Grand Canyon National Park lives up to its billing as a “powerful and inspiring landscape.” We need no second invitation to visit. But we can’t put our hands on our heart and say it is off the beaten track. With 4.5 million visits last year, it was the most-visited national park after Great Smoky Mountains and the twelfth most-visited site in the national park system.
At The Active Times, we prefer the road less traveled, and, even, more a trail. We'll beat a path to the unique places where we can find quiet and solitude in which to enjoy the majesty of some of America’s finest and most remote landscapes. So we set out to find the national parks where we could best get far from the madding crowd, to borrow elegist Thomas Grey’s phrase.
We have identified 15, many of which don’t get more than a few tens of thousand of visits across the course of a year. Even the most-visited of our least-visited, Pinnacles National Park in California, one of America’s newest national parks, had fewer than 240,00 visits, which averages out at barely 650 a day.
The least-visited national park of all, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska, had barely 11,000 visits last year. Even if they had all occurred on the same day, it would still have been possible for everyone to have been spread out more than a mile apart.
Size matters. It is easier to lose yourself in a vast wilderness. Gates of the Arctic is the second largest national park at more than 13,000 sq. miles. The largest National Park, Wrangell - St. Elias National Park in Alaska, which is half as large again as Gates of the Arctic, also makes our crowd-free list.
Imagine arriving in Switzerland, the Netherlands or Denmark, all of which are slightly smaller than Wrangell - St. Elias, and being one of fewer than 600 people in the whole country. That is about the average daily visitation density at the park — during the peak summer season. Not only is Wrangell - St. Elias big, it is also mighty empty.
Remoteness helps, too. Five of the 15 parks on our list are in Alaska. Wrangell - St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic join Lake Clark National Park, Katmai National Park and Preserve, and Kobuk Valley National Park in the Alaskan contingent on out list. Between them, they had fewer than 140,000 visits last year. That is only one-twentieth of one percent of all visits to sites in the national park system, despite that list including America’s two largest national parks.
No roads lead to Lake Clark, and you will find a vast, empty wilderness once you get there (by plane). Gates of the Arctic, one of the last truly wild places on earth, is also only accessible by small planes that can put down on a lake or gravel bar. Not only does Gates of the Arctic not have roads, it doesn’t even have trails. This is backcountry for the adventurer.
Winter comes early to Alaska, in mid-September, which is why, if you are going to visit any of those national parks, you need to do so before summer ends.
You can find remoteness at the balmy end of the country, too. Dry Tortugas National Park, with its coral reefs and 19th-century fort, sits splendidly alone 70 miles into the Gulf of Mexico to the west of Key West. Only open sea lies between it and the U.S. mainland. You have to sail or fly there. The same is true of Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California and Isle Royale, a strip of ancient lava far out in Lake Superior hard on the border with Canada.
Or you can discover a different sort of solitude in far West Texas, where the Guadalupe Mountains are a vestige of the coral reefs in the vast tropical sea that covered the region 265 million years ago. Today, they stand over a harsh and remote mix of desert landscape and woodland canyons. Too many travelers on U.S. Highway 62/180 hurry by one of the contiguous states' most pristine wildernesses.
Our pick of 15 must-visit crowd-free national parks spans the U.S. from Alaska to Florida and California to South Carolina. See the full set here.
See also: National Parks Ranked