Since its founding on August 25, 1916, the U.S. National Park Service has assembled 419 protected units, of which 62 hold the “national park” designation. To visit all 62 of these treasures one would need to travel to 29 states and two U.S. territories.
Such an extensive trip is all but impossible during a pandemic that has closed borders. But with so many national parks to visit, there are trails, craters, and lakeshores that can be explored responsibly and without crowds. Avoid the people—but not the natural wonders—at some of the nation’s least-visited national parks.
How remote and uncrowded are these parks? Katmai National Park’s Aniakchak caldera is so remote that many park rangers have never visited its volcanic crater. At Kobuk Valley National Park in Alaska, quadrupeds greatly outnumber bipeds (or at least humans); the ratio of caribou to humans was roughly 33 to one in 2018.
Getting far away from it all has become a pandemic obsession. Although many national parks were closed this past spring due to COVID-19, most of them re-opened for summer season and have experienced a surge in visitation. This popularity brings complications. At many parks, a flood of first-time guests has left a tsunami of litter and graffiti in its wake. Visitors who do not wear masks or abide by social distancing guidelines bring the potential to infect park rangers and other guests.
Yellowstone National Park, which received more than four million visitors in 2018, counted four-and-a half-million visitors in 2019—and a record-breaking number of cars by mid-August of this year. Remote native communities, which are disproportionately susceptible to viral infection, have been put at risk by visitors from all over the map; earlier this summer, the Blackfeet Nation closed off road access to Glacier National Park’s east entrances in an effort to prevent infection.
The annual recreational visitor count for all National Park Service (NPS) units increased by some 9 million—from 318.2 million in 2018 to over 327.5 million in 2019. According to Pam Ziesler, who tracks and coordinates NPS visitors statistics, many national parks are still behind in reporting their 2019 visitor statistics (likely due to complications with COVID-19 park closures, staffing disruptions, wildfires, and seasonal hurricanes). Lists of most- and least-visited parks are subject to change.
These 10 parks are ideal for social distancers—just be mindful to follow park rangers’ cautions. Avoid activities that could land you in a hospital. Last but not least, plan ahead. Many parks and associated outfitters are currently requiring permits or reservations for accommodation, activities, and transportation that would usually require less advanced notice.
Cait Etherton is a Virginia-based writer and frequent contributor to National Geographic Travel. Follow her journey on Twitter.
This article updates a version published August 23, 2019. With additional reporting by Christine Bednarz.
For more info on these iconic parks, and other helpful travel trips, turn to the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5,000 Ideas.