In the annual park ranking report of recreational visitors for 2013, there are well over 350 locations, all of which offer their own unique scenery, outdoor opportunities and piece of history.
Areas designated specifically as national parks account for 63 of those locations. While well-known spots like Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks bring in more than 4 million visitors a year each, some of the lesser-known ones have minimal visitors, plenty to do, and much-needed peace and quiet.
1. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Alaska has long been a dream destination for many outdoor lovers, campers and hikers, and for good reason: this state is home to four of the largest national parks in the country, including Wrangell-St. Elias, which takes the number one spot.
Instead of visiting the most popular parks, take the road less followed—literally; there are no roads or trails in the Gates of Arctic National Park, but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting.
At Gates of the Arctic, the number one least-visited national park, you’re immersed in a pristine wilderness straight out of a storybook. But, it’s not for the faint of heart. “Gates of the Arctic is one of the last truly wild places on earth,” according to NPS.gov.
All camping here is backcountry, and you need to be taken in and out of the park by pre-arranged transportation, most often a plane. If you’re up for an adventure, now’s the chance to test your skills.
2. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Another Alaskan gem, this park provides hundreds of miles of recreation and beauty that no camera could possibly capture. While there’s no developed camping in this national park, there is a designated camping area in Port Alsworth, and you don’t need a permit to pitch your tent and make basecamp there.
When you’re not resting under the stars, you can fish or boat in all 51 miles of serene Lake Clark. Rent a canoe in Port Alsworth if you don’t have one. If you want to stay on land, take a hike to Tanalian Falls, trek up Tanalian Mountain or stroll around Konstrashibuna Lake.
3. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Escape from the world when you step into this national park, where you’ll find scenic hiking, calm waters, and soul-shaking solitude. In fact, the only way to get there is by ferry and you need to make a camping reservation or you won’t be able to stay for the night.
Once you arrive, and shake off the awe, start trekking. With a Michigan fishing license, you can catch breakfast, lunch and dinner, or just sit by the water for a relaxing afternoon in the sun. Don’t forget to sign up for a guided, in-depth hike; take a trip to Daisy Farm Area, a historic settlement; or hop on a guided cruise tour.
4. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
Great Sand Dunes National Park isn’t the only place with dunes worth seeing. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, located in this park, rise more than 100 miles high and come in many different shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, the weather at this park is not always favorable, as rain, wind and snow are common occurrences, even in the summer months.
To stay here, you need to be a skilled backwoods camper. Similar to Gates of the Arctic, there are no roads or trails here, just miles and miles of untouched wilderness. If you’re up for a backpacking adventure, head to the scenic Baird Mountains or float along the Kobuk River, stopping only the explore the land and sleep.
5. North Cascades National Park, Washington
Just three hours from the hustle and bustle of Seattle is this quiet wilderness, sure to please even the most experienced outdoor enthusiast. Camping is available for everyone, whether you’re exploring the country in an RV or just want to take your family on a summer vacation.
Once you set up camp, take a hike along Thornton Lake or through the Newhalem area trails; check the complete list of day hikes before you go and plan accordingly. Other activities include biking, birding and wildlife photography, as well as boating and fishing.
6. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
History buffs, this park is for you. Dry Tortugas is home to 19th century Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the country. Built as the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, this fort has seen history that most can only read about in textbooks. As you tour around the fort, notice its unique brickwork and 2,000 arches.
This park is accessible only by boat or plane, and its clear, turquoise waters are a big draw for water lovers. Check out the ocean underworld with a snorkeling trip, grab your binoculars and enjoy “world class bird watching,” or just sit back with your toes in the sand. End your night at Garden Key, the only campground on the island. Note that this is a 10-site, first-come, first-served, primitive campground, so it’s important to plan ahead.
7. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
This park is home to the Lehman Caves, a stunning natural wonder that’s a must-see. Once at the park you can take a guided tour, fish in Baker Creek or Summit Wheeler Peak. If you’re staying overnight at one of the first-come, first-served campgrounds at the park (the only ones available), take your time and try a little bit of everything from hiking the Mountain View Nature Trail to visiting the Lexington Arch.
After the sun goes down, you get to see the best part of this park: the night sky. Lie at your campsite and look up or join a ranger-led stargazing program to truly understand what you can see in one of the darkest skies in the country.
8. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
This is one of the most diverse of the least-visited national parks, with unique geography that creates a magical feeling for every visitor. Experience this astonishing natural area on foot, with more than 25 miles of hiking trails and a 2.4-mile boardwalk trail available. Take a guided walk and you won’t miss a single thing.
Be sure to glide along the Cedar Creek canoe trail, where you can explore the mystical waterways before you head back to the primitive campground for dinner and rest. There are three campgrounds to choose from, all of which require a free overnight permit from the park.
9. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Babbling mountain streams, dense woodlands and rocky canyons make this one of the most geographically diverse national parks in the country. Explore this fascinating landscape when you trek through more than 80 miles of hiking trails. From easy to hard, every level of hiker will find something to challenge and surprise them here.
Before you go, print the Fossil Identification Guide and bring it with you to find clues into the park’s ancient past. At the end of the day you can rest at one of two campgrounds, both of which are developed and reservable.
10. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Black Canyon is “big enough to be overwhelming, still intimate enough to feel the pulse of time,” according to the National Park Service. You’ll feel small as you stand next to 2,000-foot tall canyon walls, but don’t let that stop you from lacing up your boots and seeing just what this park is made of.
For your best view of the park, take a hike along the rim. On the south rim you’ll find four trails, which range from a 1-mile loop to a 2-mile round trip. If you want a longer hike, try the 5-mile Deadhorse Trail on the north rim. Or just find a spot next to the Gunnison River and sit back with a fishing pole in hand. At the end of the day you can relax at one of two developed campgrounds.