Why America's Least-Visited National Parks Are Worth a Look
Of the United States' 6 majestic national parks, some stand out as must-sees for most travelers: Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon all come to mind as bucket-list sites. And indeed, these and other parks welcome millions of visitors each year. Yet there are many other lesser-known parks equally worth your time – parks with extraordinary wildlife and unique natural features that mere thousands of visitors experience annually.
Here, we’ve rounded up the least-visited national parks, and make a case for why each one is worth a visit. Some are little-known, others are obscurely located, but all celebrate the beauty and power of America’s natural wonders (and, as a bonus, can be enjoyed with fewer crowds).
Annual visitors: 642,809
The best known of many National Park Services properties in Alaska is Denali, the national park and preserve made up of a staggering 6 million acres of wilderness, with just one road bisecting it. Still, that road is more than many parks in the state offer visitors, making Denali a relatively highly trafficked site, popular among tour groups.
Catching a glimpse of the enormous mountain Denali, the tallest peak in America, is luck of the draw: It creates its own atmosphere, making it too foggy to see approximately two-thirds of the time. If you do get to see it, it’s unmissable, taking up much of the horizon.
Even if the mountain is elusive while you’re there, there is much to recommend this park, including ample opportunities to view wildlife and scenery in an environment essentially untouched by humans.
Denali Fast Facts
- Denali National Park is slightly larger than the entire state of Massachusetts.
- The park is home to 300 - 350 grizzly bears and about 200 brown bears.
- The park's namesake, Denali mountain, boasts a summit elevation of 20,310 feet above sea level. It is taller than Mt. Everest when measured from base to summit.
29. Petrified Forest
Annual visitors: 627,757
It’d be hard to find a more extreme change in climate than to go from Denali to here, a small park in Northeast Arizona which offers a variety of activities for visitors. In the northern part of the park, the Painted Desert Inn, a 1930s adobe building, is open for exploration, offering stunning murals painted by the native Hopi people. In the center of the park, petroglyphs, dating back millenia, cover Newspaper Rock.
But it’s the southern portion of the park that most visitors come to see, for it's the location of the extensive petrified wood, fossils of the forests that once stood in the desert. Petrified wood is not just of geologic interest; it’s also quite beautiful, the wood’s organic material replaced by minerals of varying colors.
Just don’t be tempted to tuck a piece in your pocket – the visitor center includes a display about the supposed “curse” on those who do, complete with letters of abject apology from those who claim to have felt its effects...and who mailed the wood back.
Petrified Forest Fast Facts
- The fossils in the forest are about 225 million years old.
- This is the only national park to close at night, to prevent thieves from stealing the wood.
- Holbrook, the town nearest to the park, is home to quirky Wigwam Village, comprised of concrete-and-steel freestanding teepees.
28. Wind Cave
Annual visitors: 619,924
South Dakota’s Mt. Rushmore is a more famous, and visited, NPS property, but Wind Cave, also located in the state, is worth a visit, too. It’s one of the oldest National Parks, established in 1903 by President Teddy Roosevelt, and only about an hour’s drive from Mt. Rushmore.
As you may have guessed, Wind Cave is named after its principal attraction, an enormous, underground cave. It sits below the South Dakota prairie, and runs for at least 147 miles, making it one of the longest caves in the world. Wind Cave is particularly notable for the unusual calcite formations within it, called boxwork.
Why is it called Wind Cave? Because, like all caves, it seeks to balance the pressure inside the cave with the barometric pressure outside, creating a passage of wind that can feel like the cave is breathing.
Wind Cave Fast Facts
- The park is home to an astonishing 95 percent of all known boxwork formations in the world.
- This was the first cave on the planet to be designated a national park, back in 1903.
- The cave is considered sacred by Native Americans.
27. Mesa Verde
Annual visitors: 613,788
The Rocky Mountains might be what you associate with Colorado, but the state offers a more varied climate than just mountains. Mesa Verde, located in the southwest of the state, makes that clear, offering a more desert feel. Another park established by President Roosevelt, Mesa Verde is the largest archeological preserve in the U.S., with over 500 distinct sites and 600 cliff dwellings.
Those dwellings were once the homes of the native peoples, used for several centuries. Today, visitors can explore the homes, learn about the native culture, and marvel at both the safeties and dangers offered by living several hundred feet off the ground, in structures tucked into small openings on the cliff face.
Mesa Verde Fast Facts
- Mesa Verde is home to 5,000 archaeological sites.
- It's theorized that cliff dwellings were built to defend against invading groups.
- The park's Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America.
26. Mammoth Cave
Annual visitors: 587, 853
Kentucky is not a state most people think of when national parks are mentioned, but it boasts a remarkable one: Mammoth Cave, the longest known cave system in the world, with over 400 explored miles. This park was established in 1941, and is located about equidistant from Louisville, Kentucky and Nashville, Tennessee.
Visitors to Mammoth are often overwhelmed by the sheer variety of underground features found within – including Gothic Avenue, featuring a ceiling covered in 19th-century visitors’ signatures, reminding today’s tourists that they were not the first here.
The only way to visit the cave is by a ranger-lead tour, and reservations are recommended.
Mammoth Cave Fast Facts
- Native Americans first discovered entrances to Mammoth Cave about 4,000 years ago.
- Talk about highs and lows: Mammoth Dome is 192 feet high, while the Bottomless Pit is 105 feet deep.
- Until the early 1900s, weddings were held in the cave.
25. Glacier Bay
Annual visitors: 547,057
Glacier Bay National Park is not the same as Glacier National Park. The latter is located in Montana’s Rocky Mountains, whereas the less-visited site on this list is on Alaska’s famous Inside Passage. It became a national park in 1980.
Today, Glacier Bay is often visited by cruise passengers on day trips, but it’s reasonably accessible to all. The glaciers are the main draw, but the park is also part of a 25 million acre World Heritage Site, which protects the wilderness and the native peoples living within it. Climate change is constantly affecting the glaciers in the park, some – but not all – of which are retreating. The changing environment is discussed and observed throughout the park.
Glacier Bay Fast Facts
- Though the park makes up less than 1 percent of Alaska's land mass, it is bigger than the state of Connecticut.
- Glaciers cover 27 percent of the park – or more than 2,000 square miles.
- The park is home to the largest marine sanctuary on the planet.
24. Carlsbad Caverns
Annual visitors: 520,026
The third cave or cave system on our list of least-visited parks is the most southern, located in New Mexico beneath the Chihuahuan Desert. Carlsbad is not just one cave; more than 100 caves form the park, with Carlsbad Cavern itself as the tallest cave. Unlike many other caves around the country, visitors can hike into this cavern on their own, without a ranger’s guidance.
Calcite formations are again a draw for visitors. The Big Room, a large limestone chamber, is also a popular attraction. It’s nearly 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide and 255 feet high, making it the fifth largest chamber in the U.S. Visitors who want to get out into the sunlight will enjoy hiking and picnicking in the Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area, a natural oasis within the park.
Carlsbad Caverns Fast Facts
- The park hosts about 400,000 free-tail bats each summer.
- During the park's Bat Flight Program, guests can join a ranger to watch bats take flight en masse as the sun sets.
- The park is home to the largest accessible cave chamber in North America: the appropriately named Big Room, spanning 8.2 acres.
23. Lassen Volcanic Peak
Annual visitors: 507,256
Another oft-overlooked national park is Lassen Volcanic Peak, which gets lost in the splendor of the other national parks in California. Lassen Volcanic Peak is in the northern part of the state, and it’s best known for the astounding hydrothermal sites within its bounds.
Hiking is the most popular activity here. Many established trails will take you past (and through) those bubbling springs, including Bumpass Hell, an area with acres of bubbling mud pots. As the name implies, Lassen Peak is a volcano. On the side of the mountain, visitors can observe lava rocks left by its last eruption, in 1917, and the top offers a tremendous view.
Lassen Volcanic Peak Fast Facts
- All four types of volcanoes in the world can be found at this park.
- Fear not: Lassen Peak hasn't had a major eruption in over a century.
- The bald eagle, national symbol of America, can be seen flying in Lassen.
22. Great Sand Dunes
Annual visitors: 486,935
Southern Colorado is the location for one of the most unusual national parks on this list: the Great Sand Dunes, which, yes, are located hundreds of miles from any ocean. The dunes, up to 750 feet tall in some places, are the tallest in North America, and were formed by a lake that once covered much of the valley floor there.
Sand sledding – pretty much what it sounds like, and just as fun as you’d guess – is a major attraction at this national park. Interestingly, unlike parks that close for part of the year or at night, Great Sand Dunes is open every day, 24 hours a day, so star-gazing from the dunes is possible and encouraged. Rangers say the night sky is astounding.
Great Sand Dunes Fast Facts
- Star Dune, the tallest dune in North America, is a whopping 750 feet tall.
- According to one National Park Service study, this is the quietest national park in the contiguous United States.
- Though largely quiet, the park is home to chorus frogs, whose calls can be heard from a half-mile away.
Annual visitors: 446,961
In Florida, within sight of Miami, is Biscayne National Park, a celebration and preservation of the waterways in the area, specifically Biscayne Bay. The park offers a combination of unpolluted waters, islands and coral reefs, open to visitors’ exploration by boat, snorkeling and scuba diving. In fact, you’ll need a boat to explore here: There’s a visitor center on the mainland, but the rest of the park is only accessible by water approach.
Human history is a focal point for visitors to Biscayne as well. The park lays claim to 10,000 years of human history, from ancient peoples to pirates to pineapple farmers. Shipwrecks provide opportunities to combine interests in the waters and peoples of the area.
Interestingly, Biscayne was once scheduled to be part of the Everglades National Park, and, once pulled from that proposal, was the site of several power plants, causing major pollution. Now that the park has been restored to its former glory, it’s well worth a visit.
Biscayne Fast Facts
- 95 percent of Biscayne is underwater.
- The park contains Elliott Key, the first of the world-famous Florida Keys.
- Biscayne Bay was originally supposed to be part of Everglades National Park.
Annual visitors: 445,000
This California park is commonly referred to as “the Redwoods,” after the majestic trees that are the principal attraction here. Redwoods can also be seen at the more popular Sequoia National Park, but Redwood is stunning, too. It’s more remote, and northerly, composed of a string of protected beaches, forests and grasslands, not far from the Oregon border.
The tallest trees on earth are reason enough to visit Redwood, but there’s hiking, picnicking and camping as well. During your time there, you’ll get up close and personal with 45 percent of the world’s remaining Redwoods, located within the park’s boundaries. They’ve been in this part of the world for nearly 20 million years, and can grow up to 370 feet tall. They’re believed to be between 800 and 1,500 years old, making them among the oldest living creatures on the planet.
Redwood Fast Facts
- The park is home to the world’s tallest tree, a coast redwood named Hyperion that's nearly 370 feet tall. But its location has been kept a secret to prevent vandalism.
- Coastal redwoods can live to age 2,000.
- Just outside the park is Klamath Tree, which you can drive your car through.
19. Big Bend
Annual visitors: 440,276
Deep in the heart of Southwest Texas lies the well-known, but rarely visited, Big Bend National Park. The remote location, miles from any city, is likely the reason, but Big Bend is worth the effort it takes to visit it. The entire Chisos Mountain Range, a portion of the Chihuahuan Desert, and the Rio Grande form spectacular scenery here.
The Rio Grande also runs along part of the boundary between Mexico and the U.S., so the park has an unusual constraint, actually including only half the river; the Southern part belongs to Mexico. Extremes in temperatures – with hot days in the summer and cold nights in the winter – form another challenge for park rangers and employees.
Still, visitors enjoy hiking and backpacking here, and the park is a certified dark-sky park, offering an unparalleled view of the night sky.
Big Bend Fast Facts
- Big Bend is home to more bird species (450) than any other U.S. national park. It is also home to 3,600 species of insects.
- Fossils of more than 90 dinosaur species have been found here.
- The Rio Grande River, which borders the park, straddles the U.S. and Mexico.
18. Channel Islands
Annual visitors: 383,687
Channel Islands is another confusingly named national park. As you’ve probably guessed, these are not the British dependencies, but rather an archipelago of five islands and their ocean environment off the California coast. Isolated for thousands of years, the islands now offer a diverse ecosystem with many species of both plants and animals not found elsewhere, including the island fox and island deer mouse.
The Channel Islands were once a military training ground for U.S. forces, as well as a weapons testing site. These days, the National Park Service promotes the islands as a place to see the California coast as it once was. The only ways to get to the islands are by boat or licensed private plane, but opportunities to hike, camp and boat are numerous once you make it here.
Channel Islands Fast Facts
- The park is home to Painted Cave, one of the largest known sea caves in the world.
- Half of the park's acreage is underwater.
- Some 70 plant species can only be found on these islands.
17. Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Annual visitors: 307,143
This national park is in strong contention for most awesome name, and has much to recommend it beyond that as well.
The Gunnison River formed the deep canyon, having worn away the distinctive black rock to do so. Now the western Colorado park is best known for those unique, steep-walled cliffs, visible on a drive through the relatively small – just 231 acres – park. At one time the depth and narrowness of the canyon prompted fear in travelers’ hearts; these days, it still unnerves.
Wildlife is another major draw for visitors to the Black Canyon: elk, mule deer and golden eagles are just a few of the animals that might be glimpsed here. The park is quiet enough that even those who only have time to drive through might spot an animal or bird.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Fast Facts
- The park's Gunnison River is, at certain points, deeper than it is wide.
- At 2,250 feet, the park's Painted Wall cliff eclipses the Empire State Building.
- Kayaking, backpacking and climbing can be risky; several deaths have been reported here.
16. Virgin Islands National Park
Annual visitors: 304,408
Readers may be surprised to learn that the U.S. Virgin Islands boast a national park – but despite its relative obscurity, it is well worth a trip. Principally located on the largest of the islands, St. John, this park offers the stunning beaches the Caribbean is known for, as well as the opportunity to visit sugar-cane plantation ruins and learn about that abandoned trade.
Two-thirds of St. John Island is the park, so there’s a wealth of jumping-off points for snorkeling and diving, and plenty of coral reefs to view while doing so. Cruz Bay is the main gateway to the park, and ferries from St. Thomas operate frequently.
Virgin Islands National Park Fast Facts
- Renting a car? Make sure to drive on the left-hand side of the road, as is custom here.
- Forget hiking: the park's coolest trail, measuring 225 yards, is underwater and designed for snorkeling.
- Three of the world's seven sea-turtle species (green, hawksbill and leatherback) can be found at the park.
15. Kenai Fjords
Annual visitors: 303,598
Located in Alaska at the edge of the Kenai Peninsula, the star attraction here is glaciers – 40 of them flow from the Harding Icefield and form the heart of the park. Yet relatively few revelers are able to make the pilgrimage to see their otherworldly grandeur. (As a point of comparison, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the most-visited park in America, welcomed 16 million visitors last year.)
Climate change means that Kenai is shrinking, so getting there as soon as possible will ensure you can see the glaciers at their finest. And doing so shouldn't be too hard: Compared to some of the other Alaskan parks, Kenai Fjords is relatively easy to get to, as it’s not that far from the town of Seward.
Kenai Fjords Fast Facts
- 51 percent of the park's land is covered in ice.
- 20 species of seabirds can be found here, including the very popular (and cute) puffin.
- While rich in wildlife, the park is home to very few amphibians or reptiles, due to its frigid climate.
Annual visitors: 237,250
Located in Minnesota, very close to the Canadian border, Voyageurs is a stunning park filled with waterways and woods that just doesn’t get as many visitors as it should. Forty percent of this park is water, so bringing or renting watercraft is a must. Boat tours are also offered.
Voyageurs is a particularly welcoming park to campers, with dozens of pristine spots to set up a tent and enjoy the peaceful sound of lapping waters as the sun sets. You’ll be one of the few, so expect some solitude.
Voyageurs Fast Facts
- A third of the park's area is water, mostly from four lakes (Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan, Sand Point).
- "Voyageur" is a French word that, in English, means "traveler."
- The Northern Lights are sometimes visible here.
Annual visitors: 233,334
California has so many well-known national parks, from Yosemite to Redwood, that its smaller parks like this one tend to be overlooked. But Pinnacles should be on your must-visit list. Its unique landscape of towering rock formations (that form, yes, pinnacles) is the result of volcanic activity in the area some 23 million years ago.
Pinnacles offers hiking and climbing, with spectacular views; come during spring to see blankets of colorful wildflowers, and stay after sunset to take in the star-studded sky.
Pinnacles Fast Facts
- Pinnacles is home to more than 400 species of bees.
- The park may partly be overlooked because it's so new: it was upgraded from a national monument just a few years ago, in 2013.
- The park's rock formations are located above the San Andreas fault; as a result, geologists believe Pinnacles is moving northwest at an average of two inches annually.
12. Guadalupe Mountains
Annual visitors: 225,257
This 135-square-mile park offers a bounty of riches, from fossils to evidence of ancient peoples. The four tallest mountains in Texas are located within the park, and when the weather permits, hiking and climbing offer rewarding views.
The park is particularly diverse in its ecology as well, making it a must-see for those interested in flora and fauna.
Guadalupe Mountains Fast Facts
- 16 different species of bats call the park home.
- The park's mountains are shared with Carlsbad Caverns National Park, about 35 miles northeast.
- It's believed that people first visited the Guadalupes some 12,000 years ago.
11. Great Basin
Annual visitors: 168,028
It’s a mystery as to why this park in eastern Nevada is so little-visited. There may not be well-known sites here, but the park offers unforgettable vistas and the opportunity to explore the region around Great Basin Desert. Wheeler Peak is a 13,000-foot mountain in the park that can be hiked or driven, making for stunning photographs. And the park even offers underground exploration, in the form of the distinctive Lehman Caves.
Great Basin Fast Facts
- The park's Great Basin bristlecone pine tree can survive for more than 4,000 years.
- Every summer, the park takes advantage of its dark night skies by hosting the Great Basin Astronomy Festival.
- The vertical distance between the park's highest and lowest trails is 6,235 feet.
Annual visitors: 159,595
Central South Carolina is the location of this national park, which offers the opportunity to explore the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern U.S. The park includes the area where Congaree and Wateree Rivers join, making it particularly biodiverse. Canoeing, hiking and fishing are all popular pastimes here, and may be enjoyed in peace thanks to the sparse number of fellow travelers.
Congaree Fast Facts
- The park was awarded International Biosphere Reserve status by UNESCO in 1983.
- During the spring and fall, Congaree hosts "owl prowls," during which guests listen to barred owls and search for glow-in-the-dark fungus on cypress trees.
- Native people who once lived here were wiped out by smallpox after Europeans arrived.
9. National Park of American Samoa
Annual visitors: 69,468
This park is an American territory located far afield of the continental states: on the islands of Tutuila, Ofu and Ta'u in Samoa, a chain of islands in the South Pacific Ocean southwest of Hawai’i. In fact, this is the only national-park-service holding south of the equator!
These gorgeous islands are volcanic and covered in rainforest, and a significant portion of the national park is underwater. Snorkeling is, not surprisingly, superlative, thanks to some 950 species of fish and over 250 species of corals.
National Park of American Samoa Fast Facts
- "Samoa" means, appropriately, "sacred earth."
- Native Samoans help manage the park, and their villages include some facilities for visitors.
- The park's only native land mammal is the flying fox, the world's largest bat.
8. Wrangell-St. Elias
Annual visitors: 68,292
As we mentioned, this is the largest national park in acreage in the American system, larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite and Switzerland combined. And it’s gorgeous, with the Wrangell and St. Elias mountain ranges making for stunning views, especially when seen from the Gulf of Alaska. Many native people still live within the boundaries of the park, living off the land, and significant care is taken to make sure their way of life is undisturbed, which visitors can learn about. The remoteness of the park is likely why so few people visited in 2017.
Wrangell-St. Elias Fast Facts
- The park is home to several volcanoes, including the active Mount Wrangell and Mount Churchill.
- Wrangell-St. Elias borders Kluane National Park and Preserve, a massive (though not as massive) Canadian national park.
- About 13,000 Dall sheep call the park home, one of the highest concentrations in North America.
7. Dry Tortugas
Annual visitors: 54,281
Located 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, is the incredible Dry Tortugas National Park. Getting there is not easy, but the trip by boat or seaplane is part of the fun. The mostly-water park consists of seven small islands and the preserved Fort Jefferson, one of the United States’ largest 19th century forts. Learn about its fascinating history, and camp overnight.
Dry Tortugas Fast Facts
- During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson was used as a prison.
- Juan Ponce de León led the first European explorers to discover the Dry Tortugas.
- The islands were given the name "Tortugas" because de León saw so many sea turtles there. (In Spanish, "tortugas" means "turtles.")
Annual visitors: 37,818
If you're a fan of brown bears, look no further than this Alaska park, which is teeming with the imposing animals. The park also boasts plenty of sea life along its coast, including sea otters and humpback whales.
It's no wonder the park is favorite among outdoor enthusiasts, especially hikers and fishermen, with the means to reach its remote location.
Katmai Fast Facts
- Just how prolific are brown bears in the park? There are about 2,000 of them here, representing North America's largest population.
- Salmon can be seen spawning in abundance at Brooks Falls. Not surprisingly, this is also where bears like to congregate.
- The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill significantly damaged the coastline to Katmai and killed some 8,400 birds.
5. North Cascades
Annual visitors: 30,326
Northern Washington state is where you’ll find the North Cascades, boasting an alpine landscape that offers breathtaking views for hikers and campers. (You may even spot the elusive Grizzly Bear.) Located just three hours from Seattle, the park is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, making it the perfect time to visit.
North Cascades Fast Facts
- The nickname for the snow-capped North Cascades is "American Alps."
- There are over 300 glaciers here, more than any other park in the contiguous U.S.
- The park's formidable peaks, named by the explorers who first encountered them, have names like Mount Terror, Mount Fury, Mount Despair, Desolation Peak and Mount Torment.
4. Isle Royale
Annual visitors: 28,196
As its name indicates, this national park is an island, completely surrounded by Lake Superior in Michigan. Solitude is this national park’s selling point, since it offers a nearly complete break from civilization, as it’s only accessible by private boat, ferry or seaplane. There’s lots to do here for campers, backpackers, scuba divers and boaters of all kinds.
Isle Royale Fast Facts
- All but 1 percent of the park is designated as a Natural Wilderness Area.
- The is America's only park that shutters fully in the off-season, from November through mid-April.
- The average national park visit is about 4 hours. Isle Royale visitors typically stay for 3.5 days.
3. Lake Clark National Park
Annual visitors: 22,755
Also located in remote Alaska, Lake Clark combines striking natural features – steaming volcanoes, staggering mountains, tranquil lakes – with spectacular wildlife, including brown bears, moose and wolves. There are also ample opportunities to learn about the Dena'ina people who have called this extraordinary region home for thousands of years.
Lake Clark National Park Fast Facts
- Visitors can explore a cabin in the park where naturalist Richard Louis Proenneke lived alone for nearly 30 years. Proenneke's story is featured in the popular documentary, "Alone in the Wilderness."
- The park is similar in size to the state of Hawaii.
- The park's highest point, Mount Redoubt, is also an active volcano.
2. Kobuk Valley
Annual visitors: 15,500
Situated in the Arctic region of Alaska’s northwest, this park's major attractions include sand dunes (yes, really!) and half a million strong herds of caribou. The opportunity to see these animals roam across the dunes is truly astounding. Centered on the Kobuk River, this park would be filled with tourists if it wasn’t so remote.
Kobuk Valley Fast Facts
- Along with Gates of the Arctic (No. 1 on this list!), Kobuk Valley is one of only two national parks located north of the Arctic Circle.
- The park is home to the Arctic's largest active sand dunes.
- Half a million caribou migrate through the park annually, leaving their tracks on the dunes.
1. Gates of the Arctic
Annual visitors: 11,177
No shock here: Another national park in Alaska’s Arctic region is the least-visited in America. In addition to its isolated location, Gates of the Arctic doesn't include any roads or trails, instead preserving portions of the Brooks Range of mountains. If you do make the trip, majestic scenery awaits you: six rivers, herds of caribou and, at certain times of the year, the aurora borealis’ otherworldly glow.
Gates of the Arctic Fast Facts
- The park is typically accessed via bush plane, or by hiking in from a nearby native village.
- Several Eskimo tribes call the park home.
- Gates of the Arctic is the most northern national park in the U.S.
Unbelievable Photos Taken at the Least-Visited National Parks