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Less Crowded National Parks: Fact Or Fiction?

Less Crowded National Parks: Fact Or Fiction?

By now, most RVers have probably heard about the projected difficulties of getting into national parks this year. We’re thrilled to know that RVing and visiting the multitude of natural wonders has become more popular in recent years. With that popularity, however, comes greater challenges in terms of booking a campsite and, in some cases, needing reservations just to be allowed to drive into the park itself. This may leave some travelers wondering if they’ll even bother trying. But what about less crowded national parks? Do they exist? And, if so, which of the less popular national parks are worth visiting?

We’re about to answer these questions and more as we investigate the possibility of enjoying stress-free visits to some of the least crowded national parks, and what they have to offer.

Time is of the essence! Let’s get rolling!

What Is a National Park?

National parks are areas designated by the government for the preservation of the natural environment. Areas are set aside for the public’s recreation, education, and enjoyment or for historical or scientific interest, but always with the priority of keeping all of them, and their accompanying animals and plants, in their natural state.

In the United States, national parks are administered by the National Park Service. The NPS is a federal agency within the Department of the Interior.

Entrance sign at Yellowstone National Park

All of the national parks are administered by the National Park Service.

How Many National Parks Exist in the Lower 48 States?

Within the National Park System, there are 63 designated national parks (the highest level of protection available), all of which are made up of a variety of resources spanning large areas of land or water. Designating an area as a national park allows the federal government to provide adequate protection of the area’s resources. It also allows enforced restrictions on the public’s use of these areas in order to maintain the park’s resources.

The entire National Park System consists of 423 national park sites across more than 84 million acres in the United States. There are parks in each state and extending into the territories, including parks in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam.

But only 63 of these are designated national parks. The rest of the protected areas fall into categories of monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers & trails, and even the White House.

What Were the Least Visited National Parks in 2021?

Every year the National Park Service tracks the total number of visitors to each park. This data allows the NPS to determine which are the most and least visited national parks in the system, and to use that information to plan appropriately and assign the needed resources.

Since we’re writing this as the summer of 2022 is getting into full swing, we’ll leave a link allowing you to look at the data provided by the National Park Service on the number of visitors to all of the national parks in 2021.

But we’ll warn you, looking at the 15 least visited national parks for 2021 reveals something that might seem obvious to many travelers. Many of the least visited parks are hard to reach – unless you live in Alaska.

Yes, 7 of the 15 least visited national parks are in Alaska (and 1 is in American Samoa). They’re all well worth the trek, but not everyone can make such a long trip at all, or at least without longer-range planning.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 15 least visited national parks for the year 2021. We guess you could call them hidden gem national parks. (The trouble is that some of them are REALLY hidden.)

We’ll include links to them below so that you can take a look at what each has to offer if you’re considering traveling to any of these areas. In order from the least visited:

  1. Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, Alaska – 7,362 visitors in 2021
  2. National Park of American Samoa – 8,495 visitors
  3. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska – 11,540 visitors
  4. North Cascades National Park, Washington – 17,855 visitors
  5. Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, Alaska – 18,278 visitors
  6. Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska – 24,764 visitors
  7. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan – 25,844 visitors
  8. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska – 50,189 visitors
  9. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida – 83,817 visitors
  10. Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, Alaska – 89,768 visitors
  11. Great Basin National Park, Nevada – 144,875 visitors
  12. Congaree National Park, South Carolina – 215,181 visitors
  13. Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska – 229,521 visitors
  14. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota – 243,042 visitors
  15. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas – 243,291 visitors

In case Alaska and American Samoa aren’t on your list of places to visit in the near future, let’s take a bit of a different approach to pinpointing the less crowded national parks. Perhaps some are a little closer to where most people live. 😉

Lush mountain, shore, and turquoise waters of National Park of American Samoa

The National Park of American Samoa in the heart of the South Pacific. (Photo credit: National Park Service)

What Are the Least Visited National Parks in the Lower 48 States?

Let’s take a look at the least crowded national parks in the lower 48. Or maybe a better way to say it would be – these are some of the best national parks that aren’t crowded!

We’ll present them in order from the least visited (again, numbers in parentheses indicate visitor totals for 2021).

  1. North Cascades National Park, Washington (17,855)
  2. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan (25,844)
  3. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida (83,817)
  4. Great Basin National Park, Nevada (144,875)
  5. Congaree National Park, South Carolina (215,181)
  6. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota (243,042)
  7. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas (243,291)
  8. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado (308,910)
  9. Channel Islands National Park, California (319,252)
  10. Pinnacles National Park, California (348,857)
  11. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico (349,244)
  12. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California (359,635)
  13. Redwood National Park, California (435,879)
  14. Big Bend National Park, Texas (581,220)
  15. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado (602,613)

What Is the Least Visited National Park in the Lower 48 States?

The answer to this question may (or may not) vary from year to year, but based on the 2021 data from the National Park Service, the least visited national park in 2021 was North Cascades National Park in Washington.

North Cascades National Park, the least visited national park in the lower 48 states.

North Cascades National Park, Washington, the least visited national park in the lower 48 states in 2021. (Photo credit: National Park Service)

You may wonder why a national park just a few hours from Seattle would have so few visitors, but North Cascades National Park actually has very limited road access. The park itself is mostly within the Stephen Mather Wilderness and although Highway 20 bisects it at Ross Lake, it has few other maintained roads.

The national park with the next fewest visitors in 2021 was Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. This park is among the least visited due to its location: literally IN Lake Superior. It’s a remote natural paradise, only accessible by seaplane or boat (there’s an interesting mystery novel by Nevada Barr about a park ranger assigned to Isle Royale called “A Superior Death”… it’s a good read, as is the whole series).

And for those who are more interested to know which national park is the least crowded of all the national parks (not only those in the lower 48), that’ll be Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

A map showing how to get into Gates of the Arctic National Park

Access to Gates of the Arctic National Park, a wilderness park, begins in Fairbanks, Alaska. There are no roads or trails into the parklands, so visitors to the park need to fly or hike in. (Photo credit: National Park Service)

Which National Parks Are Least Crowded in Summer?

That’s a popular question and, in truth, the answer lies above in the list of the 15 national parks with the least visitors.

But let’s take a look at five national parks that offer similar features to some of the most crowded, most popular national parks in the summer season, only with far fewer visitors.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Similar to: Yellowstone National Park

Why? Hydrothermal (hot water) features!

Sulphur Works, a hydrothermal area of Lassen Volcanic NP

This is Sulphur Works, the easiest of Lassen Volcanic National Park’s hydrothermal areas to access. (Photo credit: National Park Service)

Lassen Volcanic National Park is in a remote part of northern California and is said to be a highly underrated park. Like Yellowstone National Park, Lassen has hydrothermal features that contribute to its extraordinary offerings.

In this national park, you can experience all four different types of volcanoes – cinder cones, composite volcanoes, shield volcanoes, and lava domes. You can even hike on them! This is a rare occurrence in the world and it makes Lassen Volcanic National Park very special.

Learn more about the hydrothermal areas of Lassen Volcanic National Park here.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Similar to: Zion National Park, Bryce National Park, and Grand Canyon National Park

Why? Breathtaking canyons!

If you’re looking for awe-inspiring canyons but want a less crowded national park than Zion and Grand Canyon, make your way to Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah.

The Colorado River running through Canyonlands National Park

The Colorado River, shown here, runs through Canyonlands National Park. The park is divided by the Colorado and Green Rivers. (Photo credit: National Park Service)

Canyonlands is very close to Arches National Park (though Arches tends to be very busy). Canyonlands NP is made up of 337,598 acres in Utah’s high desert, filled with awesome canyons, arches, spires, mesas, buttes, and fins. Its’ three districts (Island In The Sky, The Needles, and The Maze) are divided by the Green and Colorado Rivers.

You can explore Canyonlands National Park by car (partially), foot, mountain bike, horseback, and 4×4:

  • The Island In The Sky district is the easiest (and most popular) of the three areas to visit, is easily explored by car and on foot, offers breathtaking overlooks of the canyons, and provides the opportunity to explore a wide variety of geological features. This part of the park is most like Zion (red rock) and the Grand Canyon (canyons).
  • The Needles District covers the Southeast corner of the park and includes the colorful sandstone spires that gave it its name. Skip the crowds at Bryce Canyon and get your fill of towering red rock formations here!
  • The Maze is the most remote, and least accessible, part of Canyonlands NP. Visiting this area requires some serious off-road vehicles, survival skills, and plenty of time (and water!). This is not an area for the faint of heart!

The evening skies are indescribable and catching the sunrise as it lights up the underside of Mesa Arch is well worth the early alarm!

To beat the crowds of Grand Canyon and Zion, head for Canyonlands NP.

A spectacular sunrise view beneath Mesa Arch in Canyonlands

The sunrise lighting up the underside of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park

North Cascades National Park, Washington

Similar to: Grand Teton National Park, Glacier National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park

Why? Mountains!

North Cascades National Park is among the least crowded national parks, but its scenery is absolutely jaw-dropping.

Kayakers out on the water in North Cascades, with forested mountains in the background

North Cascades National Park is the least visited national park in the lower 48, but its jaw-dropping scenery and spectacular hiking are well worth the visit. (Photo credit: National Park Service)

The park is mostly designated wilderness and there’s only one road to enter (and the final part of that road isn’t even paved). But you can also enter the park on foot or by boat, and the hiking is amazing.

The summer season is short here, but it brings with it meadows filled with wildflowers and scenes filled with glaciers and magnificent mountains. Watch for wildlife in this phenomenal wilderness setting, as you could see mountain goats, pikas, wolverines, black bears, and maybe even a grizzly!

This area does include additional parts of the North Cascades NPS Complex, all of which have full recreation areas including paved roads, campgrounds, lookout points, and mind-blowing lakes.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Similar to: Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park

Why? Desert!

The desert scenery of Great Sand Dunes National Park makes it similar to both Joshua Tree and Death Valley but at a FAR less crowded pace. In addition, at Great Sand Dunes NP you’ll walk across the creek to access the dune field where you can sled, sand board, and hike the tallest sand dunes in all of North America.

Scenery from Great Sand Dunes National Park

Joshua Tree and Death Valley too crowded? Head straight for Great Sand Dunes National Park. You won’t be disappointed! (Photo credit: National Park Service)

If you’ve got stargazers in your travel crew, you’ll be overwhelmed with the opportunities the night skies of Great Sand Dunes NP deliver.

You’ll also be treated to seven “life zones” that include magnificent mountains topped by alpine tundra, desert shrublands, conifer forests, and wetlands full of wildlife.

Redwood National Park, California

Similar to: Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park

Why? Giant trees!

If you were hoping to hit Yosemite National Park this summer and you don’t have reservations yet, you’re in for a challenge – and maybe even a sheer impossibility. But don’t despair! Northern California has you covered with the Redwood National and State Parks Complex.

This complex is comprised of the national park and three state parks, all of which combine to create a magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site and preserve some of the last remaining coast redwood trees in the entire world.

Giant Redwood trees on The Coastal Trail

Giant Redwood trees on The Coastal Trail in Redwood National Park. (Photo credit: National Park Service)

Walk among the tallest trees on the planet and just try to see to the tops, some of which soar 350 feet into the air.

Check the link to the park for a list of great activities at Redwood NP including kayaking, hiking, watching the grazing elk, and camping in some beautiful campgrounds.

Just a note – Lassen Volcanic National Park and Crater Lake National Park (Oregon) are nearby, not too crowded, and worth visiting too!

Have You Visited Some of the Less Crowded National Parks?

Have you taken the opportunity to experience some of the natural wonders of the less crowded national parks? If so, we’d love it if you’d share your thoughts and experiences!

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Susan Johnston

Monday 11th of July 2022

We found Great Basin NP a couple of years ago and fell in love! Bristlecone Pine Forest, a rock glacier ( one of the furthest south in the US), cave tours, and Dark Sky designation! What more could you ask! They have telescopes set up frequently for amazing Dark Sky views. We love to return here!

TheRVgeeks

Friday 15th of July 2022

Hi Susan! We LOVED Great Basin, and were AMAZED at the incredible bristlecone pines!

Stan Wieg

Sunday 10th of July 2022

Remember that an annual pass or senior lifetime pass is a huge saver for the national parks. Badlands in SD and Devils Tower in WY are worth the trip. And Anna Pigeon rocks!

RICHARD BENN

Sunday 10th of July 2022

We saw you on the trail in glacier. We have done a lot of the parks you mentioned To name a few, canyonlands, great sand dunes and black canyon of the gunnison. Thanks for adding my email to your blog list

TheRVgeeks

Sunday 10th of July 2022

Hi Richard! Thanks for commenting, it was great to get a chance (though brief) to chat on the Avalanche Lake trail! Sounds like you've been making good use of your RV, visiting some awesome places!!

Kathleen Donaldson

Sunday 10th of July 2022

I was raised fairly close to Lassen. One reason for its lower visitation is they experienced a devastating fire last summer. You may remember the Dixie Fire? It burned some of the park and closed it for a long time. It is a beautiful place and a sleeping volcano that could become more active at any time.

TheRVgeeks

Sunday 10th of July 2022

Oh, that's right, Kathleen. That was a DEVASTATING fire! Hope something like that doesn't happen again soon.

Gay Travel Enthusiast (Jason)

Sunday 10th of July 2022

Hey guys. Another awesome article. They all look like great parks to visit. Being from Washington, I got to visit the North Cascades Natl. Park. There's also Mt. St. Helens Natl. Park.

TheRVgeeks

Sunday 10th of July 2022

Both are great parks!

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