Bucket List July 14, 2021
by Tori Jane 11 Of The Least-Visited National Parks In America That Can’t Be Missed
Fun fact: in the United States, there are more than 400 national park sites scattered throughout the land (423 at the time of this writing), each just begging to be explored. Unfortunately, with so many unique spots on the list of parks to choose from, some are bound to be overlooked as visitors commonly decide to head to the most popular destinations without considering the lesser-known hidden gems. Here are some of our picks for the best little-known national parks in the United States.
1. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
Alaska is home to several criminally underappreciated national parks, including this one. Despite being visited much less than more popular destinations - only 16,655 visitors made the journey up here in 2020 - this particular national park is the largest in the United States, spanning an incredible 13.2 million acres. It also has some of the largest volcanoes and the largest concentration of glaciers in North America. Plus, there's just something about the crystalline blue pools found throughout that seem to beckon us closer every time.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska, USA
2. Channel Islands National Park, California
The Channel Islands are five small islands off the coast of southern California, and each one is a little slice of perfection with its own special features. Santa Cruz Island, for example, is home to the incredible Painted Cave, as well as other notable sea caves, while Anacapa Island is where an old, 1930s-era lighthouse resides. What secrets do the other three hold? You'll have to visit to find out.
Channel Islands National Park, California, USA
3. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Colorado is one of those stunning states where everywhere you turn looks like something out of a painting. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is certainly no exception. It's a steep-walled, super-deep gorge carved into Precambrian-era rock by the forces of wind and the power of water from the Gunnison River. Being from the Precambrian era puts the age of the rock here at anywhere from 1.7 billion to 541 million years old. It's some of the oldest known rock in North America, and it's been waiting all this time for your visit.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado, USA
4. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Way up at the tip-top of northern Minnesota, quite close to the Canadian border, is the beautiful and oft-forgotten Voyageurs National Park. This one's a little different than the others, though - you'll need to bring (or rent) a boat to explore it. It includes 655 miles of unaltered shoreline surrounded by dense, untouched forest and huge lakes, all interconnected by water channels that weave through the area. If you're on the lookout for peace and quiet, you'll find it here.
Voyageurs National Park, Kabetogama Township, MN 56669, USA
5. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
When people think about national parks in Florida, there are a few that almost always come to mind first: Everglades National Park and Canaveral National Seashore. However, if you're looking for a truly tropical treat, consider a trip to Dry Tortugas National Park. This park is the definition of a hidden gem, as it's located off the coast of mainland Florida, about 70 miles west of Key West. It's only accessible by boat or plane, and it's famous for its vast array of bird species. Birdwatchers rejoice; this place is your paradise! Dry Tortugas National Park consists of 100 square miles of open water with seven islands and colorful reefs sprinkled throughout, so it also offers some of the best snorkeling you could ever ask for. While the wildlife and scenery are certainly highlights, this park is also filled with history; it was established to preserve Fort Jefferson, a massive, unfinished island fortress that was used during the Civil War. It was constructed all the way back in 1861 and remains the largest brick masonry structure in America.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida, USA
6. North Cascades National Park, Washington
North Cascades is a breathtaking and underappreciated national park that might make you believe you've arrived in Alaska, but it can be found less than three hours from Seattle, Washington, right on the border of the United States and Canada. It features absolutely incredible alpine forests and awe-inspiring mountain ranges, including more than 300 glaciers. The water here is some of the bluest you'll ever see, and every single moment spent here is worth a million photographs. This is one of those little-known national parks in the United States that just seems to be too unfairly pristine to be real - but it is. Of course, hiking through this gorgeous landscape is the most popular activity in the park, and you certainly won't have any shortage of spots to explore - there are over 400 miles of trails to trek, ranging from short, scenic strolls to extensive backpacking routes.
North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA
7. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Next, we bounce to South Carolina, where it's always a little humid, but that's part of its charm (at least we think so). Congaree National Park stretches across more than 26,000 acres and is located a mere 18 miles from the state capital in Columbia. Congaree is particularly impressive for its striking biodiversity, as well as for being the largest expanse of old-growth, bottom-land hardwood forest left in the southeastern United States. These trees are older than most of our great-grandparents, and they're well worth a trip out to admire them in all their emerald-green glory.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina 29061, USA
8. Big Bend National Park, Texas
Everything is bigger in Texas, even the parks that fewer folks seem to appreciate as they should. Such is the case for Big Bend National Park... and when we say it's big, we mean it. At over 800,000 acres, the park is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island and is home to the entirety of the Chisos Mountain Range, as well as the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the U.S. Big Bend National Park is a paradise for hikers, as it has more than 150 miles of prime hiking and walking trails winding throughout the extensive landscape. Emory Peak, which rises to 7,835 feet above sea level, is a gorgeous landmark to explore, but the true star of this park is Santa Elena Canyon, which was carved by the Rio Grande and is an awe-inspiring spot for paddling and kayaking.
For more information about Big Bend National Park, check out our deep-dive into some of its finest features
Big Bend National Park, TX 79834, USA
9. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
While Isle Royale National Park contains hundreds of small islands, its namesake Isle Royale is located off of the Michigan coast in Lake Superior. It's accessible by seaplane or ferry, and it boasts some excellent scuba diving sites around sunken shipwrecks - which isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the Midwest... but that's just part of what makes this place so special. The entire park is petite compared to others on this list, consisting of just 894 square miles, 685 of which are pristine water. Due to its isolation, this national park almost never sees crowds; fewer than 7,000 people visited in 2020 - a massive drop from the 25,798 who visited in 2018 - making this the least-visited national park in the contiguous United States.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan, USA
10. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Did you know that Kentucky is home to the longest known cave system on the entire planet? It's true - Mammoth Cave is insanely huge, with over 400 miles of documented passageways snaking through the earth (and more being discovered each year). The park also contains thousands of years of natural and human history too, so it's more than just a simple spelunking trip. Signs of prehistoric human use of the cave date back millennia, with thousands of perfectly preserved artifacts still hiding within its expanse. You can see signs of more recent (but equally fascinating) activity carved into the ceiling of a cavern known as Gothic Avenue, where hundreds of signatures adorn the rock - some of which include dates stretching back to the early 1800s. Aside from its human history, Mammoth Cave is also incredibly diverse when it comes to plant and animal life, with 130 different species of wildlife found within the park, including endangered species like the Kentucky Cave Shrimp.
Want to learn more? Check out our full feature article about Mammoth Cave
Mammoth Cave, KY 42259, USA
11. Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, Oklahoma
The last (but certainly not least) item on this list is a national historic site rather than a national park; however, it's certainly interesting enough to include. Washita Battlefield was once the site of a brutal, bloody battle between white settlers and the Native Cheyenne people who lived here, and the site is considered to be a quiet spot of reflection to those who visit today. It's the most somber item on this list, but the history of this area alone makes it worth a visit.
Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, Cheyenne, OK 73628, USA
Trust us: when it comes to little-known national parks in the United States, you have so many more to choose from (including others not listed here) that are worth creating an entirely new bucket list for. The United States is a huge place with so many beautiful, underappreciated nooks and crannies that we often take it for granted, especially if we grew up in or near a location considered “scenic” or a “vacation spot” by others. We forget just how gorgeous our own backyard is, and it’s waiting patiently for us to begin exploring as soon as we can.
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Address: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska, USA Address: Channel Islands National Park, California, USA Address: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado, USA Address: Voyageurs National Park, Kabetogama Township, MN 56669, USA Address: Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida, USA Address: North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA Address: Congaree National Park, South Carolina 29061, USA Address: Big Bend National Park, TX 79834, USA Address: Isle Royale National Park, Michigan, USA Address: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, USA Address: Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, Cheyenne, OK 73628, USA