Although the United States has over 400 locations administered by the National Park Service, there are only 59 that are official “national parks.” Of these 47 are located in the lower 48 states and are relatively accessible. Most people know about well-known and well-traveled parks like Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, Zion, Grand Teton, Acadia, and Glacier. Each of these parks see over two million visitors annually, and with good reason. The natural wonders they offer are breathtaking, filled with spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife, gorgeous plants, and fascinating geology.
At the same time there are many other national parks in the lower 48 that are waiting to be discovered. For various reasons these parks aren’t nearly as well-known, and yet they harbor some of the best-kept secrets in America. Instead of counting visitors by the millions, these parks count only about 16,000 to 238,000 per year. The limited number of people who know about these parks enjoy the sparse crowds and more remote and natural feel of these special places.
I’m presenting these parks here for two reasons. First, they’re really amazing places that shouldn’t be missed. Second, their long-term survival depends on public awareness and support. Although it would be nice to selfishly protect these amazing places as secrets that few know about, they belong to everyone and should be visited and appreciated by everyone.
#1: Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Visitors in 2013: 16,274
Why visitation is so low: Located in the middle of Lake Superior, Isle Royale can be reached only by ferry, float plane, or private boat. Brutal northern winters mean the park is only open from about early May to late September. Even during the relatively mild weather of the summer, unpredictable high winds and waves as well as violent storms can interfere with the best-laid travel plans. On top of that the island has no roads, no wheeled vehicles, no cell service, and only limited supplies and amenities.
Why you should go there: Isle Royale is almost entirely designated wilderness, providing an excellent escape from civilization. When my friend and I visited we hiked 40 miles without seeing another person on the trails. Here rocky ridges look down on dense forests and serene coves along the shore. Moose, wolves, and other smaller mammals prowl the landscape while the shores teem with birds and fish. Backpacking or kayaking around the island requires planning, equipment, supplies, and at least a little skill, but the reward is sublime. You’re literally on your own here, and although some people find that frightening that’s what makes it awesome.
#2: North Cascades National Park, Washington
Visitors in 2013: 21,623
Why visitation is so low: Although located only three hours northeast of Seattle, the rugged Cascade Range seems to deter many people. Winter snows often block roads and trails, limiting visitation mostly to the summer months. Even then the weather can make things challenging. The nearly-800 square miles of wilderness hosts few roads, limiting the most rewarding travel to hiking and backpacking.
Why you should go there: The remote and spectacular terrain includes temperate rainforests, lakes and rivers, waterfalls, alpine glaciers, and soaring jagged peaks. The varied landscapes provide endless and constantly-changing scenery, and each biome hosts its own unique range of plants and wildlife.
#3: Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Visitors in 2013: 58,401
Why visitation is so low: The Dry Tortugas are a collection of several tiny islands located about 70 miles west of Key West. A ferry, float plane, or private boat is the only way to arrive at this slice of heaven. Hurricanes in the summer and autumn as well as storms and high seas in the winter can have an impact on travel.
Why you should go there: Few people go to the trouble of visiting Dry Tortugas, making crowds pretty sparse. The islands are surrounded by coral reefs filled with a staggering array of colorful fish and marine invertebrates, and the snorkeling and scuba diving here are amazing. A variety of shorebirds also fill the skies and the beaches. If that’s not enough, the ruins of Fort Jefferson dominate the area and invite exploration. This nineteenth-century fortress is the largest brick structure in the western hemisphere, and the history found here is almost as fascinating as the natural beauty.
#4: Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Visitors in 2013: 92,893
Why visitation is so low: Approximately a four-hour drive from either Salt Lake City or Las Vegas, Great Basin is one of the most remote national parks in the lower 48. Towns are few and far between, and one should refuel whenever the opportunity presents itself. Snow often shuts down roads at higher elevations during the winter.
Why you should go there: Ranging in elevation from about 3,000 to over 13,000 feet, this park presents an impressive look at the varied terrain of America’s basin-and-range province. Low, sun-baked plains give way to thick conifer forests and then high, snow-capped peaks. Great Basin also harbors some excellent bristlecone pines (the oldest plants on earth), as well as the gorgeous Lehman Caves.
#5: Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Visitors in 2013: 120,340
Why visitation is so low: As one of America’s newest national parks (established in 2003), most people don’t yet know about this jewel of the east. I suspect the lack of mountains and large mammals may discourage some potential visitors.
Why you should go there: Congaree is the largest unspoiled hardwood floodplain forest left in the United States. It hosts gigantic pine and cypress trees that are among the biggest in the east. The forest is thick and dark and home to a variety of wildlife that can be seen from the extensive trails. The rivers provide excellent kayaking and canoeing opportunities, and a variety of birds, lizards, snakes, turtles, and even alligators can be found near the shores.
#6: Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Visitors in 2013: 145,670
Why visitation is so low: Situated in west Texas, this park is literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s several hours from Albuquerque, El Paso, and San Antonio, making it a bit of a trek to visit. Carlsbad, New Mexico is only about an hour away so if you visit the nearby Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains should also be on your itinerary.
Why you should go there: Extensive canyons, quiet streams, harsh deserts, verdant woodlands, and gorgeous mountain views provide scenic wonder and a home for many interesting plants and animals. Roads here are few, but hiking and backpacking are worthwhile endeavors. Climb Guadalupe Peak (the highest point in Texas), and look down on the beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert. Along the way you’ll see a variety of cacti and maybe even deer or a mountain lion.
#7: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Visitors in 2013: 175,852
Why visitation is so low: As a relatively new national park (established in 1999) that is far from the beaten path (located in western Colorado), the appeal of Black Canyon has yet to reach the masses.
Why you should go there: This deep, dark, narrow canyon is a sight to behold. The sound of the raging Gunnison River below is unforgettable. The surrounding rivers, plants, and wildlife aren’t too shabby either.
#8: Channel Islands National Park, California
Visitors in 2013: 212,029
Why visitation is so low: Although located only about 50 miles from the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, seeing this park is apparently too much trouble for most people. Visitors must drive to Oxnard or Ventura and board a ferry to one of the islands, and then rely on their own two feet (or a kayak) to get around. The majority of people only see the visitor center in Ventura and don’t see the islands themselves.
Why you should go there: The ferry alone is worth the trouble as it often passes near seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales, and a variety of shore birds during the trip. Once on one of the islands these marine animals can still be seen, along with many other mammals, fish, birds, and reptiles. The terrain is rugged and fun to hike, and the canyons, peaks, and jagged coasts are rewarding places to explore.
#9: Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Visitors in 2013: 233,390
Why visitation is so low: Situated in northern Minnesota along the Canadian border, Voyageurs isn’t exactly in the middle of vacationland for most people.
Why you should go there: This remote wilderness is relatively free from visitors, making it an ideal destination to escape from civilization. The seemingly endless maze of lakes and rivers invite exploration by a variety of watercraft, and the dense forests invite exploration by foot. Moose, wolves, bears, and many other animals can be found in this unspoiled Eden. Fish fill the abundant waters, making it an angler’s paradise.
#10: Pinnacles National Park, California
Visitors in 2013: 237,677
Why visitation is so low: Pinnacles is America’s newest national park (established in 2013), so most people aren’t even aware of it yet.
Why you should go there: The jagged, volcanic peaks of Pinnacles are a great place to hike, backpack, and rock climb. A variety of interesting plants and animals can be found here, including California condors.