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(CNN) — There are more than 420 sites in the US National Park System, but only 63 bear the headlining title – capital N, capital P – “National Park”.
The most visited of these, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, hosted a record 14.2 million recreational visits in 2021. Zion, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are other attractions major tourist attractions. See the full list of the National Park Service‘s most popular sites here.
But what about the least visited headliners? Parks that can be particularly wild or difficult to access, but also uncrowded and largely unknown. Let’s take a look at these.
Seven of the 15 least visited national parks in 2021 are in Alaska.
It’s no surprise that a good chunk of the least-visited national parks are in the 49th state. Covering nearly 665,000 square miles – much of it wild and often frozen – getting around the state can be tricky and there are a lot wild nature to see.
It’s safe to say that the people who accounted for its 7,362 recreational visits in 2021 were very committed to a wilderness experience. Denali National Park in Alaska, No. 13 among the least visited parks, saw 229,521 visits in comparison.
Remote islands, a historic fort and more
The second least visited national park couldn’t be more different. American Samoa National Park is located on a volcanic island arc in the South Pacific, where fruit bats and coral reefs are part of the ecosystem. The park recorded just under 8,500 visits in 2021.
Other non-Alaskan entries on the list of least-visited parks include North Cascades in Washington; Isle Royale in Michigan and Dry Tortugas in Florida.
The latter two are remarkably different island environments. Isle Royale is a forested island in Lake Superior accessible by ferry or seaplane. Dry Tortugas is 70 miles west of Key West and features open water and a handful of islands, including one that is home to an impressive 19th-century fort.
Parks in Nevada, South Carolina, Minnesota and Texas also made the list of the 15 least visited parks.
Here is the list and some park highlights for some off-trail inspiration:
15 Least Visited U.S. National Parks in 2021
With no roads, no trails, no cell service, and no established campsites, this huge expanse is a true wilderness experience. The park and reserve have six designated wilderness rivers. “Visitors can wander at will over 8.4 million acres of outstanding natural beauty,” the park’s website says. Visitors must be self-reliant, flexible and “capable of performing self-extraction and communication, in the event of an emergency”. Arrive prepared.
Most park goers will need a passport to visit this location in a remote part of the South Pacific. Hawaiian Airlines offers direct flights from Honolulu. The only National Park Service site south of the equator, the park has units on three different islands within the territory of American Samoa. The park covers 13,500 acres, of which approximately 4,000 are marine acres which are mostly coral reefs.
American Samoa National Park recorded 8,495 recreational visits in 2021.
© Michael Runkel/Danita Delimon/Adobe Stock
There are no roads, campgrounds or gateways for human visitors to this 1.8 million acre expanse. Half a million caribou migrate through this park, crossing the Kobuk River and Onion Portage, according to the National Park Service. An 8,000 year old tradition of caribou hunting continues here today.
Peaks crowned by more than 300 glaciers dominate this alpine landscape. More than 1,600 species of plants have been identified on this land that ranges from temperate rainforest to a dry ponderosa pine ecosystem. There are over 400 miles of trails.
Spanning over 4 million acres, this national park and preserve is home to three designated wild rivers and two national natural volcanoes. The land holds 10,000 years of human history and preserves the ancestral lands of the Dena’ina people.
Katmai is an important habitat for thousands of brown bears. According to the Park Service, one of the world’s top bear viewing sites, Katmai is home to around 2,200 brown bears. Brooks Camp along the Brooks River is one of the most popular vantage points for watching bears feasting on salmon.
A remote archipelago on Lake Superior, Isle Royale has 265 kilometers of trails and more than 30 campgrounds. It is open from mid-April to the end of October. Ferry and seaplane service typically operates from mid-May through late September, according to NPS. There are fewer mammal species here – just 19 – than on the mainland because the animals must cross at least 14 miles from Lake Superior. Wolves and moose are among the notable animal residents.
America’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias encompasses 13.2 million acres — about the size of Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park and Switzerland combined, according to the Park Service. Most of the park is in the backcountry and visitor services are limited. There are maintained trails in the Nabesna and McCarthy forecountry areas.
About 70 miles (113 km) west of Key West, Dry Tortugas is mostly open water with seven small islands. Garden Key is home to one of the nation’s largest 19th century forts, Fort Jefferson. The park is accessible by boat or plane and is home to nearly 300 species of birds. Bush Key closes annually from February to September so that sooty terns and brown noddies can breed there undisturbed.
Another wilderness park in Alaska, Glacier Bay covers 3.3 million acres. Late May to early September marks the main season for visitors. Visitors arrive by ferry or boat, and sea kayaking is a popular way to see the park’s spectacular tidal glaciers. Black and brown bears live here, and the park recently temporarily closed an area to foot traffic after a bear received food from campers.
The mountain peaks here meet the hot desert valleys. The Great Basin National Park is home to the 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, ancient bristlecone pines, around 40 caves, and a wide array of plants and animals. The elevation ranges from 5,000 to 13,000 feet with hiking trails for all levels.
The landscape in Congaree National Park is “defined by the presence of both flooding and blaze”, the Park Service said. Flood waters from the Congaree and Wateree rivers regularly blanket the park’s old-growth lowland hardwood forest, and the upland pine forest depends on forest fires to clear competing vegetation. Canoeing and kayaking are popular ways to explore the park. There is a 15 mile marked canoe trail.
Covering six million acres, this wilderness is home to North America’s tallest park – 20,310 feet Denali. Off-trail hiking is the norm, and vehicle access to its only road is largely limited to buses. Grizzly bears and black bears, wolves, caribou, moose and Dall’s sheep all live here.
Considered a park “of water, islands and horizons”, Voyageurs covers 218,055 acres, 84,000 of which is water. There are over 500 islands and four large lakes, as well as over two dozen smaller lakes in the park, best explored by boat. Voyageurs shares its northern border with Canada, and lucky visitors can even see the Northern Lights.
This park is home to the four highest peaks in Texas and the largest Permian fossil reef in the world. Guadalupe Mountains Wilderness has more than 80 miles of trails, including a hike through the Salt Basin Dunes that rise 100 feet from the desert floor.