Ranked: the least-visited US national parks

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.

Rank National park Visitors
1 Gates of the Arctic, Alaska 7,362
2 American Samoa, American Samoa 8,495
3 Kobuk Valley, Alaska 11,540
4 North Cascades, Washington 17,855
5 Lake Clark, Alaska 18,278
6 Katmai, Alaska 24,764
7 Isle Royale, Michigan 25,844
8 Wrangell–St. Elias, Alaska 50,189
9 Dry Tortugas, Florida 83,817
10 Glacier Bay, Alaska 89,768
11 Great Basin, Nevada 144,875
12 Congaree, South Carolina 215,181
13 Denali, Alaska 229,521
14 Voyageurs, Minnesota 243,042
15 Guadalupe Mountains, Texas 243,291
16 Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado 308,910
17 Channel Islands, California 319,252
18 Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands 323,999
19 Pinnacles, California 348,857
20 Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico 349,244
21 Lassen Volcanic, California 359,635
22 Kenai Fjords, Alaska 411,782
23 Redwood, California 435,879
24 Mammoth Cave, Kentucky 515,774
25 Mesa Verde, Colorado 548,477
26 Kings Canyon, California 562,918
27 Big Bend, Texas 581,220
28 Petrified Forest, Arizona 590,334
29 Great Sand Dunes, Colorado 602,613
30 Crater Lake, Oregon 647,751
31 Biscayne, Florida 705,655
32 Wind Cave, South Dakota 709,001
33 White Sands, New Mexico 782,469
34 Theodore Roosevelt, North Dakota 796,085
35 Haleakalā, Hawaii 853,181
36 Canyonlands, Utah 911,594
37 Everglades, Florida 942,130
38 Sequoia, California 1,059,548
39 Saguaro, Arizona 1,079,786
40 Gateway Arch, Missouri 1,145,081
41 Death Valley, California, Nevada 1,146,551
42 Badlands, South Dakota 1,224,226
43 Hawaiʻi Volcanoes, Hawaii 1,262,747
44 Capitol Reef, Utah 1,405,353
45 Shenandoah, Virginia 1,592,312
46 Mount Rainier, Washington 1,670,063
47 New River Gorge, West Virginia 1,682,720
48 Arches, Utah 1,806,865
49 Bryce Canyon, Utah 2,104,600
50 Hot Springs, Arkansas 2,162,884
51 Cuyahoga Valley, Ohio 2,575,275
52 Olympic, Washington 2,718,925
53 Joshua Tree, California 3,064,400
54 Glacier, Montana 3,081,656
55 Indiana Dunes, Indiana 3,177,210
56 Yosemite, California 3,287,595
57 Grand Teton, Wyoming 3,885,230
58 Acadia, Maine 4,069,098
59 Rocky Mountain, Colorado 4,434,848
60 Grand Canyon, Arizona 4,532,677
61 Yellowstone, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho 4,860,242
62 Zion, Utah 5,039,835
63 Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina, Tennessee 14,161,548

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