The Parks Less Traveled

While iconic national parks receive many visitors, lesser-known ones beckon those looking to go off the beaten track
September 8, 2020 Updated: September 9, 2020

The moody and potent waters of the Great Northern Sea, Lake Superior, alternately lap and pound at the shores of an island formed by ancient volcanoes and a sandy sea bottom, all ultimately carved by glaciers. Now 209 square miles of rocky terrain featuring forests, lakes, bogs, and swamps, it is home to three packs of wolves and a few hundred moose. This designated national wilderness area and UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve features 165 miles of trails and 36 campgrounds, and includes 450 smaller islands in protected waters three times as expansive as its land area. This is Isle Royale, the least visited national park in the lower 48 states. And it all awaits adventurous hikers, campers, boaters, and paddlers. 

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Isle Royale, in Michigan, is the least visited national park in the lower 48 states. (Steven Schremp/Shutterstock)

The park reopened June 26, 2020, but the four ferries that connect the island to the mainland at Houghton, Grand Portage, or Copper Harbor, Michigan, are not operating for the rest of this year. That leaves private boat or seaplane, making this arguably one of the hardest to visit. It averages 19,000 visitors a year, including day-trippers making the 1.5-hour one-way trip to spend three hours there before the return run. Depending on the year, only two or three remote Alaskan parks see fewer people, making Isle Royale National Park a haven for folks who like to get remote, rustic camp, and hike and kayak far from the madding crowd. 

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Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho. (Kris Wiktor/Shutterstock)

Compare that to being stuck in traffic in Yellowstone. There are reasons the epic parks with household names get congested, and those limited two-lane roads without shoulders help to keep them pure. Yosemite gets more than 4 million visitors, and its official website isn’t soft-pedaling that: “Expect delays of an hour or more at entrance stations and two to three hours in Yosemite Valley.” But where can you go then if your free time coincides with high time at your park destination?

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Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah. (Jason Patrick Ross/Shutterstock)

Alternative Ain’t Just for Music

More and more Americans are hitting the road this year. A recent poll by Chevrolet found that 20 percent have visited a national park for the first time and more than 10 percent tried camping for the first time. We’ve covered the extended national park road trip, but with the increased visitor rates, it is a good idea to either have a backup plan or choose another national gem entirely. 

“There are more than 400 national parks across the country, and yet 50 percent of visitation occurred in 27 of those parks last year,” wrote Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation in an email. “When we visit different parks, we learn something new and we see something new—and we’re also helping to spread out visitation, too.” 

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Wupatki National Monument, Arizona. (Kim M Smith/Shutterstock)

We get it, Yellowstone is bucket-list material. So maybe work in some nearby sites. Less than four hours southwest in Idaho is Craters of the Moon National Monument, a 1,117-square-mile preserve of volcanically formed land that, as the name suggests, is otherworldly. Scenic drives and hiking, both on trails and through backcountry, offer views of the Great Rift (the world’s deepest, at 800 feet at one point), lava fields, cinder cones, craters, lava tubes, caves, and a basic campground counts 51 sites. 

Bighorn National Recreation Area is the same distance in the opposite direction from Yellowstone, and offers bicycling, fishing, camping, hiking along 27 miles of trail, and visits to historical dude ranches. A short drive from there is Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument for the history buffs. 

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Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. (Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Shutterstock)

Going to Zion National Park? Don’t skip Cedar Breaks, Pipe Spring, and Parashant National Monuments. Head for the overlooked Great Basin National Park, where you can experience the desert, enjoy dark skies, and find some solitude. 

Grand Canyon hopefuls should also consider visiting Sunset Crater Volcano, Walnut Canyon, and Wupatki National Monuments, all impressive sights within a few hours’ drive of the famous canyon. To the east, Petrified Forest National Park is unmissable with its fossilized remains of an ancient forest from 200 million years ago.

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Biscayne National Park, Florida. (Sandra Foyt/Shutterstock)

From Sea to Shining Sea

Of course, not everything is out West. “Now is a great time to remind people that they don’t have to look far to experience nature, culture, and adventure through national parks,” wrote Shaforth. “They can be found nearby, too.” 

Check Florida for Biscayne National Park, not far from Miami, where you can paddle through mangroves. Here you’ll find the only underwater archaeological trail in the National Park System. The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area just north of Atlanta is a calm, cool 48-mile stretch of river for paddlers, but also offers trails for hiking and biking. Get on the Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River, which forms the border between Pennsylvania and New York, for paddling, fishing, and eagle watching. See the oldest existing wire cable suspension bridge in the United States. 

Camp and hike through the largest preserve of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the nation at Congaree National Park in South Carolina, with its 25 miles of trails, 2.4-mile boardwalk, canoeing, and rustic camping. 

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Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota. (BlueBarronPhoto/Shutterstock)

The Midwest has abundant destinations including national forests and scenic lakeshores in Michigan and Wisconsin as well as Minnesota’s less-visited Voyageurs National Park. Another “dark skies” destination, the park is a haven of lakes for canoeing, but also exceptional for fall colors and ideal for cross-country skiers when the lakes freeze in winter.   

Mountains and canyons await in Texas’s Guadalupe Mountains National Park, home of the state’s four highest peaks. Enjoy abundant miles of trails and some surprising fall colors. In Washington, the North Cascades National Park could use a little respect. The mountains are less than three hours driving from Seattle and offer wildlife viewing, camping, horseback riding, fishing, camping, and hiking. 

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Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas. (Anton Foltin/Shutterstock)

Let 2020 be your wake-up call to the impressive breadth of natural beauty that is our nation and its park system. “We’re excited to spread that important message far and wide, while reminding people to always #RecreateResponsibly,” wrote Shafroth. Not sure what park is the best match for your location or your interests? Shafroth recommended the National Park Foundation and the National Park Service’s collaborative website, FindYourPark.com, where you can take a quiz and find out.

Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com