Having earned two degrees in geosciences, you can say that I have a bit of a soft spot for the great outdoors, particularly mountains, rivers, and caves. I worked for the National Park Service (at Fossil Butte National Monument, about three hours south of Jackson Hole, WY) and spent my free time romping around the western United States, visiting Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and Arches National Parks. I was lucky enough to have parents who were equally interested in the outdoors, and growing up I had the chance to visit Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Mesa Verde, Mammoth Cave, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Parks.
There are 59 National Parks in the United States, though, and while many of the ones I’ve mentioned are well trafficked (Grand Canyon National Park had 6.25 million recreational visitors in 2017; Yellowstone National Park had 4.11 million), there are others that don’t even get one million visitors in a given year. Of course, you shouldn’t skip Grand Tetons National Park if you’re in Wyoming or Arches if you’re in Utah, but there are plenty of parks you can visit without having to fight a crowd.
The following 10 parks, ranked from fewest to most visitors, are spread out across the country and are well worth your time if you can find a way to visit:
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
With only 28,000 visitors, Isle Royale was one of the least visited national parks in 2017. It’s located on and around the largest island in Lake Superior and can only be reached by passenger ferry or seaplane. Once you’re on the island, take advantage of the 165 miles of trails and 36 campgrounds; you may see moose, wolves, osprey, or turtles. If you’re more into history than nature, check out the Rock Harbor Lighthouse or one of the many cottages. Land isn’t all the island has to offer, though. Explore the coast by boat, or scuba dive down to old shipwrecks. The park is closed from November 1 through April 15 every year for the winter season, so plan your trip accordingly. Isle Royale is designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Katmai National Park is located just northwest of Kodiak Island and southwest of Anchorage and is accessible only by boat or plane. It hosted a mere 37,000 visitors in 2017. The park was formed in 1918 to protect the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and Mount Katmai, the volcano that transformed the valley when it erupted in 1912 and filled it with ash and pumice. Now, it’s main purpose is to create a protected landscape for birds, fish, and wildlife, namely spawning salmon and the brown bears that feed on them. You can watch the bear cam (and be instantly transported to the park) here.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
You hear Nevada and you may think dessert, but Great Basin offers so much more than that. Climb Wheeler Peak, Nevada’s second tallest mountain (it clocks in at just over 13,000 feet above sea level), or travel underground to explore the limestone and mineral formations inside Lehman Caves. Because of the park’s location away from civilization and high in elevation, the night sky has been designated an International Dark Sky Park. See the planets, the Milky Way, and the Andromeda Galaxy when you take part in a stargazing program or a night hike. Join the 168,000 people who visited in 2017 and maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of Wheeler Peak Glacier, the rapidly disappearing southernmost glacier in the United States.
It’s hard to picture now, but millions of years ago, parts of the southern United States were underwater. During the Permian Period (over 200 million years ago), a coral reef formed over what is now Texas. Over millions of years, the layout of the world shifted and mountains grew where once there was a reef—the Guadalupe Mountains. Aside from ancient marine fossils and rocks, you can also find Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, El Capitan, a unique rock formation that helped generations of travelers get their bearings, and the Chihuahuan Desert. You may see mule deer, jackrabbits, coyotes, bats, or javelinas on your visit, but the area is also home to rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas! Only 225,000 people visited Guadalupe Mountains National Park last year.
Channel Islands National Park, California
If you head due west from Los Angeles, you’ll end up on one of the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park. If you have a love of both nature and the ocean, this is the vacation for you. Experience the kelp forest when you snorkel or scuba dive; get a view of the coast when you boat or kayak; and see wildlife unlike what you’ll find at home when you explore tidepools, go whale watching, or take a nature hike to see birds or sea lions. Follow in the footsteps of the 383,000 people who visited in 2017 and book a seat on a boat or plane to get to the park. Note that once you’re on the islands, all transportation must be done by foot, boat, or kayak. The Channel Islands are designated as as UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Biscayne National Park, Florida
Biscayne National Park is unique in that it’s almost entirely composed of water (just 5% of the park is on land). Just south of Miami and north of Key Largo, this national park is a dream for anyone who is at home on or in the water. Shipwrecks from as long ago as 1878 dot the ocean floor and can be seen while snorkeling or scuba diving, but you can explore the bay from the safety of a canoe, kayak, or boat if you prefer not to get your feet wet. No matter how you choose to explore, you’ll visit more than one ecosystem, from the mangrove forest to the bay to the coral reef. You may see manatees, alligators, sea turtles, sharks, pelicans, or whales, and you’re sure to see dozens of different types of fish. Nearly 450,000 people put on their water shoes to visit Biscayne National Park in 2017.
With just shy of half a million (487,000) visitors in 2017, Great Sand Dunes National Park is still in the bottom half when it comes to national park popularity. It’s quite the hidden treasure though: Great Sand Dunes is home to the tallest sand dunes (750 feet!) in North America and is conveniently located just four hours southwest of Denver. The park contains dunes, forests, and creeks, so you have plenty of hikes to choose from. If you’re looking for a bit of fun, you can climb the dunes and slide down them on a “sandboard” or a sled. Be on the lookout for black bears, bighorn sheep, and yellow-bellied marmots!
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Carlsbad Caverns welcomed just over half a million visitors in 2017, more than double the number of people who visited Guadalupe Mountains National Park, just over the state line to the south. As you might have guessed, the main attraction at Carlsbad Caverns is underground. There are over 119 caves in the park, but you can’t see all of them on self-guided tours. Instead, you can see the Big Room, which is the largest cave room in North America, or follow the Natural Entrance Trail down 75 stories to visit formations called the Devil’s Spring and Iceberg Rock. Ranger-led tours will bring you into areas you can’t explore on your own. Bats and stalactites are both plentiful!
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Continuing the theme of caves, Mammoth Cave National Park is home to the world’s longest—400+ miles—cave system. The caves are the primary attraction, with multiple cave tours being offered each day. Relive the olden days when the caves were first discovered by joining the Violet City Lantern Tour that forbids the use of electric lights. If you’re the adventurous type, you can go spelunking and traverse the caves on your hands and knees. Above ground, you can kayak, canoe, or fish on the Green or Nolin River and take in the countryside. If you’re ever traveling between Nashville, TN and Louisville, KY, you should certainly stop for a visit—587,000 people did last year. Mammoth Cave is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde is the most visited national park on this list, with 613,000 visitors in 2017. It’s not hard to understand why visitors come to Mesa Verde. It’s host to cliff dwellings that were the home of Ancestral Pueblo people over 700 years ago. There are 600 cliff dwellings protected by the park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the most famous is probably Cliff Palace. Rangers can guide you on tours through Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House, but you can also do some exploring and hiking on your own. A short driving tour also boasts of overlooks and short trails to many of the main cliff dwellings and surface dwellings. If you have an extra hour, drive southwest to Four Corners and try standing in four states at once!
Which national park will you be visiting next?