My top five picks among the least crowded US national parks are no less worthy of visiting than the big Ys (you know: Yosemite and Yellowstone). They’re simply more remote than the top US national parks, smaller (or in some cases, vastly larger) and often harder to access. What does this mean for the adventurous traveler? Plenty of unspoiled landscape, unmarred views, and room to roam.
5. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Lake Clark National Park is teaming with volcanoes, waterfalls, rivers, and glaciers. While most visitors come in the summer months, when ranger headquarters are staffed, it’s open year-round. Top activities include kayaking the Cook Inlet Coast, where you’re almost guaranteed to spot Alaska brown bear. Nearby towns include Homer and Kenai.
Where to stay: While visitors to Lake Clark can certainly go remote, they don’t have to: lodging is available in Port Alsworth (near 50-mile-long Lake Clark in the center of the park), where day hikers can explore the wilderness and return to a bed at night.
4. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Home to the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland forest remaining in the southeastern U.S., Congaree is comprised of a network of floodplain and swamp accessible primarily by foot or, preferably, by canoe. There are over 25 miles of walking trails (designated by colored marker in the floodplain) and two miles of boardwalk. Otherwise, start paddling! Canoes are available to rent in nearby Columbia, or visitors can bring their own (none are available to buy or rent within the park). Free camping permits are offered, however; just stop at the visitor’s center to get yours (and a map)!
Where to stay: If you’re not camping, there is no lodging within the national park boundaries. However, Columbia is not far away, and offers everything from budget motels to five-star hotels.
3. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Often the least crowded national park in California, Lassen offers far more than its signature bubbling sulphur hydrothermal deposits (though those are fun) and volcano. Visitors will find crystal clear mountain lakes, streams, and alpine forests, especially in the backcountry. We’ve backpacked throughout Lassen with kids and without: there are plenty of trail options to keep everyone happy. Plus, it’s an easy drive from various small cities such as Mt. Shasta and Redding in Northern California.
Where to stay: There are eight campgrounds within Lassen. If you opt to find a real bed, our favorite pick is the St. Bernard Lodge, located minutes from the park entrance.
2. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Great Basin’s park spans from subterranean Lehman Cave to Wheeler Peak at over 13,000 feet. And since the park is relatively small, you can experience both in the same day (though beware of altitude sickness). Kids love the tour of Lehman Cave (at least our three school-aged boys did), but the most spectacular aspect of Great Basin is the clear night sky over the vast Nevadan desert.
Where to stay: Great Basin National Park is located in Baker, Nevada, which has precious little to offer in terms of lodging. We stayed comfortably enough (though certainly not luxuriously) at The Border Inn motel in town. Campgrounds are available in the park boundaries, though if you’re tent camping, don’t underestimate the weather; campgrounds in the Nevadan desert are located at high elevation.
1. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Accessible only by seaplane or ferry, Isle Royale is an island of rugged, somewhat unexpected wilderness surrounded by Lake Superior. One of the only parks to close during winter, Isle Royale is a summer paradise for backpackers and boaters who want to get away from it all.
Where to stay: When you return from the wilderness, stay a night or two at the Rock Harbor Lodge, accessible by water taxi. Visitors have been known to see moose and the northern lights.
If none of the above least visited national parks in the USA are remote enough for you, you might consider Kobuk Valley National Park, AK. With no roads, campgrounds, or trails within the park, most visitors are skilled backcountry explorers (or locals). I have a feeling Kobuk is beyond my wilderness capabilities, but it’s officially on my bucket list!
Remember, even the most crowded national parks clear out during their off-seasons, and can be breathtakingly beautiful during the fall, spring, and winter months. If you’d like to beat the crowds but still visit the most popular parks, consider Yosemite in winter, Olympic National Park in spring, or Shenandoah National Park in fall.
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