Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service in 1916. At the time, there were 35 national parks and monuments across the United States — the first of which was Yellowstone National Park. Today there are more than 400 recognized national park areas, encompassing more than 84 million acres across the country.
Parks like the Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains National Park attract millions of visitors each year, and for good reason: These places offer unmatched natural beauty that you should see at least once in your life. However, you can also connect with nature in profound ways with a visit to one of the lesser-known parks. These parks offer the same breathtaking experience, but unspoiled by crowds. Take a look at 15 of the least-visited national parks in the United States.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
The hundreds of historic Pueblo cliff dwellings make Mesa Verde National Park unlike any other place in the National Park system. Located in Montezuma County, Colorado, Mesa Verde was also named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historical significance. Still, the park attracts only about 550,000 visitors annually. Those who do visit have the opportunity to explore as many as 600 cliff dwellings and 4,000 smaller Pueblo archaeological sites throughout the park. In summer, visitors flock to the many hiking trails; in winter, the trails are popular for snowshoeing, too.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Voyageurs National Park sits just outside the town of International Falls in northern Minnesota. However, you'll need a boat if you want to explore it properly, as Voyageurs is a water-based park marked by a series of interconnecting waterways. Established in 1975, the park was named for the French-Canadian fur traders who once hunted and traded in the area. The Voyageurs National Park Association estimates that the park gets only about 240,000 visitors a year, which makes it an ideal spot to beat the crowds and enjoy all manner of aquatic adventures — canoeing, kayaking, boat tours, or even spending the night on a houseboat. The park is also popular with hikers, birdwatchers, and stargazers.
Pinnacles National Park, California
The rocky landscape of central California might not be the first image one associates with the state. However, the stunning rock formations of Pinnacles National Park near Salinas Valley are a hidden gem. Shaped by volcanic activity millions of years ago, these formations make the entire park look like the set of a science-fiction movie — and they present quite a challenge for rock-climbing enthusiasts. Both Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave also offer hikers a unique opportunity to witness bats in their natural habitat, except from May to July when the caves are closed to protect the bats during their mating season. And considering Pinnacles only received a bit more than 177,000 visitors in 2019, it's a great place to get some solitude, too.
Virgin Islands National Park, U.S. Virgin Islands
The remote location of Virgin Islands National Park might be the only way to explain its low visitation (approximately 133,500 people per year). Located in the Caribbean Sea between Puerto Rico and St Kitts and Nevis, the U.S. Virgin Islands boast one of the most beautiful National Parks in the entire system, filled with white-sand beaches and an array of opportunities to see wildlife. For instance, volunteers can sign up to help monitor sea turtles as they hatch at the park. The park also offers a visitor's center with extensive historical information about the Taino people who originally lived in the area.
Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska
This isn't the only time you'll see Alaska on this list, and there's a reason for that — many of the state's national parks simply don't get as many visitors as those in the continental United States or Hawaii do. Those who do make the trip will find unspoiled natural beauty. Case in point: Katmai National Park & Preserve features stunning volcanic formations and close-up views of its large population of grizzly and brown bears — and no more than 84,000 people visit each year. (Plus, there’s no entrance fee.) The most popular place to view the bears is Brooks Falls, where visitors can stand on platforms and watch bears fishing for lunch in the river below. Of course, if the idea of traveling into the wilderness seems too intense, Katmai National Park also has the less-adventurous covered with live “bear cams,“ which you can watch safely from home.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska
Another Alaskan gem is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, a gargantuan, 13.2-million-acre park that was established to preserve the volcanoes and glaciers of the boreal forests on Alaska's southern coast. The park is home to a number of well-known glaciers, including the Hubbard Glacier, the Nabesna Glacier, and the enormous Malaspina Glacier, a piedmont glacier so large that the entire state of Rhode Island could fit inside its surface area. Parts of the park along the Pacific Ocean sit at sea level, but the topography rises to above 18,000 feet at the peak of Mount St. Elias. The biggest volcano in the park is Mount Wrangell, which stands over 14,000 feet tall. Despite all these incredible points of interest, this vast and remote park gets fewer than 80,000 annual visitors.
National Park of American Samoa, American Samoa
The breathtaking National Park of American Samoa is another park that would likely receive more visitors if it were easier to get to. But the roughly 60,000 visitors who do make it there each year find it’s worth the trek. Located in the South Pacific U.S. territory of n Samoa, it is the only national park that sits south of the equator. The first peoples arrived in Samoa over 3,000 years ago, making it home to one of the oldest cultures in Polynesia. A visit to the National Park of American Samoa offers a chance to explore a tropical island paradise that has been considered sacred ever since ancient times — the name Samoa translates literally to "Sacred Earth."
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of the most diverse ecological areas in Texas. The park is home to nearly 300 types of birds, 60 species of mammals, and approximately 16 species of bats. Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in the park, as well as the highest elevation in the state. In 2017, just over 225,000 people visited the park, making it a much quieter alternative to more popular sites like Zion National Park and Yosemite.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Great Basin National Park is located in a remote area of Nevada, just west of the Utah border, with mountains that range from 6,000 feet tall to more than 13,000 feet tall. This means the lower elevations of the park may experience scorching desert heats, while the higher ones still have snow. Along with this comes great diversity in wildlife. Beavers, porcupines, pygmy rabbits, longhorn sheep, and water shrew all inhabit the stunning park. The area allows for a wide range of recreational activities, including caving, horseback riding, fishing, and backpacking. In 2017, 168,028 people visited Great Basin National Park.
Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
Yet another example of Alaska's rarely visited wilderness preserves is Kobuk Valley National Park in northwestern Alaska. Only 15,766 people made it to Kobuk Valley National Park in 2019, so it may be the perfect place to go if you really want to get off the grid. Visitors can see wild caribou migrating across the Kobuk River or look for wild onions growing at Paatitaaq, also known as Onion Portage. Archaeologists working in the Onion Portage area have found traces of human activity in the area dating as far back as 8,000 years, suggesting that the natural bounty of its wilderness made Kobuk Valley a popular site for hunters and migrating peoples going back millennia. Visitors can also fish, backpack, or visit the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes — the Arctic’s largest sand dunes.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Designated as a national park in 2003, Congaree National Park covers more than 26,000 acres in South Carolina. The park is home to the largest collection of old-growth bottomland hardwood forests in the United States, and it boasts a subtropical climate, which means the park is pleasant to visit any time of the year. Approximately 160,000 annual visitors enjoy fishing, hiking, and kayaking at the park. Best of all, there's no entrance fee.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Explorer Ponce de León originally called this area Las Tortugas (The Turtles) because of how many of the sea creatures were seen swimming in the water. Today, Dry Tortugas National Park is home to five species of turtles. The park consists of seven small islands and is located 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. It is most well-known as the home of Fort Jefferson, but visitors can also enjoy snorkeling, paddlesports, and fishing. The park has seen a decrease in visitors over recent years, with just over 54,000 in 2017.
North Cascades National Park, Washington State
North Cascades National Park is located in northern Washington, just south of the Canadian border. The park encompasses over 500,000 acres and is one of the best places in the U.S. to view glaciers without making a trip to Alaska. Additionally, you can enjoy plenty of opportunities for hiking, boating, and camping. Many choose to visit between June and September, when most of the snow has melted. However, if you're looking for some peace and tranquility, the shoulder seasons of late spring and early fall are your best bet. The park attracted just over 30,000 visitors in 2017.
Isle Royal National Park, Michigan
Isle Royale National Park is located in Lake Superior, Michigan. Slightly larger than North Cascades National Park, at just over 570,000 acres, the park sees about 25,000 visitors per year. The island is so remote that the only way to get there is by ferry, seaplane, or private watercraft. It’s worth the trek, however, as you can enjoy scuba diving, fishing, and camping once you get there.
Before you plan a visit, note that Isle Royale National Park is the only national park in the country to completely shut down during the off-season, which runs from November to mid-April. And the park does not permit pets of any kind, so you'll have to leave Fido behind.
Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska
Established in 1980, Gates of the Arctic National Park is one of the best places in the world to see stunning glaciers, according to National Geographic. The best time to visit is during the summer, when the weather is at its mildest. Even so, expect frigid conditions, as the park lies entirely within the Arctic Circle. The summer gives you the best chance of making it to the park, as planes will not fly in inclement conditions. But if you make it there, you will be one of the few who do — the Gates of the Arctic attracts only 11,000 visitors per year.