The national park system is widely touted as “America’s Best Idea.” Unfortunately, many of the national’s iconic parks have fallen victim to long lines just to get in, immense crowds at the most popular landmarks, and a number of other consequences that come with overcrowding. Fortunately for us, the national park system is massive.
The U.S. National Park system is home to 58 distinct national parks. That doesn’t count the numerous national monuments, historical landmarks, heritage sites, and other distinctions that are protected and operated by the U.S. National Park Service. But if you like to avoid the crowds when you head out to enjoy nature, be sure to check out five of America’s least crowded national parks.
National Park of American Samoa
That’s right! I’d be willing to bet you didn’t even know that there was a national park protecting three separate islands in the south Pacific. For obvious reasons, the National Park of American Samoa remains very much an under-the-radar national park destination.
The islands that make up this park, Tutuila, Ofu, and Tau, are comprised of ocean-sculpted cliffs, pristine beaches, and biologically diverse tropical rainforests. Surrounding the islands, visitors can explore beautiful coral reefs providing shelter for a variety of aquatic species. In total, the park is comprised of 9,100 acres of land and sea, much of which is leased from seven villages in an ongoing partnership to promote preservation and protection.
In addition to the natural wonders of these beautiful islands, this national park gives visitors the chance to experience Samoan culture, which is the oldest in all of Polynesia. Visitors will learn about the distinct cultural traits known as “fa’asamoa,” or the Samoan way.
North Cascades National Park
Located along the northern border of Washington state, North Cascades National Park receives strikingly few annual visitors, in spite of being just three hours from Seattle. The park was established in 1968 and its landscape includes jagged peaks, glaciers, stunningly clear waterways, and beautifully forested valleys.
Hiking and snow sports are the two main activities you can enjoy in this park. The mountain range that runs through it is widely known as the ‘North American Alps’ for its rugged beauty. For those seeking a pristine alpine landscape dotted with cascading waterfalls and deep valleys, this seldom-visited national park is an excellent choice.
With landscapes encompassing more than 9,000 feet of vertical relief, the park is home to an incredible diversity of plants. More than 1,600 species have been identified thus far, and scientists regular frequent the park to gather data that is being used to further our understanding of global climate change, mountain building and erosion, volcanism, stream dynamics, glaciation, and a variety of other topics.
Waco Mammoth National Monument
Located outside of Waco, Texas, this national monument is actually one of the newest additions to the national park system. Created in July of 2015 by a Presidential Proclamation from former President Obama, Waco Mammoth National Monument protects a vast collection of rich fossil deposits.
This paleontological site is home to the only nursery herd of Columbian mammoths in the United States. In its first year, the park received only 20,000 visitors, which is less than 200 times the amount of visitors that visited Grand Canyon National Park (one of the most crowded) that same year.
In addition to the fossils of several female mammoths and one bull mammoth, this park includes fossils from an ancient relative of camels, an antelope, alligator, giant tortoise, and more. Tours take visitors to the park’s Dig Shelter, where they can view fossils still in their original position within the bone bed, just as Paul Barron and Eddie Bufkin discovered them in 1978.
Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park sits on a remote island surrounded by the waters of Lake Superior, which means it’s not super easy to get to. But those that make it get to experience a level of solitude that’s virtually non-existent throughout the rest of the lower 48 states. The park is only accessible by ferry or private boat.
Covered in dense forest and crisscrossed by hiking trails, the park is also dotted with a number of remote backcountry campsites. These sites lack amenities of any kind, so visitors should be prepared and carry everything they need with them on their backs. The park encompasses a total of 850 square miles of natural wilderness, spacious lands, and aquatic life.
Visitors will be frequenting the same environment that is home to wolves, moose, the wild North Woods forest, and the crystal clear waters of Lake Superior. There are 165 miles of hiking trails and 36 campgrounds for backpackers, paddlers, and recreational boaters to choose from. The park also features supreme fishing grounds, historic lighthouses and shipwrecks, ancient copper mining sights, and exquisite wildlife viewing.
Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve
If you’ve ever been interested in exploring the interior of Alaska, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve offers plenty of untouched Alaskan landscape to explore. The park protects 115 miles of the 1,800-mile Yukon River and the entire Charley River basin. In 2015, the park was visited by a grand total of just 1,133 people (yes, for the entire year!!)
All told, the park offers a staggering 2.5 million acres of untouched wilderness without a single road in sight. Visitors can enjoy rolling whitewater, remote hiking trails, pristine fishing streams, and rustic backcountry cabins reminiscent of the 1898 gold rush era. Paleontological and archaeological sites in this area have contributed greatly to our understanding of the environment dating back thousands of years.
As you might expect, this remote wilderness should not be approached lightly. But those that do visit will encounter rolling hills that are home to an abundant variety of wildlife. Make sure you look up to spot peregrine falcons nesting in the high bluffs overlooking the river and be sure to approach the wildness of the 100-mile long Charley River, which is considered by many to be the most spectacular river in Alaska.
These national parks were selected from the list of Underrated National Parks provided by the National Park Foundation. But we’d love to know which of these five national parks most catches your attention. As the snow melts and spring progresses, it’s time to start thinking about which national parks you’ll visit in 2019!