The 10 Most Deserted National Parks in America

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Peaks at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
©Jeremy Taylor/Flickr, Creative Commons
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Lehman Caves
Courtesy NPS
10. Great Basin National Park

The Lehman Caves are yawning caves of solid marble in east-central Nevada. Home to more than 300 rare formations, the only way to explore is via a guided tour. The formations in the cave range from sharp spikes and seemingly handcrafted whorls to castlelike stalagmites straight out of science fiction. Hike Wheeler Peak to get over a fear of heights—the staggering peak reaches higher than nine Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other.

By the Numbers: Great Basin has more than 77,000 acres and had a little over 116,000 visitors in 2015. Every visitor, theoretically, could have explored their own 1.5 acres.

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©Hunter Desportes/Flickr, Creative Commons
9. Congaree National Park

Located just outside South Carolina's capital city of Columbia, the Congaree and Wateree Rivers flow through the floodplain at Congaree National Park. Inside the basin, dense hardwood growth sprouts from the rivers and muddy expanse of the park's swamps. This Southern hardwood forest is one of the largest and last untapped areas of its type. To explore it, kayak through the waterways and observe the lush habitat that is favored by many species of fish, snake, frog and bird varieties. No kayak? A popular 2.4-mile boardwalk tour through the swamp is a good second choice. 

By the Numbers: How deserted is the Congaree? At less than 88,000 visitors in 2015 and with 27,000 acres, it's like having your own third of an acre.

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Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
©Bev Goad/NPS
8. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

The massive Alaskan wilderness of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park protects millions of acres of national treasures. The Nabesna Glacier is one such treasure—a glacier so large that it would take almost an hour to drive the length of it. Travel to the center of the park to hear, feel and see the park's heart beat. An active volcano field, covered in white snow, spans more than 2,000 square miles among the high peaks there.

By the Numbers: Roughly the size of six Yellowstone parks, Wrangell-St. Elias—all 13.2 million acres of it—welcomes less than 2 percent of Yellowstone's number of visitors each year. At roughly 165 acres to each visitor, the Alaskan wilderness at Wrangell-St. Elias is rough, wild and mostly unchanged by human hands for the last century.

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Dry Tortugas
©Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau
7. Dry Tortugas National Park

You won't find pirates at Dry Tortugas National Park anymore, but you might have once. The lonely Fort Jefferson—70 miles west of Key West, Florida—is protected by eight keys (islands). Because the Fort is so remote, accessing the park—only by boat or seaplane—hampers the number of visitors who can make the journey. Snorkel and scuba dive to witness the array of wildlife that surrounds the Fort and browse the underwater shipwrecks within the park boundaries. Who knows, you might even find a pirate.

By the Numbers: With more than 100 square miles—a little more than 64,000 acres—each of the 71,000 visitors in 2015 had almost a full acre per person to snorkel, walk or boat.

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Valley of 10,000 smokes in Katmai National Park
Courtesy NPS
6. Katmai National Park and Reserve

In June 1912, the volcano Novarupta exploded and created the phenomenon that gave Alaska's Ukak River valley the name "Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes." The valley is a flat land, pockmarked with fumaroles—holes where steam rises out of the earth. The otherworldly area is still carpeted with red, brown, black and gray ash from the 1912 eruption. Park visits in the summer and fall yield sights of red-pink salmon swimming by the hundreds through crystal clear rivers and streams throughout the park. Stand at the viewing docks at Brooks Camp, at the mouth of Brooks River, and watch lumbering brown bears swat at the salmon swimming over the falls.

By the Numbers: Starting with Woodrow Wilson's original proclamation and tracing through a series of presidental additions, Katmai's standing acreage is at a little less than 5 million acres. That works out to roughly 108 acres for each of 38,000 visitors who arrived in 2015.

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North Cascades National Park
©Kyle Wright/Flickr, Creative Commons
5. North Cascades National Park

You'll find this dramatic park northeast of Seattle near the Canadian border. Pull out the camera in Stehekin Valley where visitors are welcome in a pleasant community on the banks of Lake Chelan—one of the deepest lakes in the U.S. surrounded by high peaks. Think kayaking or canoeing on the massive lake for epic selfies. Outdoor adventure blogger Brian Eagen from Outdoor Blueprint offers this tip: "The hike to Hidden Lake Lookout is a must-do. You can even stay overnight in the firetower." 

By the Numbers: With less than 21,000 visitors in 2015, in theory, each traveler could have explored approximately 25 acres without bumping into another guest at North Cascades.

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Isle Royale National Park
©Joe Ross/Flickr, Creative Commons
4. Isle Royale National Park

Floatplanes and ferries will deliver you to northern Michigan's Isle Royale National Park—located in Lake Superior, just south of the Canadian border—for great camping and backpacking trips. Explore the islands via canoe and kayak to get access to remote campgrounds. The icy waters surrounding the island are home to numerous well-preserved shipwrecks.

By the Numbers: Despite its beauty, only 18,000 people visited Isle Royale in 2015; contrast that to the much more popular Channel Islands, which received 320,000 explorers the same year.

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©K. Jalone/NPS
3. Lake Clarke National Park and Reserve

This is southwestern Alaska at its best, and you can only get here by floatplane. Though nearby Katmai National Park and Preserve is better known, Lake Clark is heralded for its environmental diversity, from salmon-rich rivers to the rainforest near Cook Inlet, rugged mountains, tundra and brown bear sightings common along the shore.

By the Numbers: Lake Clark welcomed only 17,000 visitors in 2015; that's hardly a drop in the lake compared to the 1 million visitors that Lake Meade and Lake Roosevelt each entertained.

 

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Kobuk River
©Western Acrtic National Parkland/Flickr, Creative Commons
2. Kobuk Valley National Park

Known for mass caribou migration and giant, undulating sand dunes Kobuk Valley has a wealth of ecosystems that support thousands of species at its perch 35 miles above the Arctic Circle. Up to a quarter of a million caribou trudge south in the fall and north in the spring. 

By the Numbers: Each visitor in 2016 would have had their own 116 acres to explore.

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Gates of the Arctic National Park and Reserve
©National Park Service, Alaska Region/Flickr, Creative Commons
1. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Reserve

This Alaskan park is as remote as "remote wilderness" gets. There are millions of acres of untamed, unruled land for exploring—not for the faint of heart, either. If you're looking for a more conventional approach, take a local air taxi for heli-viewing.

By the Numbers: Not even 11,000 people made it to this backcountry splendor in 2015. That means each adventurer willing to trek through the Arctic would have ended up with a personal tract of a whopping 788 acres to explore. If that sounds like you, might we recommend calling in for a food drop and resupply?

By Jamie Jackson on 11/02/2017

There's more attention than ever to national parks, and travelers everywhere are reserving campsites and plotting adventurous itineraries to these spectacular U.S. parks.

In 1916, while World War I was raging in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson signed the "Organic Act" making the National Park Service (NPS) the guardian of thousands of acres of parks, reserves, preserves, scenic rivers and landscapes with historical relevance. Today, there are more than 400 NPS sites, with 59 of those designated as national parks.

Yet even with the extra love that the centennial celebration brought in 2016, some of these parks just don't get the attention they deserve, whether that's because of a far-flung location or a lack of awareness of the stunning beauty to be found. In celebration of the NPS's vast range of offerings, skip the lines at mega-popular parks such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, and instead start your national park adventure with the most deserted national parks in America.