Under the Radar: The 15 Least-Visited National Parks in America

For travelers who love to avoid the crowds, the 15 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. Many 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. You can always use my budget travel tips to stretch your dollar!

national park sign

With the addition of Gateway Arch National Park in 2018 (that’s right – the Arch in St. Louis is now a national park) and Indiana Dunes National Park in 2019, there are now 61 official national parks in America. All of them are amazing, but these are the 15 that, for various reasons, aren’t seeing as much traffic as the others.

Rankings have been updated for 2019 based on NPS attendance statistics for last year. 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 of the least popular parks.

And congrats to Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Kenai Fjords, Channel Islands, and Big Bend National Parks, which all earned just enough visitors last year to avoid appearing on this list.

The 15 Least-Visited National Parks in America, Updated for 2019

#15: Voyageurs
State: Minnesota
Annual visitors: 239,656

Those into boating and bald eagle-watching should consider visiting Voyageurs, a national park in northern Minnesota along the Canadian border. There’s some hiking and camping here, but much of the park is not accessible by car. Here, it’s all about the water. Take a ferry cruise to explore some of the islands. During my visit, I saw more than a dozen bald eagles. A whopping 1300 eagle pairs live in the park!

bald eagles voyageurs

A bald eagle watches over the waterways of Voyageurs, America’s 15th least-visited national park.

#14: Pinnacles
State: California
Annual visitors: 222,152

If you’ve never heard of Pinnacles, you’re not alone. Pinnacles is still very much under the radar. Located 125 miles south of San Francisco, Pinnacles became the nation’s 59th national park in 2013. Pinnacles is known for its birds of prey, including prairie falcons and California condors. The park offers strenuous day hikes, wildflower viewing, and the chance to walk inside some ancient caves.

#13: Guadalupe Mountains
State: Texas
Annual visitors: 172,347

Big Bend is the most well-known national park in Texas, while the much smaller Guadalupe Mountains NP gets overlooked. Much of the park is desert, but there are also high-elevation areas above 7000 feet. There aren’t many places in Texas to see alpine forest, so this place is unique in that regard. It’s only a 30 minute drive from Carlsbad Caverns NP in New Mexico, so make the trip the next time you’re in the area!

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#12: Great Basin
State: Nevada
Annual visitors: 153,094

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! Great Basin’s tourist traffic has risen from 94k to 168k in just the past five years, so it might not be long before it works its way off this list.

#11: Congaree
State: South Carolina
Annual visitors: 145,929

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. Personally, Congaree is high on my wishlist because it’s so different from many of the other national parks.

#10: Virgin Islands
State: U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S. territory)
Annual visitors: 112,287

Virgin Islands National Park covers about 60% of Saint John island in the Caribbean. Guests come to hike the tropical rainforest or scuba the coral reefs. The number of visitors to Virgin Islands NP dropped dramatically in 2018 after two major hurricanes in late ’17. Throughout most of the past decade, the park hosted about a half-million annual visitors, so it’s likely that this park will not be on this list when we update it again next year.

wrangell st elias park

#9: Wrangell-St. Elias
State: Alaska
Annual visitors: 79,450

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 a few years back, 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 out the abandoned mining town of Kennecott.

#8: Dry Tortugas
State: Florida
Annual visitors: 56,810

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 go camping, 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. There are ferries that will take you directly there from Key West.

dry tortugas

Dry Tortugas offer remote island camping outside a historic military fort.

 

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#7: Katmai
State: Alaska
Annual visitors: 37,818

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.

#6: North Cascades
State: Washington
Annual visitors: 30,085

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.

north cascades least visited national parks

North Cascades on a rainy autumn day.

#5: National Park of American Samoa
State: Samoa (U.S. territory)
Annual visitors: 28,626

A lot of people aren’t even aware that Samoa is a U.S. territory, or that is has a national park. Established in 1988, the National Park of American Samoa covers three islands and more than 13,000 acres, one third of which is ocean. Snorkeling and hiking are among the top activities in this protected region. Traffic to the American Samoa park has fluctuated wildly in recent years, going from barely 3000 visitors in 2010 all the way to 69,000 in 2017 before receding to 28,000 in 2018. Getting here takes 14 hours from California, or 5.5 from Hawaii.

#4: Isle Royale
State: Michigan
Annual visitors: 25,798

When it comes to least visited national parks in the lower 48 states, Isle Royale takes the prize. Isle Royale is a collection of remote islands way up along the Canadian border. 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. Unfortunately, the few dozen wolves who used to live here all but died off by the end of 2017. Isle Royale is only reachable by ferry, so most visitors tend to stay for a minimum of a few days.

isle royale national park

A view from Isle Royale, the least visited national park in the lower 48 states.

#3: Kobuk Valley
State: Alaska
Annual visitors: 14,937

The three least-visited national parks in America all exist in the state of Alaska. 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 30k in 2012. However, its traffic has halved since then. 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.

#2: Lake Clark
State: Alaska
Annual visitors: 14,937

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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. Its annual number of visitors has nearly doubled over the past five years.

#1: Gates of the Arctic
State: Alaska
Annual visitors: 9,591

About 9500 people visited Gates of the Arctic National Park in 2018. That works out to about 26 per day. Twenty six! 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.

If you’re considering becoming one of the rare visitors to Gates of the Arctic, check out this lengthy park video put together by the National Parks Service:

That’s it for our countdown of the 15 least visited national parks in the USA! Just because they are the least crowded parks doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot to offer. Which one would you most like to visit?

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About Quirky Travel Guy

Scott Shetler is a Seattle-based freelance writer & fan of indie rock, road trips, ice cream, squirrels on power lines, runaway shopping carts, and six-way intersections. Looking for a hotel? I always recommend Booking.com where you can easily compare hotel rooms, prices, and availability. Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, which may earn me a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you make a purchase.

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8 Comments

  1. We looked into going to Isle Royale last week while in Grand Portage, MN on our honeymoon. Unfortunately the ferry that goes there for daytrips is seasonal and we missed it by a couple weeks. Maybe someday!

    1. I love islands, especially those off the coast of the U.S. that you never hear about. There are a bunch in California, Massachusetts, Maine, Texas and the Carolinas too that I would love to explore.

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