While the spotlight burns bright on America’s most famous national parks, many lesser known beauties are quietly doing what they do best: protecting some of the world’s most unspoiled scenery. For those who enjoy the road less traveled, this is terrific news. If you’re willing to give these overlooked Cinderellas a chance, you’ll discover some of America’s most gorgeous—and least crowded—places.
Gates of the Arctic
Located entirely above the Arctic Circle, Gates of the Arctic is one of America’s least visited national parks. Just 10,000-some adventurous souls journey here each year. Those who do enjoy a pristine wilderness with no roads or trails—just vast backcountry filled with jagged peaks, sweeping tundra, and abundant wildlife such as caribou, musk ox, Dall sheep, and grizzlies. This untamed park is not for everyone, which is exactly what makes it so special.
Each year more than two million visitors flock to Montana’s Glacier National Park to see its 25 remaining glaciers. Meanwhile, fewer than 25,000 people visit North Cascades National Park, which contains over 300 glaciers—roughly a third of all glaciers in the lower 48! How do you get to this nearly deserted alpine wonderland? Simply drive three hours from downtown Seattle.
This remote archipelago, tucked away in northwest Lake Superior, is the least visited national park in the lower 48 states. Accessible only by boat or seaplane, it welcomes fewer than 20,000 people each year. Highlights include spending the night at Rock Harbor Lodge, paddling the rocky coast, hiking to remote campsites, and viewing wildlife such as moose and wolves.
A short drive from South Carolina’s capital, Congaree—explains the National Park Service—protects "one of the tallest temperate deciduous forests in the world" with "the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest" in the Southeast. It’s a mouthful, but you don’t need a degree in forest management to enjoy the Redwoods of the East. As you stroll along the park’s elevated boardwalks, massive oaks, tupelos, and cypress trees form a dramatic canopy 130 feet above.
These seven tiny islands, perched a hundred miles off the tip of Florida, shelter nesting sea turtles and feature stunning beaches and Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the U.S. But what really sets Dry Tortugas apart is what lies below the waves. Over 99 percent of the park is underwater, protecting extensive corals and roughly 200 shipwrecks.
Bigger than Switzerland, Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias is bursting with superlatives: America’s largest national park, second highest peak, and longest valley glacier. All told, the park contains nine of America’s 16 tallest mountains and 5,000 square miles of glaciers. Visitors can hike to Stairway Icefall, a 7,000-foot wall of ice, or flight-see over Malaspina Glacier, which is larger than Rhode Island.
Carved by the Colorado River, Canyonlands has always been upstaged by its famous neighbors upstream (Arches) and down (Grand Canyon). Although its drive-up viewpoints can get crowded, explore Canyonlands on a guided, multiday river trip and you’ll discover a hidden world of narrow slot canyons, lush grottos, and dramatic hiking trails. During the day you’ll run some of the best white water in North America; at night you’ll camp on sandy beaches under an ocean of stars.
Everything’s bigger in Texas—including the name of the state’s most famous park: Big Bend. But Texas’ tallest mountain, Guadalupe Peak (8,749 feet), is found in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is home to seven of the state’s tallest peaks. The most dramatic, El Capitan, rises abruptly from the desert floor, giving that other El Capitan in California a run for its money.
Located 200 miles north of Las Vegas, Great Basin National Park is home to exquisite marble caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites, yet it attracts less than a quarter of the visitors to Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns parks. Great Basin also protects three groves of bristlecone pines—the world’s longest-living trees, which can live 5,000 years.
Although it lies just off the coast of Santa Barbara, this five-island archipelago is one of California’s least visited national parks. Often called the Galápagos of North America, the Channel Islands are teeming with wildlife, including nearly 400 bird species and hundreds of thousands of seals and sea lions. Visitors can scuba dive in kelp forests, kayak through sea caves, and hike mountains to scan the horizon for migrating blue and gray whales.