Inside the Least-Visited National Parks in the USA

Eight of the 10 least visited national parks require a boat or plane to get to, but the reward is having a beautiful and remote wilderness almost entirely to yourself.

A brown bear stands on the lip of a waterfall in Katmai National Park

There are more than 2,000 brown bears in Katmai National Park—and endless opportunities to see them in action.

Photo by Bailey Berg

There’s no denying that Americans love their national parks—approximately 312 million people visited one of the 419 protected units, of which 63 (soon-to-be 64) are full-fledged national parks, in the United States in 2022.

While some of the most popular national parks, like Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, and Zion, got the lion’s share of visitors, with 13 million, 4.73 million, and 4.69 million parkgoers, respectively, not all national parks are overrun with visitors. What about the least visited national parks?

According to the U.S. National Park Service, the following 10 parks had the fewest visitors last year. Collectively, they accounted for just over 700,000 of all visitors in 2022.

The 10 least-visited U.S. National Parks

  1. Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida
  2. Gates and the Arctic National Park in Alaska
  3. Great Basin National Park in Nevada
  4. Isle Royale National Park in Michigan
  5. Katmai National Park in Alaska
  6. Kobuk Valley National Park in Alaska
  7. Lake Clark National Park in Alaska
  8. National Park of American Samoa in American Samoa
  9. North Cascades in Washington
  10. Wrangell–St. Elias National Park in Alaska

It’s not that these national parks are not spectacular—it’s often just that they’re hard to get to. Of the 10 parks with the lowest visitor count, three are islands, and five are in Alaska (four of which are only reachable by boat, plane, or a very long hike). But for those who want to enjoy nature without the crowds, that may only add to the appeal.

Here’s how to explore the United States’ least visited national parks.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park

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1. Dry Tortugas National Park

  • Location: Florida
  • Number of visitors: 78,488

Many U.S. national parks are mountainous, but that’s not true with Dry Tortugas. If not for Fort Jefferson (a former strategic fort for the U.S. military), this island would be largely flat. It’s also one of the few tropical national parks in the country.

Visitors can snorkel to see the protected coral reefs, swim out to a 19th-century shipwreck site, scale to the top of the park’s lighthouse, laze on the white-sand beaches, view the wide array of bird life that frequents the area, and learn about the fort, the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas. (It was built using more than 16 million bricks.)

How to get there

You’ll need to either take a seaplane (Seaplane Adventures offers half- and full-day tours), a ferry (The Yankee Freedom offers service to the national park), or a personal boat to reach Dry Tortugas, roughly 70 miles west of Key West.

Where to stay

The only camping at Dry Tortugas is at Garden Key, and campsites are first-come, first-served. However, if you’re only planning a day trip, there are plenty of stellar lodging options in Key West, such as the Sunset Key Cottages and Pier House Resort & Spa.

Fireweed in Gates of the Arctic National Park

Gates of the Arctic National Park

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2. Gates of the Arctic National Park

  • Location: Alaska
  • Number of visitors: 9,457

The landscapes in the second largest (and northernmost) national park in the United States are hard to fathom if you’ve never been. Found in Alaska’s tundra, this true wilderness park includes vast valleys, thousands of granite peaks (many of which are unnamed), fast-moving rivers, and herds of more than 200,000 caribou (plus musk ox and more than 145 species of birds).

How to get there

Reaching the Gates of the Arctic requires several planes. You’ll first need to fly to Fairbanks and then onward to Bettles. In Bettles, you can hire an air taxi, such as Brooks Range Aviation, to bring you into the park.

Where to stay

There are no lodges, cabins, or even designated campsites in Gates of the Arctic. Where you lay your head depends entirely on where you decide to unfurl your sleeping bag. The closest lodge to the park is Iniakuk Lake Wilderness Lodge.

Person hiking in Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park

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Great Basin National Park

  • Location: Nevada
  • Number of visitors: 142,115

Did you know there’s still a glacier in Nevada? It’s the Wheeler Peak Glacier, found in the high desert of Great Basin National Park. However, one of the most exciting things you can do in Great Basin is get underground. The park has an extensive limestone caving system known as Lehman Caves, where stalactites and stalagmites are the stars of the show. To see it, you’ll need to be on a ranger-led tour, which is 90 minutes and offered multiple times throughout the day.

How to get there

It’s roughly a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City, Utah, or five hours driving from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Great Basin. The National Park Service recommends not relying on your phone’s GPS, as it often leads visitors to extremely remote areas of the park.

Where to stay

There are few options near Great Basin. Beyond the five designated campgrounds within the park, there is a small clutch of Airbnbs in nearby Baker, Nevada, and some cozy motels, such as Stargazer Inn and Hidden Canyon Retreat.

Isle Royale National Park lighthouse

Isle Royale National Park

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Isle Royale National Park

  • Location: Michigan
  • Number of visitors: 25,454

Isle Royale is a group of roughly 400 islands huddled in the northwestern corner of Lake Superior, near the border with Canada. Exploring the park is done entirely by boat or by foot—no cars are allowed. You can bring your own watercraft or rent a canoe from Rock Harbor or Windigo. One of the most popular paddles is the Chain of Lakes trail, which requires a fair amount of portaging but offers jaw-dropping views of secluded lakes and old-growth forests. The park is also a solid spot for freshwater scuba diving thanks to the many shipwrecks within the depths of its waters.

How to get there

You’ll need to take a seaplane, ferry, or private boat to reach Isle Royale—after all, it is in Lake Superior. The park is open only from mid-April to the end of October.

Where to stay

Rock Harbor Lodge offers 60 comfortable rooms and cabins on the northeastern edge of Isle Royale (it’s the only accommodation in the park beyond campgrounds). There are private rooms within the main lodge, as well as a variety of cabins scattered throughout the property. The staff can also help guests arrange water taxis, sightseeing tours, and fishing charters.

a brown bear and two cubs at Katmai National Park

Katmai National Park

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Katmai National Park

  • Location: Alaska
  • Number of visitors: 33,908

Chances are if you’ve heard of Katmai, it’s because you’re familiar with the park’s annual Fat Bear Week competition. Each fall, National Park rangers share photos of the chunkiest ursids on social media, and the general public votes on who did the best job bulking up for hibernating through the long Alaska winter.

Those visiting Katmai are guaranteed to spot brown bears—the park has more than 2,200 of the apex predator. And the living is good for the bears—the park boasts various salmon-filled waterways. The most popular spot to watch the action is Brooks Fall, a single six-foot-tall and 250-foot-wide waterfall on the lip of which as many as 50 bears may perch during salmon season, waiting for fish to launch themselves out of the turbulent waters into their waiting jaws.

But beyond the bears, Katmai is also known for a sprawling lava field called the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. A little more than 100 years ago, the Novarupta volcano erupted, turning a portion of what is now the park into a valley of steam vents and lava flows. The volcanic terrain is why Katmai earned national park status—the geothermal features are an important living laboratory.

How to get there

Most people take a float plane (a small plane that lands on the water) to reach Katmai. Rust’s Flying Service, Regal Air, and others offer daily trips from Anchorage.

Where to stay

Brooks Lodge is the only hotel within the park. It offers 16 rooms, all of which have two bunk beds. If you’d rather, there are two camping options in Katmai: Brooks Camp (on the shores of Naknek Beach, where there aren’t designated sites, but reservations are limited to 60 people each night) and anywhere in the backcountry (you must have all the gear necessary to overnight safely in bear country, which is a lot).

Aerial view of Kobuk Valley National Park

Kobuk Valley National Park

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Kobuk Valley National Park

  • Location: Alaska
  • Number of visitors: 16,925

This sprawling Arctic park hosts its own great migration every year: In March, more than half a million caribou walk from their calving to their summering grounds (and then back in September). The park is also home to the Kabuki Sand Dunes, a collection of soft serve–like mounds that were formed over millennia as glaciers ground the rocks into tiny particles. It’s a landscape so foreign feeling that NASA has used it for training programs (and to better understand the environment of Mars).

How to get there

There are no roads to Kobuk Valley—getting there requires flying. From Anchorage, you must first fly to Kotzebue and then catch an air taxi (Arctic Backcountry Flying Service is a good option) into the park.

Where to stay

You’ll need to backcountry camp if you want to stay within the park. The National Park Service recommends contacting the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center for tips on the best places to make camp. Alternatively, travelers can opt to stay at Kobuk River Lodge in Ambler or Bettles Lodge in Bettles. Both are a flight away from the park, but the staff can help arrange day trips with local guides.

Brown bear on a beach in Lake Clark

Lake Clark National Park

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Lake Clark National Park

  • Location: Alaska
  • Number of visitors: 18,187

Lake Clark isn’t the kind of park you’d just happen upon. Every inch of this nearly 6,300-square-mile park (roughly the combined size of Connecticut and Vermont) is above the Arctic Circle. Carved by glaciers and further shaped by volcanic activity, this national park has some extraordinary scenery. Two of the park’s headliners include bears (hundreds of glorious fat grizzly bears, all hyper-focused on putting poundage on for winter) and the staggeringly beautiful, turquoise-hued, mountain-wreathed lake for which the park was named.

How to get there

The park is only accessible by bush plane. Operators like Rust’s Flying Service and Regal Air, among others, offer day trips to Lake Clark from Anchorage, with four hours on the ground. However, backcountry lodges on the park’s outskirts also offer (longer) day trips for their clients.

Where to stay

In the nearby town of Port Alsworth, there’s Alaska Backcountry Fishing Lodge, the Farm Lodge, Tulchina Adventures, and Wilder House Bed & Breakfast, to name a few places to stay.

National Park of American Samoa

National Park of American Samoa

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National Park of American Samoa

  • Location: American Samoa
  • Number of visitors: 1,887

Spanning three islands in the South Pacific, some 2,600 miles southwest of Hawai‘i, the National Park of American Samoa is the most challenging place to reach in the national park system (it’s also the only park south of the equator). But here, you’ll find crystal-clear waters (filled with roughly 1,000 different species of fish) that meet white-sand beaches just feet away from jungle-covered mountains. Snorkeling, relaxing on the beach, and hiking one of the trails (which conjoin the islands) are some of the most popular ways to experience the park.

How to get there

Hawaiian Airlines is the only carrier that currently has flights to American Samoa that depart from Honolulu. Once in American Samoa, you can rent a car or take public transportation into the park.

Where to stay

Camping is prohibited within the park, so you’ll have to find lodging elsewhere. Taumeasina Island Resort and Sinalei Reef Resort & Spa are among the very reliable high-end resort options.

Related: This Remote U.S. National Park Is Home to Bats, Beaches, and Tropical Rain Forests

hikers at sunset in North Cascades national park

North Cascades National Park

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North Cascades National Park

  • Location: Washington
  • Number of visitors: 30,154

Home to more than 300 glaciers (the most of any park outside of Alaska) and upwards of 500 lakes, this 504,654-acre park is packed with scenic terrain, including meadows blanketed by wildflowers and rough-cut peaks, plus wildlife such as marmots, mountain goats, and moose. However, it’s not the most beginner-friendly national park—there’s only one paved road within the park, so most exploring has to be done on foot (or, more likely, with a climbing harness). Still, we’d wager that this little-visited alpine park will see increased popularity in the coming years—it is only a few hours’ drive from two major (and outdoors-obsessed) cities, Seattle and Vancouver—so enjoy it while you can.

How to get there

North Cascades is accessible by car. It’s a two-hour drive from Seattle and three hours from Vancouver.

Where to stay

There are a handful of hotels in Winthrop, Washington, that would make for a good basecamp for exploring the park. River’s Edge Resort offers rooms with hot tubs, private balconies, and kitchenettes, and Sun Mountain Lodge is a destination resort with superlative views of the surrounding peaks.

Lake on a glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

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Wrangell–St. Elias National Park

  • Location: Alaska
  • Number of visitors: 65,236

Of the eight national parks in Alaska, Wrangell–St. Elias is one of only three that visitors can drive to. Granted, it’s not an easy drive (more on that later). But those who make the journey are rewarded with 13.2 million acres (more than Rhode Island, Delaware, and Connecticut combined) of wilderness landscapes that include glaciers, volcanoes, tundra, and temperate rain forests. Travelers can spend their time trekking on a glacier (roughly one-third of the park is covered by glaciers), ogling some of the tallest mountains in the nation, pack rafting down glacial streams, and exploring Kennecott, a copper mining boomtown that turned ghost town in the early 1900s.

How to get there

Getting to Wrangell–St. Elias is a bit of a trek. From Anchorage, it’s a 300-mile drive. But because the last 60 miles are on an exceedingly bumpy unpaved road, expect the entire journey to take at least eight hours. Some local air taxi companies, like Airlink, can otherwise shuttle you into the park.

Where to stay

Ultima Thule (which means “a distant or unknown region”), a 20-bedroom backcountry lodge, arguably offers the most opportunities to visit the park. Each group is assigned a private pilot and a Piper Super Cub plane with which they can spend their time hiking across glaciers, fly-fishing in alpine lakes, and trekking among fields of fireweed.

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at Afar. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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