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Adventure, Travel / February 5, 2015

Americas least crowded national parks

Written by: Matt Minich

National parks are meant to provide us with places to reflect on the lonely freedom of America’s wilderness. But in hotspots like Yellowstone, which receives more than three million visitors each year, sometimes the only things we get to reflect on are the bumpers (or the buttocks) of the visitors in front of us.

So this week, we grilled our sources at the National Park Service for their best-kept secrets. And wouldn’t you know it, they talked. So the next time you plan a summer road trip, check out of these seldom-visited outdoor treasures.


Lake Clark N.P., Alaska

Photo by Eric Gorsky.

Photo by Kevyn Jalone, NPS.

Around 13,000 people visit Lake Clark National Park and Preserve each year. The park is almost twice the size of Delaware, so that leaves plenty of elbow room for hikers of its three mountain ranges and four active volcanoes.

There are no roads to the park—it must instead be accessed by plane or by a boat, usually from nearby Anchorage. Lake Clark is considered one of the best places on Earth to view brown bears in the wild.

Our sources recommend the Tanalian Falls Trail: a 1.7-mile loop that offers great views of the park’s eponymous lake and passes by some breathtaking waterfalls. Plan your trip between June and September for the best weather, and bring bug and bear spray.


Isle Royale NP, Mich.

Photo by Ray Dumas.

Photo by Ray Dumas.

Located in the northwest corner of Lake Superior, the 571,790-acre Isle Royale National Park is only accessible by boat or seaplane. No vehicles (except wheelchairs) are allowed on the island, which sees about 16,000 visitors a year.

The island is known to wildlife lovers for its moose, and for the 22 timber wolves that hunt them. This wildlife interaction is one of the most studied in the United States, and moose and wolves alike are often spotted by visitors.

Our sources recommend a canoe or kayak tour of the island’s inland lakes and waterways, or a SCUBA dive of one of the island’s many shipwrecks. The park will be closed until April 15 this year.


The National Park of American Samoa

With fewer than 13,000 visitors each year, the National Park of American Samoa is less popular with tourists than some sites north of the Arctic Circle.

In part, that’s because most Americans don’t even know American Samoa exists. The unincorporated territory is 3,500 miles away from California, putting it much closer to Australia than to the mainland United States.

The park is best known for its snorkeling and SCUBA diving, but a 7.2-mile out-and-back hike up 1,610-foot Mount ‘Alava offers a rare chance to hike through the island chain’s otherwise impenetrable jungle. An NPS-organized homestay program provides visitors an opportunity to engage with the local culture.


North Cascades NP, Wash.

Photo by Jeff Gunn.

Photo by Jeff Gunn.

Okay… so there’s a road to this one. But that doesn’t make North Cascades National Park any less than totally rugged. The park is home to a true alpine wilderness, with open meadows, jagged peaks and more than 300 glaciers.

Visitors to the park often stop by the town of Stehekin: a lakeside community just south of the park’s boundary that can only be reached by foot, boat, or plane. The town has only 75 full-time residents, but all the services needed by travelers.

Our sources recommend a backpack of the 31-mile Rainbow/McAlester Pass Loop. Usually done in four days, this moderate backcountry trek climbs past two subalpine lakes and through the valleys between.


Gates of the Arctic N.P.

Photo by Paxson Woelber.

Photo by Zak Richter, NPS.

At more than eight million acres, Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is roughly the size of Sweden. The entire park lies north of the Arctic Circle, and contains no established roads or trails (outside of those maintained by a few Inuit villages). Where wilderness goes, it’s the real deal.

Access to the park is complicated (with the absence of roads and all). Many travelers hike in from a small visitor center in the town of Coldfoot about five miles outside the park boundaries. Others arrive by air taxi to airstrips maintained by the native villages within the park.

Weather in the park is friendliest in July and August, but snow is possible year-round. The park is also known for its grizzly bear population, so bring bear mace and a bear canister on your trip.

Featured photo by Paxton Woelber.

Do you have any questions or comments about this feature? Email us at [email protected]

about the author

Matt Minich

Matt Minich is Editorial Director for Shoulders of Giants. He has spent more than a decade writing, editing, and curating content about outdoor sports and adventure. As an adventure journalist he has climbed peaks in Patagonia, rappelled waterfalls in Colorado, B.A.S.E. jumped in Moab, and sampled fermented horse milk in Kyrgyzstan.

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