For travelers who love to avoid the crowds, the 10 least-visited national parks in America may be perfect spots for a vacation. But be prepared: There’s a reason these parks don’t see a ton of visitors. Most are located in remote parts of the country, so if you plan to see them all, you’ll need a huge budget, reliable transportation, and even an airplane in some cases.
Rankings are based on NPS attendance figures for the year 2012. Attendance figures have varied wildly over the past few years for some of these parks, so we’re using the most current figures to create the most accurate list.
The 10 Least-Visited National Parks in America
State: South Carolina
Annual visitors: 109,685
South Carolina’s Congaree, which became a national park in 2003, includes forest and swampland ecosystems. Many visitors rent canoes or kayaks in Columbia and spend a few days on the water in Congaree. Primitive and backcountry camping are available for those brave enough to give it a shot.
#9: Great Basin
Annual visitors: 94,850
There’s a glacier in Nevada! Who knew? Great Basin National Park is five hours north of Las Vegas, and one of its coolest features is the Wheeler Peak Glacier, which sits at the base of the 13,000 foot Wheeler Peak. Guests can reach the glacier with a two-mile hike. At last measurement, the glacier was only 300 feet long by 400 feet wide, and scientists predict it will disappear entirely within 20 years. So visit now!
#8: Wrangell-St. Elias
Annual visitors: 87,158
Since it’s located just off a highway, Wrangell-St. Elias is one of the most easily accessible parks in Alaska. It’s also the largest national park in the U.S., so I recommend stopping by during any visit to the state. I was one of the 87k visitors to Wrangell-St. Elias in 2012, though I never made it past the visitor center, and I’m guessing that’s true for a lot of folks. Those who pay to take the shuttle bus deeper into the park can check the abandoned mining town of Kennecott.
#7: Dry Tortugas
Annual visitors: 60,550
Everglades is known as the premiere national park in southern Florida, but Dry Tortugas is even more interesting in a lot of ways. It’s a series of islands located 68 miles west of Key West out in the Gulf of Mexico. Besides being a great place to snorkel and scuba dive, Dry Tortugas is the home of Fort Jefferson, an unfinished pre-Civil War fort built to combat Caribbean piracy. You can only reach Dry Tortugas by seaplane or boat, but there are ferries that will take you directly there from Key West.
Annual visitors: 39,818
Katmai National Park is one of the best places in the world to see brown bears. The southern Alaska park is difficult to reach but thousands make the effort because more than 2,000 bears live in the park. Guests are encouraged to check out Brooks Camp, where the bears feed on salmon in July and September.
#5: Kobuk Valley
Annual visitors: 29,550
Once America’s least-visited national park, Kobuk Valley has improved its position in recent years. In 2010, the park saw just 3,000 visitors, but that number exploded to 11k in 2011 and nearly 30,000 last year. Located entirely within the Arctic Circle, and accessible only by plane or snowmobile, Kobuk Valley is known for its annual migration of 400,000 caribou and its 20,000 acres of sand dunes.
#4: North Cascades
Annual visitors: 26,935
The lucky residents of Washington state have three national parks to choose from, so while Olympic and Mt. Rainier get lots of traffic, North Cascades lags behind. That probably has to do with the fact that car access is difficult, with only a few gravel roads inside the park. This place is more appropriate for serious climbers and backcountry hikers and campers than your typical weekend RV traveler.
#3: Isle Royale
Annual visitors: 16,663
Way up north along the Canadian border is Isle Royale, a collection of remote islands. With 36 different campgrounds in the park, there’s no question what the main recreational activity is here. Isle Royale National Park is a great place to watch for moose and wolves, two of the few mammals who live on the islands.
#2: Lake Clark
Annual visitors: 11,639
Situated 100 miles southwest of Anchorage, Lake Clark is the home of glaciers and active volcanoes (one just erupted in 2009) and also provides boating and fishing opportunities, plus wildlife such as bears, Dall sheep, bears, caribou, coyotes, wolves, fox, lynx, and wolverines.
#1: Gates of the Arctic
Annual visitors: 10,899
About 11,000 people visited Gates of the Arctic National Park in 2012. That works out to about 30 per day. Thirty! When you consider that the park consists of more than 8 million acres, you can see why this place is easily your best opportunity within the national parks system to get away from civilization. Gates of the Arctic is not directly accessible by car, though you can reach the edge of the park by hiking a couple miles west from the Dalton Highway. Those who do make it here come for the scenery and the wildlife.
Which of these least-visited national parks would you most like to see?