The 15 Least-Visited National Parks (Because Nature Is So Much Better Without the Crowds)

Stunning views without all the tourists

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Of the 63 U.S. national parks, none is more popular than the Great Smoky Mountains. According to the National Park Service, in 2023 it attracted a whopping 12,297,647 visitors, nearly triple the second most popular park, the Grand Canyon. And while the Southern Appalachian views are undoubtedly stunning, I, for one, am not so enthused by the idea of standing elbow to elbow with a sea of other tourists waiting to snap my perfect photo. So rather than join the masses at the most popular destinations, I’m much more interested in planning a trip to one of the 15 least-visited national parks for breathtaking views, unique geography, fascinating wildlife and few (if any) other people in sight.

Some of these parks remain low on the list because they require a certain level of wilderness proficiency (don’t forget to pack the bear spray), but others are great for outdoor explorers of all ages and experience levels. So, whether you’re hoping to peep gorgeous vistas from the comfort of your cabin porch, coffee in hand, or are more drawn to the idea of exploring true wilderness in a park like Gates of the Arctic, with no formal roads or trails within the park, these 15 national parks have plenty to offer. Read on for all the inspiration you need to plan your next vacay.

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1. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska

  • Visitors in 2023: 11,045
  • Nearest Airport: Fairbanks, AK
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: July and August

This stunning 8.4 million-acre park located in the north of Alaska has no internal roads or trails, giving visitors a true backcountry experience—which is why it’s really only recommended for experienced adventurers. That said, companies like Alaska Alpine Adventures, organize guided trips within the park, and there are also local air taxis that offer a fly-over tours or drop downs within the park for the afternoon. That said, the virtually untouched wilderness is truly magnificent, if you’re willing to camp out, there are few better places in the world to see the northern lights (

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2. National Park of American Samoa, American Samoa

  • Visitors in 2023: 12,135
  • Nearest Airport: Pago Pago International Airport
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: June through September

Getting to American Samoa is no easy feat, with limited (and pricey) flights from the mainland to these remote Pacific islands, so it comes as it no surprise that few visitors make the trek each year. But for adventurers with a passion for observing wildlife, on land, in the sea and in the skies, it offers unique opportunities for learning and exploration. With a tropical climate, the weather is hot and humid year-round and there are lush forests and vibrant flowers covering the mountainous land. There are also gorgeous beaches where you can take a dip or explore the surrounding reefs. The park officials and nearby towns and villages work hard to preserve Samoan culture, with tons of resources made available to really immerse park visitors. And while American Samoa is quite remote, the National Park Service notes there are lots of family-friendly activities throughout the park to entertain kids of all ages.

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3. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska

  • Visitors in 2023: 16,728
  • Nearest Airport: Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: June through August

Larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, Lake Clark National Park is home to some of the most stunning mountain ranges in North America. Like many other Alaskan parks, it can only be accessed by plane, but is well worth the effort according to National Geographic travel photographer, Jonathan Irish. There are also cabins and lodges available for those who don’t want to backpack, as well as kayak and canoe rentals to give you full access to the stunning turquoise Lake Clark. If you’ve ever wanted to get a peek at bears in their natural habitat (from a safe distance, of course), this is one of the best places in the world to do so.

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4. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska

  • Visitors in 2023: 17,616
  • Nearest Airport: Kotzabue Regional Airport or Bettles Regional Airport
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: June through August

Although Kobuk Valley is located just north of the Artic Circle in Alaska, one of its most remarkable features is the 25-square-mile Great Kobuk Sand Dunes. These acres of rolling sand are a relic of the last Ice Age and act as a path for the park’s herds of Western Arctic Caribou who migrate through twice a year in spring and fall. To access the dunes or any other parts of Kobuk Valley, you’ll need to book a bush plane, and while it’s recommended you have a high level of wilderness knowledge, there are local tour companies you can hire for trips as short as a few hours or as long as a week.

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5.  Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

  • Visitors in 2023: 28,965
  • Nearest Airport: Houghton County Memorial Airport
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: June through August

Although Isle Royale is the fifth least-visited national park in the U.S., it is reportedly one of the most revisited, meaning those who do make it there are very likely to return. The park covers an island archipelago in the middle of Lake Superior (just south of the Canadian border), accessible only by boat or seaplane and there are no cars of any sort on the island. Indeed, boating is one of the biggest attractions in the park, whether you prefer motorboats, canoes or kayaks. Here, you can observe the activity of moose and wolves, hike along 165 miles of forest trails and scuba dive to explore shipwrecks that have been incredibly well preserved in the cold waters. Note: Isle Royal National Park is closed entirely during winter, with the opening and closing dates depending roughly on weather conditions.

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6.  Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska

  • Visitors in 2023: 33,763
  • Nearest Airport: Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: June through August

Fans of Fat Bear Week will know Katmai as the home of more than 2,000 brown bears, as well as a rich array of other wildlife, including moose, eagles and even humpback whales. Visitors can access the 4-million acre park via plane, and there are lodges and cabins available to book if backpacking isn’t your jam. There is plenty of stunning wilderness to explore, but the top activity is observing the wildlife, with guided groups or solo trips to see the birds, mammals and fish in their natural environments.

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7. North Cascades National Park, Washington

  • Visitors in 2023: 40,351
  • Nearest Airport: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: June through September

Having been to North Cascades multiple times—and loving it—I was surprised to see it receives so few annual visitors. Less than three hours from Seattle, the park is much more easily accessible than the remote parks of Alaska and American Samoa and has tons to offer for outdoor adventurers of all ages and experience levels. The park hosts more than 300 glaciers with snow coverage making it more difficult to explore in the colder months—but summer reveals fields of colorful wildflowers and lush forests accenting the rugged mountain peaks. There are also more than 400 miles of hiking trails, as well as river rafting, canoeing, horseback riding and rock climbing.

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8. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

  • Visitors in 2023: 78,305
  • Nearest Airport: Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: June through August

Covering a whopping 13.2 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest U.S. national park. It contains nine of the 20 highest peaks in the country and is home to the nation’s largest glacial system. There are trails throughout, but most of the terrain is left wild, allowing visitors a unique backcountry experience blazing their own paths. Perhaps one of the best ways to appreciate the majesty and breadth of this Alaskan park is by plane with a guided bush pilot who can point out all the best the park has to offer.

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9.  Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

  • Visitors in 2023: 84,285
  • Nearest Airport: Miami International Airport
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: April and May

The rather ironically named Dry Tortugas is comprised of seven small islands located about 70 miles west of Key West. Visitors will need to take a boat or seaplane to get there, but once you’ve landed, you’re sure to be in awe of the stunning white sand beaches, colorful reefs and abundant marine life. For those with scuba diving experience, there are multiple shipwrecks to explore, or you can rent kayaks to paddle through the shallow waters observing sea turtles and nurse sharks. Of course, no trip to Dry Tortugas is complete without a tour of Fort Jefferson, a Civil War-era fort and prison, where visitors can also get a permit to camp out for the night.

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10.  Great Basin National Park, Nevada

  • Visitors in 2023: 143,265
  • Nearest Airport: Salt Lake City International Airport
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: June through September

Walk among some of the oldest living trees in the world, the ancient twisting bristlecone pines, that populate this desert oasis. The variation of terrain to explore is notably vast—you can stroll through desert dunes, hike up to Nevada’s only remaining glacier surrounded by pine trees, explore the expansive underground Lehman Caves system and more. Budding astronomers and stargazers can also enjoy some of the most stunning night skies in the country. With little to no light pollution, thousands of stars and views of the Milky Way are visible to campers throughout the park.

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11. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

  • Visitors in 2023: 220,825
  • Nearest Airport: Duluth International Airport
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: June through September

Voyageurs National Park contains 30 lakes of various sizes, making it an ideal destination for fans of canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding and other water exploration. In fact, most of the park is only accessible by water, though there are tons of hiking trails and camping spots on land for visitors to explore as a reward for all that paddling. You can also rent a houseboat at any of the four largest lakes, giving you a unique “camping” experience unlike any other. P.S. Voyageurs is a certified Dark Sky Park, meaning the night sky views are truly stunning and giving visitors a high chance of spotting the Northern Lights during their stay.

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12.  Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

  • Visitors in 2023: 227,340
  • Nearest Airport: El Paso International Airport
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: April, May, September and October

Four of Texas’ highest peaks are located within this 86,000-acre park, including Guadalupe Peak, aka the “Top of Texas.” Summer temperatures can soar well past 100 degrees during the day, but weather in spring and fall is much more comfortable, making it easier to explore the 800 miles of trails. The ecosystem is surprisingly varied, with salt flats and the Chihuahuan Desert to the west and grasslands, pinyon pine and juniper forests to the east. The internal canyons are fed by sparkling springs, and there are alpine forests dotting the higher elevations. For those visiting in fall, the McKittrick Canyon Trail offers particularly beautiful views as foliage colors change. An important note: There is no gasoline available within the park, and the nearest gas stations are 35 miles from the visitor center, so plan ahead. Relatedly, there is no food sold within the park, so you’ll also want to stock up on snacks and meals before entering.

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13.  Congaree National Park, South Carolina

  • Visitors in 2023: 250,114
  • Nearest Airport: Charleston International Airport
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: March through May and September through November

There are lots of unique experiences to be had at this South Carolina park. For starters, Congaree is home to some of the tallest trees in the eastern U.S. and the largest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the country. Due to frequent heavy rainfalls, much of the parks 25-plus miles of hiking trails lope along elevated platforms. (Seriously, you’re going to want to pack waterproof shoes, no matter what time of year you visit.) You can also rent kayaks or canoes to explore the park by boat, if you prefer. And if you come between mid-May and mid-June, you may just get to see a field of synchronous fireflies all sync up to flash in unison as they search for mates.

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14. Channel Islands National Park, California

  • Visitors in 2023: 328,746
  • Nearest Airport: Santa Barbara Airport
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: year round

Just 25 miles from the shores of Southern California is a collection of islands that play host to an incredible array of wildlife. Although all eight Channel Islands are designated a biosphere reserve under UNESCO, only five are recognized U.S. National Parks. The largest of the five, Santa Cruz, is home to nearly 60 plants and animals that can be found nowhere else on Earth. (No wonder some call the park the Galápagos Islands of America.) Depending on what types of outdoor exploration you prefer—kayaking, hiking, scuba diving, observing the animals, peeping wildflowers, backcountry camping—each island has something different to offer, and Irish and his wife Stephanie Payne so an excellent job outlining the highlights of each.

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15.  Pinnacles National Park, California

  • Visitors in 2023: 341,220
  • Nearest Airport: San Francisco International Airport
  • Best Time of Year to Visit: March through May and September through November

One of the newest National Parks (it joined the ranks in 2013), Pinnacles is about 80 miles southeast of San Jose near the middle of California. The namesake pinnacles were formed by an ancient, extinct volcano that has since migrated 200 miles from its original location on the San Andreas Fault. There are two distinct sides to the park with shady forests and ample water to the east (excellent for hikers and those looking to take in sweeping views of the landscape), and high rock walls and deep caves to the west (a must-visit for rock climbers and geology buffs). Bird watchers can also spot prairie falcons and California condors in their natural habitats.



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