness in solitude. There are only five miles of maintained trails to hike, but those unafraid to veer off the beaten path can fish or kayak the Brooks River or hop a bus to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, which filled with ash following the eruption of the volcano Novarupta more than a century ago.
Great Basin National Park in White Pine County, Nevada
Sprawling 120 square miles in east-central Nevada, this hidden gem named after the eponymous watershed between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Mountains had only 131,802 recreational visits in 2019, a 13.9 percent decrease from the previous year. But those who do venture to the park have many treats in store—the beautiful and otherworldly formations inside the Lehman Caves, hikes through groves of bristlecone pine trees, or pitching a tent at one of five campgrounds.
Virgin Islands National Park in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
This 19-square-mile national park occupying nearly 60 percent of the island of St. John saw an average of 368,457 annual recreational visits throughout most of the last decade. After Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, however, that number dwindled significantly; in 2019, it stood at just 133,398. Thanks to massive recovery efforts, beaches, trails, and roads in the park reopened by the end of 2017, and tourism was starting to rebound before Covid-19 struck in early 2020. When regular travel resumes, visitors will again be able to enjoy the park's mangrove shoreline, pristine trails, and fantastic snorkeling.
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