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!
There are now 63 official national parks in America. Four have been added recently: Gateway Arch National Park in 2018 (that’s right – the Arch in St. Louis is now a national park), Indiana Dunes National Park and White Sands National Park in New Mexico in 2019, and White River Gorge in West Virginia in 2020.
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 2021 based on NPS attendance statistics for two years ago. 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.
Note: Because so few people traveled last year, the stats for last year are skewed, so we’re using the ’19 figures. We’ll update this post again once the 2021 attendance figures have been issued.
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 2021
Annual visitors: 232,974
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!
#14: Guadalupe Mountains
Annual visitors: 188,833
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! It’s a good detour if you’re taking a road trip between California and Texas.
Annual visitors: 177,224
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.
State: South Carolina
Annual visitors: 159,445
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.
#11: Virgin Islands
State: U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S. territory)
Annual visitors: 133,398
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 ’18 after two major hurricanes in late ’17. The numbers have stayed low ever since. Hopefully, at some point the park will get back to hosting a half-million annual visitors, like it used to in the early to mid 2010s.
#10: Great Basin
Annual visitors: 131,802
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 rose from 94k to 168k in just five years, so it might not be long before it works its way off this list.
Annual visitors: 84,167
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. The brown bear salmon cam there is one of the best national park webcams in America!
#8: Dry Tortugas
Annual visitors: 79,200
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.
#7: Wrangell-St. Elias
Annual visitors: 74,518
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. I’m guessing that’s true for a lot of folks who make a quick visit on their Alaska road trip. Those who pay to take the shuttle bus deeper into the park can check out the abandoned mining town of Kennecott.
#6: National Park of American Samoa
State: Samoa (U.S. territory)
Annual visitors: 60,006
A lot of people aren’t even aware that Samoa is a U.S. territory, or that it 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 and then jumping back to 60k in 2019. Getting here takes 14 hours by plane from California, or 5.5 from Hawaii.
#5: North Cascades
Annual visitors: 38,208
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 park is all about mountains and forests.
This place is more appropriate for climbers and campers than your typical weekend RV traveler. There are some nice day hikes here, though. You can include North Cascades as part of a road trip to all three Washington national parks!
#4: Isle Royale
Annual visitors: 26,410
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. You’ll have to plan ahead to secure your ferry reservation.
#3: Lake Clark
Annual visitors: 17,157
The three least-visited national parks in America all exist in the state of Alaska. 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.
#2: Kobuk Valley
Annual visitors: 15,766
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.
#1: Gates of the Arctic
Annual visitors: 10,518
About 10,500 people visited Gates of the Arctic National Park in 2019. That works out to about 29 per day. Twenty nine! 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 on an Arctic Circle road trip.
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?