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The Best US National Parks You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

best lesser-known US national parks

In 2016, USA National Park visits hit record-high numbers.  More than 325 million people visited the National Parks, which is a huge jump from the 307 million visitors in 2015.  Considering that National Park attendance was ebbing for the few decades before this, we should be happy that more people are getting out to enjoy the great outdoors.

But, on the other hand, those crowds of loud tourists coming in on organized tours can be a bit distracting! I don’t know about you, but I like to enjoy nature in peace, quiet, and solitude!

Before you get turned off by the idea of loud crowds at the national parks, keep in mind that most of these visitors went to a small handful of popular National Parks.

The most-visited National Parks in 2016 were:

  1. Great Smoky Mountains NP: 15 million visits
  2. Grand Canyon NP: 5.9 million visits
  3. Yosemite NP: 5 million visits
  4. Rocky Mountain NP: 4.5 million visits
  5. Zion NP: 4.3 million visits
  6. Yellowstone NP: 4.2 million visits
  7. Olympic NP: 3.4 million visits
  8. Acadaia NP: 3.3 million visits
  9. Grand Teton NP: 3.3 million visits
  10. Glacier NP: 2.9 million visits
  11. Joshua Tree NP: 2.5 million visits
  12. Cuyahoga Valley NP: 2.4 million visits
  13. Bryce Canyon: 2.4 million visits
  14. Hawaii Volcanoes NP: 1.9 million visits
  15. Arches NP: 1.6 million visits

(To see how many visitors a park got, see the NPS Annual Park Ranking Report here)

Before you give up on these National Parks (all of which are AMAZING), I do want to point out that most tourists don’t go far beyond the front gate.  In the 2.2 million acres that make up Yellowstone, for example, I am sure you can find a bit of solitude on the less-beaten hiking trails!

However, if you want to avoid the crowds completely, consider these amazing National Parks that you might not have even heard of – all of which have less than 1 million yearly visitors!

 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

black canyon of the gunnison national park

Location: Western Colorado
Yearly Visitors: 238,018
Why Go? Spectacular views of the canyon!

 

Crater Lake National Park

crater lake national park

Location: Oregon
Yearly Visitors: 756,344
Why
Go?To see the giant crater formed by the now-collapsed volcano and the cinder cone “Wizard Island” in the middle of the lake; the drive around the lake has great views of the park’s volcanic formations.

 

King’s Canyon National Park

kings canyon national park

Location: California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains
Yearly Visitors: 607,479
Why Go? 
See the giant sequoia trees without the crowds found in Sequoia National Park. King’s Canyon also has giant granite water walls in the canyon, amazing hiking trails, and lots of wildlife.

 

Great Sand Dunes National Park

 Great Sand Dunes National Park

Location: Colorado
Yearly Visitors: 
388,308
Why Go? 
Go sand boarding and sledding! There are also wetlands and alpine lakes nearby.

 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Location: North Dakota
Yearly Visitors: 753,880

Why Go? 
To see bison, elk, and prairie dogs; for the stunning Painted Canyon, and many great hiking trails.

 

Lassen Volcanic National Park

lassen volcanic national park

Location: Northern California
Yearly Visitors: 536,068

Why Go? 
To avoid the crowds at Yellowstone but see amazing hydrothermal sites and bubbling mud pots.

Big Bend National Park

big bend national park

Location: Texas
Yearly Visitors: 388,290

Why Go? 
To see the Santa Elena Canyon carved by the Rio Grande, visit the Langford Hot Springs, and to hike the Lost Mine Trail.

Great Basin National Park

great basin national park

Location: Nevada (near Utah border)
Yearly Visitors: 144,846

Why Go? 
Visit the Lehman Caves, walk the Bristlecone Trails, or hike to stunning lakes.

 

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands national park

Location: Utah
Yearly Visitors: 776,218

Why Go?
To be awed by geologic features while still avoiding the crowds of the Grand Canyons; this is also a good spot for rock climbing!

 

North Cascades National Park

north cascades national park

Location: Washington State
Yearly Visitors: 28,646

Why Go? 
Backpack in this huge wilderness with its inspiring conifer-covered mountains, glaciers, and clear lakes.

 

Conagree National Park

congaree national park

Location: South Carolina
Yearly Visitors: 143,843

Why Go? 
It’s the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the USA!  There are boardwalks so you can walk through it.

 

Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park

Location: Michigan
Yearly Visitors: 24,966

Why Go? 
Located on an island in Lake Superior, no cars are allowed here so you’ll be able to enjoy the vast forests rich with wildlife in peace.

 

Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park

Location: Alaska
Yearly Visitors: 346,534

Why Go?
Stunning glaciers, whale watching, the trip of a lifetime!

 

Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs national park

Location: Minnesota
Yearly Visitors: 241,912

Why Go?
 Stunning lake, canoeing, fishing, and bird watching

 

White Sands National Park

White sands national park

Location: New Mexico
Yearly Visitors: 
555,793

Why Go?
To feel like you are on a different planet!

 

Sorry if I missed your favorite National Park.  There are just too many good ones! What’s your favorite lesser-known national park? Let us know in the comments. 🙂

*Want to check out all 59 National Parks in the USA? Lonely Planet has a great guide. It was updated in 2016 and has lots of great eye-candy in it. 🙂   You can buy it here

lonely planet national parks guide


Image credits:
Approaching Big Bend National Park, Alon” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Robert Hensley
Trail into the abyss…Sahale Arm Trail,” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by i8seattle
sequoia fog” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by henryalien
Lassen Volcanic” (CC BY 2.0) by Theo Crazzolara
Black Canyon of the Gunnison 960 x 800” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Kanemojo
Great Sand Dunes at Dawn” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by davidwynia
Big Bull Moose” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by RTD Photography
20160704_143931” (CC BY 2.0) by jck_photos
Holgate Glacier, Kenai Fjords National P” (CC BY 2.0) by AlaskaNPS
P5205540” (CC BY 2.0) by Hunter-Desportes
Buck Canyon through Mesa Arch” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by JesseG8r
Stella Lake, Great Basin NP, Nevada” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Fred Moore 1947
Crater Lake From The Rim Visitor Center” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by ScottElliottSmithson
Painted Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt Natio” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by fritzmb
White Sand National Park (523)” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by x020440
20160704_121212” (CC BY 2.0) by jck_photos

 

About the author /


Diane Vukovic is an avid traveler, outdoor enthusiast, beetle lover, sometimes sculptress, couchsurfer, and loves finding ways to explain complex topics to her 6-year old daughter. Follow MomGoesCamping on Facebook and Twitter @MomGoesCamping to stay in touch!

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