Ranked: least-visited US national parks

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As America’s public lands register record numbers, we explore the least-visited US national parks

It’s been well documented that America’s national parks and hiking trails have seen a surge in visitor numbers as lockdown-weary Americans flocked to the outdoors. In 2021, Yellowstone received an astonishing 4.8 million recreation visits, up 28% from 2020 (3.8 million), making it the busiest year on record.

In 2022, as international tourists return, visitor numbers across the National Park System – which is responsible for over 400 sites including 63 national parks – are predicted to increase even further. In response, several destinations have launched reservation systems to counteract the rise.

Looking ahead, it may be worth considering alternatives to congested public lands such as the Great Smoky Mountains (14.1 million visitors in 2021), Zion (5 million) or the Grand Canyon (4.5 million). Not only will you have more natural real estate to yourself, your visit will also alleviate some of the pressure on these well-trodden landscapes and their ecosystems.

10 least-visited US national parks

Below are the 10 least-visited US national parks based on the total number of recreation visits they received in 2021. Unsurprisingly, America’s 49th state, Alaska, is home to six of the 10 least visited.

1. Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve

Location: Alaska
2021 visitors: 7,362
More information: www.nps.gov

A stream flowing in the summer time in Gates of the Arctic National Park
BlueBarronPhoto/Shutterstock Gates of the Arctic National Park

It’s hardly surprising that a vast hinterland such as the Gates of the Arctic – which doesn’t contain any roads or trails – is the least-visited US national park. Travellers to the remote region have to fly or hike into the park via the gateway communities of Bettles, Anaktuvuk Pass and Coldfoot, usually after passing through Fairbanks. This is wilderness in its purest form.

2. National Park of American Samoa

Location: American Samoa
2021 visitors: 8,495
More information: www.nps.gov

An ocean scene in American Samoa, home to one of the least-visited US national parks
Peto Laszlo/Shutterstock American Samoa is located in the South Pacific

American Samoa, an unincorporated territory of the US located in the South Pacific Ocean, has just one national park that protects swathes of virtually pristine landscapes across three islands and 33 sq km of ocean. The area includes mountain rainforests, thriving birdlife and a glorious coastline of wild surf and windswept beaches.

3. Kobuk Valley National Park

Location: Alaska
2021 visitors: 11,540
More information: www.nps.gov

Caribou near Onion Portage in Kobuk Valley –  one of the least-visited US national parks
picryl/Public Domain Caribou near Onion Portage in Kobuk Valley National Park

The Kobuk Valley is known for its breathtaking caribou migrations that see over 500,000 of the magnificent beasts travel more than 1,500km (930mi) north during spring to reach their calving grounds before repeating the feat in autumn and returning south. Coursing rivers, Arctic tundra, towering sand dunes and unspoilt boreal forest make the Kobuk Valley some of the most untamed backcountry on Earth.

4. North Cascades National Park

Location: Washington
2021 visitors: 17,855
More information: www.nps.gov

Diablo lake in the North Cascades –  one of the least-visited US national parks
Anna Abramskaya/Shutterstock Diablo Lake in the North Cascades

Even though the North Cascades National Park is just three hours from Seattle, somehow the park receives just a trickle of visitors compared with other protected areas in the Northwest. Names such as Mount Terror, Mount Fury and Mount Despair may put off some visitors, but it’s more likely the park’s inaccessibility. It has just one road slicing through its landscape of jagged peaks and verdant valleys, home to 300-plus glaciers.

5. Lake Clark National Park & Preserve

Location: Alaska
2021 visitors: 18,278
More information: www.nps.gov

A lone hiker near Crescent Lake in Lake Clark
Wildnerdpix/Shutterstock Crescent Lake in Lake Clark National Park

Lake Clark may be Alaska’s most diverse national park in terms of topography and ecosystems. It’s possible to hike among tundra-carpeted hills, craggy peaks, immense glaciers, two active volcanoes and a dramatic coastline. Naturally, the rich landscape is home to a variety of wildlife including bears, seabirds and the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.

6. Katmai National Park & Preserve

Location: Alaska
2021 visitors: 24,764
More information: www.nps.gov

Bears feeding at Brooks River, Katmai
Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock Brooks River in Katmai

Unconnected to any town by road, Katmai has earned a reputation as Alaska’s premier wildlife-viewing destination, with bear watching at Brooks Camp the most popular. The park is an important habitat for salmon, hence the thousands of brown bears that flock to the cold, clear water of the Brooks River to feast on the abundant fish every summer. Other activities include fishing, hiking, rafting and kayaking.

7. Isle Royale National Park

Location: Michigan
2021 visitors: 25,844
More information: www.nps.gov

Harbor Lighthouse in Isle Royale, one of the least-visited US national parks
Steven Schremp/Shutterstock Harbor Lighthouse in Isle Royale

Located in the middle of Michigan’s Lake Superior, Isle Royale, which can only be reached by ferry and seaplane, has a diverse array of activities on offer including hiking, trekking, camping, boating, sailing, paddling and even scuba diving. Other draws include over 2,000 moose who call the island home, some of the best-preserved shipwrecks in the US and the 72km (45mi) Greenstone Ridge Trail that crosses the summit of Mount Desor, which at 425m (1,394ft) is the park’s highest point.

8. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve

Location: Alaska
2021 visitors: 50,189
More information: www.nps.gov

Mountains and forests in Wrangell-St Elias
Martin Capek/Shutterstock Wrangell-St Elias National Park

The enormous Wrangell-St Elias is America’s largest national park which at 53,320 sq km is the same size as Yellowstone, Yosemite and Switzerland combined!

The park is also home to Mount Saint Elias, one of the most beautiful mountains in the US and, as the mountain straddles the US-Canadian border, is America’s second-highest peak after Denali (as well as Canada’s after Logan). As such, the park climbs from sea level all the way up to 5,489m (18,008ft).

9. Dry Tortugas National Park

Location: Florida
2021 visitors: 83,817
More information: www.nps.gov

Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas – one of the least-visited US national parks
Varina C/Shutterstock Historic Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas

Lying 113km (70mi) west of Key West, the distinctive Dry Tortugas National Park includes seven islands in the Gulf of Mexico but is largely made up of open water. Only accessible by seaplane, the park is famed for its rare birds, historic military fort and aquamarine waters, home to coral reefs and diverse marine life.

10. Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve

Location: Alaska
2021 visitors: 89,768
More information: www.nps.gov

A humpback breaches in Glacier Bay – one of the least-visited US national parks
Maridav/Shutterstock A humpback breaches in Glacier Bay

Many visitors pass through the UNESCO-listed Glacier Bay National Park as part of an Inside Passage cruise. However, far fewer explore its hinterland. The immense protected area covers over 13,044 sq km of varied wilderness comprising snow-capped mountains, glaciers, rainforest, rugged coastlines and secluded fjords, not to mention the wildlife: bears, moose, mountain goats, sea otters, humpback whales, porpoises, orcas, sea lions, seals and an array of birds.

Complete rankings

Below are all 63 US national parks ranked by the total recreation visits they received in 2021.

RankNational parkVisitors
1Gates of the Arctic, Alaska7,362
2American Samoa, American Samoa8,495
3Kobuk Valley, Alaska11,540
4North Cascades, Washington17,855
5Lake Clark, Alaska18,278
6Katmai, Alaska24,764
7Isle Royale, Michigan25,844
8Wrangell–St. Elias, Alaska50,189
9Dry Tortugas, Florida83,817
10Glacier Bay, Alaska89,768
11Great Basin, Nevada144,875
12Congaree, South Carolina215,181
13Denali, Alaska229,521
14Voyageurs, Minnesota243,042
15Guadalupe Mountains, Texas243,291
16Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado308,910
17Channel Islands, California319,252
18Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands323,999
19Pinnacles, California348,857
20Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico349,244
21Lassen Volcanic, California359,635
22Kenai Fjords, Alaska411,782
23Redwood, California435,879
24Mammoth Cave, Kentucky515,774
25Mesa Verde, Colorado548,477
26Kings Canyon, California562,918
27Big Bend, Texas581,220
28Petrified Forest, Arizona590,334
29Great Sand Dunes, Colorado602,613
30Crater Lake, Oregon647,751
31Biscayne, Florida705,655
32Wind Cave, South Dakota709,001
33White Sands, New Mexico782,469
34Theodore Roosevelt, North Dakota796,085
35Haleakalā, Hawaii853,181
36Canyonlands, Utah911,594
37Everglades, Florida942,130
38Sequoia, California1,059,548
39Saguaro, Arizona1,079,786
40Gateway Arch, Missouri1,145,081
41Death Valley, California, Nevada1,146,551
42Badlands, South Dakota1,224,226
43Hawaiʻi Volcanoes, Hawaii1,262,747
44Capitol Reef, Utah1,405,353
45Shenandoah, Virginia1,592,312
46Mount Rainier, Washington1,670,063
47New River Gorge, West Virginia1,682,720
48Arches, Utah1,806,865
49Bryce Canyon, Utah2,104,600
50Hot Springs, Arkansas2,162,884
51Cuyahoga Valley, Ohio2,575,275
52Olympic, Washington2,718,925
53Joshua Tree, California3,064,400
54Glacier, Montana3,081,656
55Indiana Dunes, Indiana3,177,210
56Yosemite, California3,287,595
57Grand Teton, Wyoming3,885,230
58Acadia, Maine4,069,098
59Rocky Mountain, Colorado4,434,848
60Grand Canyon, Arizona4,532,677
61Yellowstone, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho4,860,242
62Zion, Utah5,039,835
63Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina, Tennessee14,161,548

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