Of the 63 designated National Parks in North America, around 10 of them account for most of the visits every year. You will recognise many of them like Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon and the Joshua Street National Park. The National Park Service, responsible for managing these incredible places, keep stats on the visitor numbers for each park, allowing us to delve into some of the less popular parks that may offer you a chance to get away from the crowds.
What is a US National Park?
A national park is a congressionally (ie Government) protected areas designated for their natural beauty, unique geological features, diverse ecosystems and recreation opportunities. For many Americans, and visitors, these vast parks offer an opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors, see wildlife and learn some history. The US national parks are a fantastic place for a weekend break or longer vacation, regularly featuring in the top most visited tourist destinations in America.
But let us leave the crowds and consider some of the lesser known National Parks and what they have to offer.
5 Lesser Known National Parks to discover
Gates of the Arctic, Alaska
Many of the least visited US National Parks are in Alaska, but we have picked possibly the least visited park. Even the most populous parts of Alaska are beautifully empty, so it’s no surprise that this park, a 12 hour drive North of Anchorage is so quiet. There are no roads or trails up here, just beautiful mountains, fresh rivers and lots of wildlife. Grizzly bears, black bears, wolf, moose, wolverine and fox roam the landscape.
One of the last truly wild places on earth, you won’t be staying in hotels but camping, fishing and canoeing on the beautiful rivers. You’ll be eating what you bring, or what you catch. If that’s not quite what you want, then consider hiring a local air taxi for a sightseeing trip or overnight camping trip.
Faribanks, Alaska is the gateway to the park. You’ll probably need to fly into Anchorage and pick up a connecting flight from there. In the summer months you could drive but be ready for a looong trip!
Learn more about Gates Of the Arctic from the NPS.
Isle Royale, Michigan
Another great place to get away from it all. As the name suggests, Isle Royale is an isolated island surrounded by Lake Superior. The isle is great for backpackers, hikers, boaters, kayakers, canoeists and scuba divers. You can hike and camp or stay in one of two lodges on the island, Windingo and Rock Harbour. Windigo is great for a rustic stay that’s a step up from camping, whilst Rock Harbor offers private lodges with private baths and an on-site bar & grill.
You’ll need to cross Lake Superior in your own boat or seaplane, or pick up one of the seasonal ferries that run June to September. You’ll need to get to Grand Portage, Minnesota, Houghton Michigan to pick up the ferry.
About half the size, in acres, of the Lake District, Voyageurs in the heart of America. Named after the French Canadian fur traders ‘les voyageurs’ who were the first people to cross this remote area of land, this park is another place to get off grid and get back to nature. Less remote than Gates of the Arctic, spending time Voyageurs can include hiking, fishing and camping. You can stay at the Kettle Falls hotel, the only one in Voyageurs accessible only by boat.
For stargazers, Voyageurs offers a wonderful view of the sky. As a designated Dark Sky Park, you can just look up at the stars, or join one of the many night sky programs offered by park rangers in the summer months.
The park is located in Northern Minnesota, with its Northern edge on Canada’s boundary. You can drive to one of the four visitor centres where you can leave the car and take to the water.
North Cascades, Washington
Drive two hours North from Seattle and you will enter the North Cascades, an alpine wilderness of jagged peaks, clear running water and stunning pine forests. Another park to get away from it all, you can leave the car behind and walk, canoe or ride through this vast wilderness. Birdwatchers love to watch the Vultures, Eagles and Hawks overhead ; dippers, larks, sparrows and owls are just some of the other birds you can see in the park.
Climbers can enjoy a variety of different environments with numerous peaks and 0ver 300 glaciers offering challenges for all climbing abilities.
Most visitors arrive by car on State Route 20 and the North Cascades Highway. Public Transport is limited so look into hiring a car from Seattle or other locations before heading to the Park.
Guadalupe Mountains, Texas
The only one of our list that is not a watery destination! Set in the Chihuahuan Desert of western Texas, the park is famous for the bright-white salt basin and fossilised reef mountains. The world’s largest Permian fossil reef points to a time when Texas was under water, about 250 million years ago. This park includes nearly 2,000 acres of salt basin dunes and verdant canyons full of trees and wildlife. You could spend a week just visiting everything there is to see in the Gaudalupe Mountains. Unlike the other parks in our list, you can drive into the areas of the park, just not through them! You can drive to the Salt Basin Dunes or take Highway 62 into the Gaudalupes. To really enjoy the park you need to hike or horseback into the heart of this wonderful park.
Enjoying the National Parks
We’ve barley scratched the surface on America’s Wonderful National Parks. They all run by the dedicated National Parks Service who work tirelessly to preserve these beautiful locations and to ensure the enjoyment of all visotors. Their website is chock full of inspiration and advice and a great place to lose yourself for a few hours.
Most of these parks will require some permits for climbing, camping or fishing so do make sure you plan ahead to get the best out of your trip!