Last week I presented “The Least-Visited National Parks in America’s Lower 48 (and why you should visit them).” I later realized that most people focus on the “most” or “least” of something, and that often leaves out the “next most” or “next least.”
Although the ten least-visited parks in America’s lower 48 are indeed well worth a visit, the next ten also deserve some attention. These special places see only about 242,000-516,000 visitors per year, making most of them still relatively unknown on the national park circuit.
So here are #11-#20 of “The Least-Visited National Parks in America’s Lower 48 (and why you should visit them):”
#11: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
Visitors in 2013: 242,841
Why visitation is so low: This park is several hours southwest of Denver in a relatively unpopulated area of Colorado. It isn’t near the famous ski resorts or better-known Rocky Mountain peaks, but it has an allure all its own.
Why you should go there: The namesake tallest sand dunes in North America cover 30 square miles and reach 750 feet in height. They’re a spectacular sight whether you’re trekking across them or looking down on them from the adjacent Sangre de Cristo Mountains. If sand isn’t your thing, hiking up to Mosca Pass leads one through a variety of rugged ecosystems hosting many interesting plants and animals.
#12: Big Bend National Park, Texas
Visitors in 2013: 316,953
Why visitation is so low: Big Bend is one of the most remote parks in the lower 48. It’s several hours from El Paso and San Antonio, and the drive is long and lonely across the sparsely-populated Chihuahuan Desert.
Why you should go there: Big Bend is one of my favorite national parks for a variety of reasons. I love the hot, dry desert climate, especially in winter. The life-giving Rio Grande provides a ribbon of greenery in this harsh environment. There is abundant wildlife including deer, black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, lizards, and snakes. Numerous desert plants and colorful rocks fill the gorgeous landscapes. Fascinating geologic features seem to decorate every view. Hundreds of miles of excellent hiking trails spread out in every direction. Peculiar nearby towns like Terlingua and Boquillas Mexico are also worth exploring. Best of all, crowds are relatively sparse even in the resort area of the Chisos Basin. And when in the Chisos Basin, Forever Resorts provides some top-notch amenities at a reasonable price.
#13: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Visitors in 2013: 388,566
Why visitation is so low: Like Big Bend to the south, this park is several hours from any major metropolitan area. Its location in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert makes it rather remote. And Carlsbad, New Mexico isn’t a major draw unless you’re an oil worker.
Why you should go there: Carlsbad Caverns is, in my opinion, the most gorgeous cave system in the United States. Many different types of dripstone decorate the extensive caves including stalactites, stalagmites, columns, curtains, soda straws, and more. This park hosts a great deal of subterranean beauty, and the above-ground portions of the Chihuahuan Desert aren’t too shabby either. The limestone that harbors these caves is part of a Permian Era coral reef that existed from about 280-240 million years ago, and more of this reef can be seen at nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas (#6 of the least-visited parks).
#14: Redwood National Park, California
Visitors in 2013: 393,364
Why visitation is so low: The Pacific coast of northern California is relatively isolated by the Klamath Mountains. Towns are few and far between, and the roads wind tediously through the surrounding hills. Winter snows often close high-elevation roads, and fog seems ever-present.
Why you should go there: This park is home to the majority of the remaining coast redwood trees, the tallest trees on earth. They can approach 400 feet in height and are truly a sight to behold in person. The temperate rainforests they inhabit are home to many other intriguing plants and animals, including giant yellow banana slugs.
#15: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Visitors in 2013: 427,409
Why visitation is so low: Situated near the southern end of the volcanic Cascade Range in northeast California, Lassen is far-removed from major cities. It’s several hours northeast of San Francisco and Sacramento, making a visit a bit of a trek. Snow closes the road through the park in winter, limiting most visitation to only a few months during the summer.
Why you should go there: Lassen features many of the volcanic and hydrothermal features of the better-known Yellowstone National Park in one concise and lesser-traveled location. Here you can enjoy hiking volcanic peaks, boiling mudpots, and steaming fumaroles while the otherworldly stench of sulfur competes with the pleasant aroma of the surrounding pine forests. And all without the traffic jams and crowds of Yellowstone.
#16: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Visitors in 2013: 460,237
Why visitation is so low: Located in extreme southwest Colorado near the Four Corners, this park is far removed from the surrounding cities of Denver, Albuquerque, Flagstaff, and Salt Lake City. It’s about four hours from any of these cities into “the middle of nowhere.”
Why you should go there: Mesa Verde is the only national park that focuses more on cultural artifacts rather than natural features. Relics of ancestral Puebloan peoples blanket this park including dozens of massively impressive cliff dwellings, unearthed villages, and countless artifacts. The museum is an invaluable resource for interpretation before exploring the extensive Native American history this park has to offer.
#17: Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Visitors in 2013: 462,242
Why visitation is so low: Like Mesa Verde this park is in the middle of nowhere. It’s several hours from Denver, Albuquerque, Flagstaff, or Salt Lake City, making it one of the more remote parks in the lower 48. Moab, Utah is the closest town of any size, and a great oasis in this isolated corner of America.
Why you should go there: While Grand Canyon National Park to the southwest sees many more visitors, Canyonlands is perhaps much more diverse in its scenery. It’s divided into four distinct “districts,” each with its own unique appeal. “Island in the Sky” is a stretch of high mesas that look down on the surrounding gorgeous topography. “The Needles” presents an up-close look at the rugged, colorful, and beautiful terrain of the canyons. “The Maze” is a no-man’s land of confusing labyrinths suitable only to the most skilled of back-country navigators. And the “Rivers” of the Green and Colorado present a whole different challenge in the form of endless whitewater. The landscapes here are remote and difficult, but they are among the most amazing in the United States.
#18: Biscayne National Park, Florida
Visitors in 2013: 486,848
Why visitation is so low: Although within an hour south of Miami, the unique appeal of Biscayne is perhaps overshadowed by many other competing attractions. Disney World and its associated Orlando parks aren’t far to the north, Everglades National Park isn’t far to the west, and the Florida Keys aren’t far to the south. On top of that, the appeal of Miami itself and its nightlife and beaches are a distraction all their own.
Why you should go there: Biscayne National Park is mostly water, and with good reason. This healthy chunk of Florida coast is filled with spectacular little islands, pristine coral reefs, and all the marine flora and fauna that go along with them. Dolphins, manatees, alligators, and a spectrum of colorful fish and invertebrates fill the waters. Even along the shore you can find lizards, snakes, subtropical plants, and a seemingly endless array of marine fossils from ancient reefs. The visitor center is top-notch, and even if you don’t venture into Biscayne Bay the coastal experience from Convoy Point is worth an hour or two.
#19: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Visitors in 2013: 494,541
Why visitation is so low: Mammoth Cave is one of America’s oldest tourist attractions, and one of our oldest national parks (established in 1941). In spite of this it sees far fewer visitors than it probably should. I suspect this may be because 1) Caves don’t excite people, or 2) Kentucky isn’t a “destination vacation” for most people. In spite of this, its proximity to many eastern cities should make it far more popular than it is.
Why you should go there: This is the largest known cave system on the entire planet. If that doesn’t excite you, I don’t know what would. Among the hundreds of miles of surveyed passageways, a variety can be experienced through a number of ranger-lead cave tours. These treks range from the relatively benign (a quick trip through the historical highlights) to the far more adventurous (a “Wild Cave Tour” that involves professional caving equipment, belly-crawling, and tight squeezes…not for the faint of heart.) The above-ground portions of this park are nearly as impressive, showcasing the forests of western Kentucky, sinkholes where rivers disappear underground, and the numerous species of bats that swarm here every evening.
#20: Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Visitors in 2013: 516,142
Why visitation is so low: Southwestern South Dakota features a variety of tourist attractions, so there is a lot of competition for attention. This region features the motorcycle rallies of Sturgis, the wonders of Badlands National Park and Devils Tower National Monument, the historical appeal of Deadwood, and the American icons of Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. The Black Hills themselves are gorgeous, and the surrounding tourist towns provide an endless array of distractions.
Why you should go there: Although not the biggest cave in the world (like Mammoth Cave) or perhaps the prettiest (like Carlsbad Caverns), Wind Cave is the “most complex” cave system on earth. Here countless tight passageways intricately wind around each other, creating a nightmarish labyrinth of tunnels. The ranger-lead tours are educational and fun, and provide a layer of safety in this dangerous environment. Back on the surface countless prairie dogs, pronghorn, and bison conspire to make this place as amazing above as it is below.