Alone in nature
There’s nothing that can ruin your enjoyment of a pristine area of natural beauty as much as having to share it with hoards of tourists. And with social distancing still necessary due to the COVID-19 crisis, visitors have even more reason to head to less popular spots. We looked at the National Parks’ official visitor numbers for 2019 to see which had the fewest people coming to them. And because many people are opting to stick closer to home these days, we’re featuring parks in the continental United States—although Alaska also contains many uncrowded parks, including Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Kobuk Valley National Park, and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.
The parks on our list all clock in at under 1 million visitors a year—for comparison, the most crowded is Great Smoky Mountains National Park at a whopping 12,547,743 visitors in 2019; second place is the Grand Canyon at 5,974,411; and the always-popular Yellowstone (in sixth place) had 4,020,288 visitors.
This year due to COVID-19, certain areas of some parks might be closed, so always check the park’s website before you travel. And make sure to remember the 12 things you shouldn’t do in reopened national parks.
Isle Royal National Park, Michigan
The least crowded national park in the continental U.S. is Michigan’s Isle Royal, an isolated island in Lake Superior near the Canadian border. Only accessible by boat or seaplane, the amount of visitors is strictly regulated, resulting in just 26,410 setting foot on the island in 2019. Those who seek this place out are looking for the ultimate in solitude and water-related pursuits including kayaking, fishing, and even scuba diving to see the many sunken wrecks. Hikers can also stay on the lookout for wildlife including moose and wolves. Open from spring until fall, Isle Royal is just $7 a day per person, but also requires permits for camping and docking your private boat. Or, take a day trip on the public ferry from Copper Harbor on the Michigan mainland, and stay overnight in Waterfront Cottages. Learn the true story behind 11 sunken ships around the world.
North Cascades National Park, Washington
Enjoy the beauty of the Pacific Northwest with North Cascades, which received only 38,208 visitors last year. At under three hours from Seattle, the magnificent glacial peaks and ice-blue Diablo Lake seem a world away—and even better, North Cascades is free to enter. This park has the most area of glaciers in the United States outside of Alaska, as well as many stunning waterfalls, over 500 lakes and ponds, and wildlife including grizzly bears and mountain goats. Visitors can come year-round, although check for trail or road closures due to snow in winter; even with its few tourists, the park is busier in summer. If you’re visiting in fall, bring rain gear. Rent a nearby vacation home for a cozy mountain retreat. It’s also one of America’s most beautiful places to visit in the spring.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
This remote park 70 miles west of Key West is made mostly of water, with seven small islands to explore via boat, kayak, or snorkel. It’s a bit hard to get to, accessible only by boat or seaplane; and that’s part of why only 79,200 people visited in 2019. Renowned for its abundance of marine life and coral reefs, the water is the real star here, so it’s wonderful the warm climate allows it to be enjoyed year-round. Travelers to the park can also explore the 19th century Fort Jefferson. The entrance fee to Dry Tortugas is $15, but is good for seven days, and as with many national parks, the park is open 24 hours a day year-round. If not camping on the island, stay at the Kimpton Lighthouse Hotel in Key West and take a ferry for the day. Dry Tortugas is one of the most difficult national parks to visit in North America.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
This national park has everything from glorious mountain peaks to bristlecone pine groves to desert valleys, as well as some of the best stargazing in the U.S. With 131,802 visitors last year, Great Basin is also free to enter. (The park’s Lehman Caves can only be visited with paid, guided tours, but those are currently suspended due to COVID-19.) If you’re going to see the stars, go on a night with no moon. Summer offers the best opportunity to see the Milky Way galaxy as well as partake in ranger-led astronomy programs; next year’s Astronomy Festival is scheduled for September 2021. But the park offers beauty year-round, including meteor showers that can be seen in October, November, and December. Stay nearby at the Stargazer Inn. Here are more spectacular national parks that are even more incredible on starry nights.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Ripe for exploring via kayak or canoe, Congaree boasts the largest intact area of old-growth “bottomland hardwood” forest—in other words, a river swamp—in the Southeast. Giant cypress and oak trees rise out of flooded forest floors, creating an awesome landscape to discover via the park’s boardwalks that wind over it. Many trails are fairly flat, making the park great for families and people of all ages; it’s also free to enter and had only 159,445 visitors in 2019. Spring and fall offer cooler temperatures and fewer bugs than summer, and fall also features gorgeous foliage. Winter has the greatest chance of flooding, so be prepared. The nearby city of Columbia offers plenty of affordable accommodations, such as TownePlace Suites. Take your furry friends, too: Congaree is one of 12 pet-friendly national parks you need to visit with your dog.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
With only 188,833 visitors last year, this West Texas treasure includes the highest mountains in the state, along with canyons, dunes, and desert. Park fees are $10 per person, which are good for seven days; although most of the park is open all the time, McKittrick Canyon is only accessible from 8 a.m. to 4:30 or 6 p.m., depending on the season. Keep an eye out for reptiles such as lizards and rattlesnakes; in winter, visitors might spot elk. A prime birding spot, the park has diverse wildlife that even includes rarely seen mountain lions. Fall brings lovely changing colors, particularly in McKittrick Canyon. With limited accommodations nearby, camp in the park, or stay in a vacation rental like the Mexican-style La Casa Rosa in nearby Dell City. Another least-visited national park, New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns (440,691 visitors), is less than an hour away from the Guadalupe Mountains. The park is also one of the places to visit in spring before it gets too hot.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
If you’re looking for true isolation, voyage through the waterways, lakes, and the over 500 islands of Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park, which received 232,974 visitors last year. Visitors can camp on their own private island, and explore by boat, kayak, or canoe—you’ll have to leave your car behind at the visitor’s center. If you don’t have your own boat, you can rent one from an authorized local business or take a guided trip. Lest you think the park can’t be traversed in winter, it’s open all day year-round: Once the lakes freeze, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling are popular options. The Northern Lights can even sometimes be seen, particularly in winter when the skies are darker longer. At only five hours from Minneapolis, Voyageurs seems far from civilization, but creature comforts are available at nearby lodgings like the Cantilever Hotel in Ranier. That is unless you’re staying overnight, as it’s one of the 15 best places to camp in national parks.
Channel Islands National Park, California
With nine national parks, California has the most of any state, giving visitors plenty to choose from. The least-visited among them is Pinnacles, but most of that park is currently closed due to wildfires. So, we’re recommending the next-to-least visited, the five Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. With only 409,630 tourists in 2019, the park is open year-round and is free to enter. Accessible only by boat or ferry, the islands’ isolation doesn’t just benefit humans: It allowed unique plant and animal life to develop that’s not found anywhere else on earth. Summer temperatures let visitors partake in snorkeling, diving, and swimming; even early fall boasts warm-ish ocean temperatures of 70 degrees, along with crisp visibility of up to 100 feet. Winter offers fabulous sunsets. Whale watching for different species is nearly year-round, and visitors can also spot sea lions and seals. No lodges are available on the islands, but hardy campers can find a peaceful and remote spot to bed down for the night. If you prefer to stay on the mainland, check out the vintage travel trailers at the retro Waypoint Ventura. It’s also one of the 10 most romantic island destinations in the United States.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
With perhaps one of the coolest national park names and only 432,818 visitors last year, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is also one of the most striking: Its steep canyon walls plunge dramatically to the Gunnison River below. The rims offer scenic drives and hiking for different ability levels; on one easy trail, visitors can see the colorful Painted Wall, the tallest cliff in Colorado at 2,250 feet. Inner canyon hiking is strictly for the experienced and requires a permit; likewise, rock climbing and rafting for the extreme sports lover pose exciting but dangerous challenges. Some roads and areas of the park close in winter, but cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are allowed. A week-long vehicle pass is $25 and covers everyone inside. As there’s no way to cross the canyon (it’s a two to three-hour drive around), where you stay depends on which rim you want to visit: The south rim has more services, overlooks, and a better view of the Painted Wall, so visitors can stay at a chain hotel in nearby Montrose, or the Double G Guestranch for a B&B experience. Or, camp in the park: It’s one of the 15 incredible American campsites that should be on your bucket list.
Redwood National Park, California
As an alternative to the busier Yosemite or Sequoia National Parks, check out this northern Californian gem near the Oregon border, which received 504,722 visitors in 2019. The park’s namesake trees are the star of the show: They can grow over 300 feet (the tallest actual tree changes as their tops grow and break off) and live an average of 500 to 700 years. But the park, located on the coast, offers other pastimes as well, such as searching in tide pools, bicycling, and taking scenic drives on paved and unpaved roads. It’s free to visit and always open; the temperature stays between the 40s and 60s year-round, although winter brings more storms and the summer more fog. For a touch of luxury, stay at the Historic Requa Inn. Standing among redwoods is one of the life-changing travel experiences you can only have in America.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Although caves in many other national parks are closed due to Covid-19, the longest known cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave, is open. But, there are limited cave tours and ticket availability in order to adhere to pandemic guidelines (tours start at $6 per person). This will mean that the park will be even less crowded than in years past—in 2019 it received 551,590 visitors—but you’ll also need to make your cave reservations far in advance. The surface areas of the park are free and open year-round 24 hours a day, though, and there’s a lot to do above ground as well, including bicycling, hiking, and visiting historic sites such as old churches and cemeteries. The cave temperature is a consistent 54 degrees all year; spring and fall are pleasant times to visit above ground. Book a cozy cabin vacation rental nearby. Mammoth Cave is also one of the best winter destinations in every state.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
This has to be one of the most unique national parks, yet only had 608,785 visitors last year. Encompassing 275 square miles of desert, this is the world’s largest area of gypsum dunes, a bright white mineral that creates an other-worldly playground to explore. Open every day at 7 am except Christmas, with closing hours varying from 6 to 9 pm according to the season, the park stays open late for special full moon events and other ranger programs, and also offers overnight backcountry camping. Missile tests from White Sands Missile Range may occasionally close the park for a few hours, so be prepared. Your seven-day vehicle pass is $25 and lets you coast down Dunes Drive, go bicycling, and try sand sledding. But beware: you’re not allowed to take any sand home with you, in order to preserve the landscape. Stay at one of the many affordable hotels in nearby Alamogordo. You have to see these spectacular photographs of America’s national parks that will leave you awestruck.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Utah’s popular parks Zion and Bryce Canyon—not to mention Arizona’s Grand Canyon—all have well over a million tourists a year. But Petrified Forest features many similar geographic formations, with way fewer crowds, at 643,588 visitors in 2019. The layers of colors on the hills, rock towers, and flat-topped mesas of the park have picturesque names such as the Painted Desert, Rainbow Forest, and Ice Cream Rocks. Fossils, petrified wood, and ancient rock carvings make the park even more extraordinary. It’s open all year, but with extreme temperatures, winter can be cold and summer can be hot and rainy, making fall a more pleasant time to visit. Enter for $25 per vehicle for seven days; or take your bike in for $15. The nearby town of Holbrook offers many economical accommodations, such as the Best Western Arizonian Inn. The park is also one of the most colorful natural wonders on Earth.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Named for the president credited with greatly expanding the national park system, this park in western North Dakota saw 691,658 visitors last year. Roosevelt himself lived in these badlands as a rancher long before he became president, and visitors today can see the place much as he did over a hundred years ago. Wildlife is abundant, so keep your eye out for bison, elk, pronghorns, feral horses, and more. Traditional lodging, such as the AmericInn by Wyndham, is available in the town of Medora. The park is open 24 hours a day year-round and is $30 for a seven-day vehicle pass. Summers offer pleasant temperatures for hiking, biking, and kayaking on the Little Missouri River; winters can be cold and snowy, allowing for plenty of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Check out these stunning photos of national parks covered in snow.
Biscayne National Park, Florida
Over 95 percent of this national park is underwater and accessible only by boat, so it attracts fewer visitors than the nearby Everglades: 708,000 versus over a million. (Just skip Columbus Day weekend in October, when there’s a popular regatta in Biscayne Bay.) You can rent or charter a boat for a socially distanced day—or days, if you’re camping—of swimming, fishing, and snorkeling among the protected coral reef; the park’s waters are free and open 24 hours. Two of the park’s keys (coral islands) are open for camping with a $25 per night fee. Thanks to the Sunshine State’s amazing weather, the park is beautiful year-round. Stay on the mainland in Homestead, with affordable accommodations including Hampton Inn & Suites. Next, check out these 30 stunning photos of national parks in full bloom.
- National Park Service: “Annual Park Ranking Report for Recreation Visits in: 2019”
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