Why the 5 Least-Visited National Parks Are Worthy of an Adventure
A century ago, America invented the idea of the National Parks System to preserve rad wilderness. The parks were places largely un-screwed-with by humans, where Americans could stand under massive redwoods, over grand canyons, and atop great smoky mountains. They were places to turn a vacation into an adventure where you spied bears on hikes, clambered up glaciers, or rafted down churning rivers.
Today, parks still offer all these things. But in many of your more popular parks -- your Yellowstones, your Rocky Mountains, your “Mighty Five” in Utah -- summer means adventuring next to entire “active living” communities and half a dozen summer camps. Fair enough, we should all be able to enjoy the national parks. But sometimes, to feel the sense of freedom and awe that the parks were founded on, you gotta step away from Yosemite.
Some of the 59 parks still see fewer visitors all year than the Great Smoky Mountains welcome in a single summer morning. They’re not always easy to get to, and some require professional help to visit safely. But if you want to feel at one with the wild, may we suggest a trip to one of America’s five least-visited national parks.
North Cascades National Park
North-central Washington state
Visitors in 2017: 30,326
The phrase “barely visited national park” might conjure up images of vast remote wilderness, hundreds of miles from the nearest thing you could call a city. Not so much here, as this park just a few hours from Seattle boasts more spectacular wilderness than its neighbors Olympic and Mount Rainier National Parks, yet somehow draws fewer annual visitors than a Sounders game.
North Cascades, at the Canadian border, contains the third-most glaciers of any national park -- more than 300 of them. The backcountry hiking is pure Northwest paradise, taking you through alpine forests, glaciers, and waterfalls to remote campgrounds with little to no cell service. The scenic highlight is Lake Diablo, a mountain lake stained turquoise by glacial runoff rich with minerals from the surrounding peaks. The park is also home to Ross Lake, a hidden gem of a recreation area where you can stay in floating cabins right on the water, if you’re down to sherpa your luggage a mile down a muddy trail.
From here, it’s just a short drive to Mount Baker, a top climbing, skiing, and hiking destination for novice and intermediate climbers. It’s also right next to Lake Chelan, a popular weekend escape for city dwellers, who somehow miss this little slice of heaven just a few miles away. If you’re OK disconnecting completely and living without amenities for a few days, this park is one of the best quick escapes in the country, easily the easiest trip of any seldom-visited national park.
How to get there: From Seattle, take I-5 north to WA-530 East, then take WA-20 East. That road runs right through the park.
Isle Royale National Park
Michigan, technically, but in northern Lake Superior
Visitors in 2017: 28,196
You can’t really blame people for not flocking to this island set way out in the waters of Lake Superior off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Getting here requires either a three-hour boat ride or a 45-minute seaplane flight, neither of which is simple or cheap. The Isle Royal experience is one that must be earned, a little rock of isolated wilderness where you’ll traverse the island seeing nary a soul but have to put in work to get there.
The hikes will often find you alone on a trail, as you trek under fir and spruce trees near Rock Harbor to sprawling views out over Superior. Or see the lake peek through maples and birches as you hike along Windigo on the southwest side. Moose are abundant here, part of the longest running predator-prey study in American examining their relationship with the island’s wolves. Diving is also popular on the island, as its waters cover one of the best collection of Great Lakes shipwrecks in the region -- just make sure to pack a good wetsuit. There’s also plenty of fishing when the water is warm during July and August.
Since Isle Royale takes a while to reach, staying overnight is a must. And while you’ll rarely be fighting for good campsites if you backpack, the full-service Rock Harbor Lodge has cabins with kitchens and a full-service restaurant. Another bonus of staying overnight is your chance to catch the Aurora Borealis, though the park is closed during peak viewing season in the winter. It’s usually best viewed around 2-3am, as during the height of summer, it doesn’t get dark out till after 10pm.
How to get there: Boats leave from several towns along the lake. There’s the Ranger III from Houghton, Michigan (six hours); the Isle Royale Queen IV from Copper Harbor, Michigan (three hours); Voyager II and Sea Hunter from Grand Portage, Minnesota (overnight tour around the island). Or opt for Isle Royale Seaplanes out of Houghton for a 45-minute flight.
Lake Clark National Park & Preserve
Visitors in 2017: 22,755
Lake Clark is the precise image that comes to mind one when one hears “Alaska wilderness.” The towering Chigmit Mountains run against the park’s border, standing tall over nearly 6,300 square miles of lakes, forests, and remote nature. It has a stunning diversity of landscapes, such as coastal forests near the water and harsh, frozen tundra of the Turquoise-Telaquana Plateau. You’ll find yourself camping along the rocky shoreline of a mountain lake with nobody but bears and eagles to share it with, kayaking out onto that lake feeling as if you have the entire state to yourself.
The park isn’t painfully tough to reach; it’s only about a hundred miles from Anchorage. Yet as you’d expect, few make the trip up to Port Alsworth, the little town that serves as the unofficial gateway to Lake Clark. From there you can do an easy day hike to Tanalian Falls, the kind of impressive, towering waterfall that would draw crowds by the thousands in the lower 48. Or you can take a longer trek up to Tanalian Mountain, which rewards you with 360-degree views over the bay, mountains, and Lake Clark.
If you’ve got a few days to spend, hop a seaplane to Turquoise Lake, where you can hike and backpack beside a mountain lake the same color as the Caribbean. Or head to the Silver Salmon Lodge, where brown bears are more populous than lodge guests and daily interaction with them become almost casual. It’s a glorious cross-section of Alaskan wilderness that’s still not impossible to reach, and a fantastic first foray into untamed Alaska.
How to get there: From Anchorage, you can find scheduled flights into Iliamna, then take an air taxi into the park. You can also take a boat through Cook Inlet to the park’s coastline. The park is not accessible by road.
Kobuk Valley National Park
Visitors in 2017: 15,500
Perhaps the most surreal landscape in any national park is the point in Kobuk Valley where you can stand atop a sand dune to gaze out at a boreal forest in one direction and a range of towering arctic mountains in another. Kobuk Valley sits between the Baird and Waring ranges, entirely above the Arctic Circle, where dunes like you’d see in New Mexico or Colorado stretch out for 25 square miles in three different parts of the park. It’s a mesmerizing desert scape completely unexpected in such a far-flung part of Alaska.
Summer temperatures on the dunes can reach upwards of 100 degrees, another surreal feeling when you realize you’re in the northern stretches of Alaska. The Kobuk and Salmon rivers wind their way through the valley, offering you a chance to cool off if the heat gets to be too much. The only other people you might encounter are the native Inupiat, who live in villages that dot the 1.7-million-acre park, sustenance societies that offer a glimpse into how people lived here 10,000 years ago (plus snowmobiles). It’s also visited by half a million migrating caribou each year -- 30 times the number of human visitors.
Word to the wise, though, unless you’re a trained survivalist: Don’t even think about coming here without a guide. It’s the kind of place where if something goes wrong you’re days from help, and it’s not like you can call 911 from the middle of the arctic. The isolation and awe of this landscape is alluring, but lacking experience and planning it can also be highly unforgiving.
How to get there: Take a small plane into Kotzebue, a town of about 3,000 where bush pilots and air taxis will take you into the park. Good luck, you badass, you.
Gates of the Arctic National Park
Smack in the middle of Alaska
Visitors in 2017: 11,177
There isn’t much in the least-visited national park in America. No roads. No toilets. No cell phone service. There aren’t even trails. Or signs. There’s no entry fee either, so Gates of the Arctic is yours if you’re willing to take it. On an average day, you won’t find more than about 50 people milling around the 8.5 million acres in this park -- that’s four times the size of Yellowstone -- most of them hearty folks backpacking through black spruce forest or kayaking down a river between towering mountains.
Gates is a place to feel truly removed, to bask in the wonders of nature and realize that the planet is still far from spoiled. July and August bring swarms of bugs, grizzly bears outnumber people, and the weather can change from sunny to storming in a matter of hours. The entire park lies above the Arctic Circle, reachable only by air taxi or seaplane. The National Parks Service basically leaves you on your own here, with no services much outside the Bettles Ranger Station, and warnings on the official website essentially saying “we can’t tell you what to do here because we can’t assess your skill.”
In short, if you want the ultimate national park street cred, book a trip through an outfitter to Gates of the Arctic. Even if you’re experienced in survival and wilderness, the park is unpredictable and remote, and you’ll feel just as accomplished letting an expert take you down the Noatak River than if you did it yourself. It’s obscure, it’s a monumental challenge, and it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. It won’t come cheap, but you will find awe and respect, even within yourself, for making the journey.
How to get there: Fly into Fairbanks, then take a bush flight to Bettles and the Visitor’s Center before taking another air taxi into the park. Then step into the wild.