Perfect for the nature lover who hates crowds

Perfect for the nature lover who hates crowds


5 national parks you’ll feel like you have all to yourself



There are 63 national parks within the National Park Service, but most people only glimpse a fraction of what they have to offer. The eight most-visited parks got more than a quarter of all recreational visits last year, according to newly released numbers.

“Everybody just kind of has these big, big visions” national parks advocate and author Stefanie Payne said of titans like Yellowstone and Yosemite. “But I think as you start to travel in nature at a more 2.0 or 3.0 level … you can start to tie into experiences that are a little bit different.”

From “mind-bending” landscapes to wildlife you won’t find anywhere else, America’s least visited national parks are bursting with wonders, not crowds.

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“You wind up seeing things and hearing the sounds and smelling the aromas and just experiencing the natural environment in a different way when there are fewer people there,” said Payne, whose latest book is “100 Things to See in the National Parks” (Simon & Schuster). 

Here are some of the gems the masses are missing.

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15 least visited national parks of 2022

  • Pinnacles National Park – 275,023
  • Voyageurs National Park – 221,434
  • Guadalupe Mountains National Park – 219,987
  • Congaree National Park – 204,522
  • Virgin Islands National Park – 196,752
  • Great Basin National Park – 142,115
  • Dry Tortugas National Park – 78,488
  • Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve – 65,236
  • Katmai National Park and Preserve – 33,908
  • North Cascades National Park – 30,154
  • Isle Royale National Park – 25,454
  • Lake Clark National Park and Preserve – 18,187
  • Kobuk Valley National Park – 16,925 
  • Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve – 9,457
  • National Park of American Samoa – 1,887

Source: National Park Service

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What do you mean by a national park?

There are 424 units within the the National Park Service, ranging from national battlefields to national seashores. Of the those, 63 are formal national parks like Everglades, Grand Canyon and Zion. 

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Is Gates of the Arctic worth visiting?

Gates of the Arctic National Park has been among the least visited national parks in the U.S. for years, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s hard to get to. There are no roads or trails across its 8.4 million acres. It’s not designed for novice travelers to explore on their own. And between hiring a guide to booking a bush plane, it can get quite expensive, but it’s worth it for many visitors.

“The Alaska parks are the ones that are deepest in my heart because they are in such a remote and rugged landscape,” Payne said. “I wouldn’t say it’s biblical, but it is like time before humans in a lot of ways … It’s really just mind-bending to be in some of those areas, especially when the mountains are so big and the glaciers and the terrain is really challenging and you start to see what you’re made of.” 

“I think people who do make the effort to go there are enriched in such a profound way,” she added. Half of last year’s 10 least visited national parks are located in Alaska.

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What is special about North Cascades?

North Cascades National Park is also dear to Payne, who grew up in Washington and visited the park throughout her childhood.

“I’m not sure why it is always on the least visited list other than the fact that it’s actually a part of a complex with two recreational areas, and people are more likely to go to those,” she said. “It’s more of a backcountry park, but there’s plenty of day hiking.”

“It’s easy to get to from Seattle and simply beautiful evergreen and mountain wilderness that creates stunning backdrops for photography,” she added.

Is Isle Royale National Park worth visiting?

It’s not easy getting to Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. You need to take a seaplane, ferry or private boat to reach the park in the middle of Lake Superior. 

“You’re in the middle of nowhere,”  Payne said. “There’s no connectivity. There’s no internet. There is a store but it’s 95% wilderness there.”

“You can truly unwind,” she added. “Lots of stars in the night skies and opportunity to see the northern lights.”

Many who visit keep going back. Fans like to call it one of the least visited, but most revisited national parks. “People just fall in love with it. There’s amazing paddling. There’s really wonderful hiking and camping,” Payne said. “There’s this predator-prey study (with wolves) that happens there and really cool learning with that. And kids love it.”

What is special about Congaree National Park?

Congaree National Park in South Carolina boasts “the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States,” according to its website.

“It’s probably not on everyday Joe’s radar, but there’s really good fishing there,” Payne said. “It’s kind of a niche park where birdwatchers might see a rare species that they can’t see in other places.”

“It’s small and mostly a one-day park, so a great stop-through if visiting the area,” she added. “You get to make your adventure here — great for creative explorers who value the nuances of nature.”

The park also has rich history, which includes serving as a refuge for enslaved people before the Civil War. “Facing threats from both slave catchers and the unpredictability of nature, they chose to resist their enslavers and live as free people in the wilderness, determining their own future rather than having it determined for them,” the park said on its website.

Visiting the least visited national parks

Every national park has its own rich history and natural wonders.

“Having an open mind is really important,” said Payne, who visited every national park within one year and many multiple times.

She recommends researching ahead of time, like she did, to make the most of trips. “Learning from the rangers and reading about a park before you go there is a really valuable way to enhance your experience.”

This year, USA TODAY will spotlight all 63 of America’s national parks and share more of what there is to discover at each one.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: America’s least-visited national parks: Perfect for the nature lover who hates crowds