NATIONAL NEWS

You know the most visited, but here are the least visited US national parks in 2023

Feb 27, 2024, 6:51 PM | Updated: 11:27 pm

Cave filled with clear water...

In the Lehman Cave in Great Basin National Park, temporary pools can fill, depending on winter weather. This is a photo of the Lake Room in 2005. (NPS)

(NPS)

(CNN)There are no roads and no trails in America’s least-visited national park. Just vast wilderness.

Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, located 200 miles (322 kilometers) north of Fairbanks, stretches over 8.4 million acres. Temperatures in winter can drop to -50 degrees Fahrenheit (-45 C). In 2023, the site logged just over 11,000 recreation visits, making it the least visited of the 63 headliner national parks. No elbowing for the best views here.

The state of Alaska — which covers 665,384 square miles (426 million acres) — is home to five of the 15 least-visited national parks for 2023.

“Alaska’s national parks are some of the least visited for a good reason — they are hard to get to,” Peter Christian, chief of public and legislative affairs in the National Park Service’s Alaska Region, told CNN Travel last year.

The state’s unspoiled wilderness is far from the only uncrowded US parkland.

America’s second least-visited national park is quite a distance from mainland US shores.

Almost 5,000 miles (8,050 kilometers) away, in fact. The National Park of American Samoa stretches over three islands with tropical rainforests, volcanic slopes, pristine beaches and thousands of acres of marine habitat, and it’s interwoven with a rich culture.

“In keeping with the meaning of the word Samoa – ‘sacred earth’ – the park helps protect fa’asamoa – the customs, beliefs, and traditions of the 3,000-year-old Samoan culture,” the park’s website says.

Four hundred of the 429 National Park Service sites count visitors. And the bulk of visits are concentrated in just a fraction of them. So there are lots of less-visited spots to explore.

Even among the 63 natural expanses that have “national park” in their proper names, there are parks where visitors number in the tens of thousands – far short of the more than 13 million that visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2023. It was the most visited of the 63 national parks last year.

With travelers heading out soon for the busy spring and summer seasons, the least-visited national parks have a lot to offer those who venture off the most well-worn paths.

green lights in swirl shapes above a snow plane

Aurora Borealis, or the northern lights at Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, 2014. It was the least visited U.S. national park in 2023. (NPS)

15 least-visited US National Parks in 2023

1. Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, Alaska – 11,045 recreation visits

With no roads, no trails, no cell service and no established campsites, this massive expanse is a true wilderness experience. The park and preserve has six designated Wild Rivers.

“Visitors may wander at will across 8.4 million acres of superlative natural beauty,” the park’s website says. Visitors must be self-sufficient, flexible and “able to execute self-extraction and communication, should an emergency situation arise.” Arrive prepared.

2National Park of American Samoa – 12,135 recreation visits

Most parkgoers will need a passport to visit this spot in a remote part of the South Pacific. Hawaiian Airlines offers direct flights to American Samoa from Honolulu.

whale tail sticks up in the water with an island sticking out of the ocean behind it

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) give birth to their young in the waters of National Park of American Samoa. Here one breaches the water in the park in 2015. (NPS)

The park has units on three islands and stretches across 13,500 acres, some 4,000 of which are marine acres that are mostly coral reefs.

3.Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, Alaska – 16,728 recreation visits

Stretching across more than 4 million acres, this national park and preserve is home to three designated Wild Rivers and two National Natural Landmark volcanoes. The land holds 10,000 years of human history and preserves the ancestral homelands of the Dena’ina people.

4. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska – 17,616 recreation visits

There are no roads, campgrounds or entrance gates for this 1.8 million-acre expanse’s human visitors. Half a million caribou migrate through this park, crossing the Kobuk River and Onion Portage, according to the National Park Service. An 8,000-year tradition of hunting caribou here continues today.

5. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan – 28,965 recreation visits

An isolated archipelago in Lake Superior, Isle Royale boasts 165 miles of trails and more than 30 campgrounds. It’s open from mid-April through the end of October. Ferry and seaplane service typically runs from mid-May through the end of September, according to NPS.

There are fewer mammal species here — only 18 — than on the mainland because animals must cross at least 14 miles of Lake Superior. Wolves and moose are among the notable animal residents.

6. Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska – 33,763 recreation visits

Katmai is an important habitat for thousands of brown bears. One of the world’s premier bear-viewing spots, according to the Park Service, Katmai is home to an estimated 2,200 brown bears. Brooks Camp along the Brooks River is one of the most popular viewing spots to observe bears feasting on salmon.

7. North Cascades National Park, Washington – 40,351 recreation visits

Peaks crowned by more than 300 glaciers tower over this alpine landscape. More than 1,600 species of plants have been identified on this land that spans temperate rainforest to a dry ponderosa pine ecosystem. There are more than 400 miles of trails.

8. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska – 78,305 recreation visits

America’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias encompasses 13.2 million acres — or about the size of Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park and Switzerland combined, the Park Service says. Most of the park is backcountry, and visitor services are limited. There are some maintained trails in the frontcountry Nabesna and McCarthy areas.

9. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida – 84,285 recreation visits

This island park in Florida is among 20 National Park Service sites that broke visitation records in 2023.

About 70 miles (113 kilometers) west of Key West, Dry Tortugas is mostly open water with seven small islands. Garden Key is home to one of the nation’s largest 19th-century forts, Fort Jefferson. The park is accessible by boat or plane and is host to nearly 300 species of birds. Bush Key closes every year from February to September so that sooty terns and brown noddies can breed there undisturbed.

10. Great Basin National ParkNevada – 143,265 recreation visits

Mountain peaks meet hot desert valleys here. Great Basin National Park is home to 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, ancient bristlecone pines, about 40 caves and a wide array of plants and animals. The elevation ranges from 5,000 to 13,000 feet with hiking trails for all levels.

Cave filled with clear water

In the Lehman Cave in Great Basin National Park, temporary pools can fill, depending on winter weather. This is a photo of the Lake Room in 2005. (NPS)

11. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota – 220,825 recreation visits

Billed as a park of “water, islands and horizons,” Voyageurs covers 218,055 acres — 84,000 of which is water. There are more than 500 islands and four large lakes, plus more than two dozen smaller lakes in the park, which is best experienced by boat. Voyageurs shares its northern boundary with Canada, and lucky visitors may even see the northern lights.

12. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas – 227,340 recreation visits

This park boasts the four highest peaks in Texas and the world’s most extensive Permian fossil reef. Guadalupe Mountains Wilderness has more than 80 miles of trail including a hike in the Salt Basin Dunes that rise 100 feet from the desert floor.

13. Congaree National Park, South Carolina – 250,114 recreation visits

This South Carolina park set a visitation record in 2023 with more than 250,000 visits.

Congaree National Park’s landscape is “defined by the presence of both flood and flame,” the Park Service says.

Floodwaters from the Congaree and Wateree rivers regularly cover the park’s old-growth bottomland hardwood forest, and the upland pine forest depends on wildfires to clear out competing vegetation. Canoeing and kayaking are popular ways to explore the park. There’s a 15-mile marked canoe trail.

14. Channel Islands National Park, California – 328,746 recreation visits

Stretching over five islands and the surrounding ocean, Channel Islands National Park offer opportunities to hike, snorkel, kayak, birdwatch and more. The National Park Service strongly recommends sea kayaking with an authorized guide.

Anemones, sea stars, urchins, barnacles, periwinkles and other marine creatures inhabit the park’s tide pools — some of the best in Southern California. There is one established campground on each island; reservations are required. Backcountry camping is allowed on two islands.

15. Pinnacles National ParkCalifornia – 341,220 recreation visits

Pinnacles was formed when volcanoes erupted some 23 million years ago. Talus caves and towering rock spires draw hikers and climbers; there are more than 30 miles of hiking trails and hundreds of climbing routes.

While Pinnacles may rank among the 15 least-visited national parks, it gets very busy on weekends, holidays and throughout the spring, according to a notice on the park’s website. Arrive early to beat the crowds.


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You know the most visited, but here are the least visited US national parks in 2023