To paraphrase Wallace Stegner, America’s national parks are the best idea the country ever had – and, thanks to the rise of Instagram, the fall of gas prices and a generational shift in attitudes toward nature, they’re more popular than ever before.
The number of visitors to 51 of the 60 national parks increased between 2008 and 2017, with some of the best-known experiencing a surge in footfall: Glacier up 82 percent; Joshua Tree up 104 percent; Bryce Canyon up 146 percent.
Those numbers highlight a trend within a trend: although most parks have experienced a rise, the increase is greatest in a handful of already popular spots. For nature lovers, this presents an opportunity: let everyone else fight through the crowds while you’re off exploring one of these spectacular, less-visited alternatives.
Pinnacles National Park, California
California’s newest national park is also its least visited, despite being just over a two-hour drive from San Francisco. The name paints a picture of what you’ll find there: the remnants of an ancient volcano in the shape of imposing stone spires hidden among the gentler hills of the Coast Range. The pinnacles have drawn rock climbers since long before the area became a national park, while other visitors come for the birdlife of the rocky peaks, home to the endangered – and enormous – California condor, prairie falcons, peregrine falcons and golden eagles. Two talus caves are open to the public (at least when the bats allow it); bring flashlights and a willingness to get your feet wet. The nerve-rattling High Peaks Trail follows knife-edge ridges into the sky, where normally only rock climbers dare to tread. Visit in the spring for cooler weather and trails lined with pink-blushed mariposa lilies.
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National Park of American Samoa
Picture this: hiking mountain jungle trails spotting fruit bats, exploring historic WWII military installations and snorkelling in crystalline waters, all in one national park. Sound good? People are starting to catch on, but not many yet. More people visit Yellowstone in a week than visit the National Park of American Samoa in a year. A challenging trail that leads up Mt Alava, with occasional rope-assisted ladders, leads to the highest highs, while others head through bird-filled forests to the park’s protected coastline and ancient Samoan archaeological sites, including a ceremonial star mound. Tourist infrastructure in American Samoa is fairly minimal, and getting to some remote parts of the park requires private boat charters and patience.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
If you’re looking for true isolation, Michigan’s Isle Royale National Parkin Lake Superior might be just what you’re after. The only way to reach the island is by boat or seaplane, with services from Houghton and Copper Harbor in Michigan, as well as Grand Portage, Minnesota. Once you’re on Isle Royale, you’ll find no roads, no cars and more moose and wolves than people. There are no lodges or cabins, but you have a choice of 36 campgrounds, ranging from the lakeshore to inland sites scattered across the 210-sq-mile island. Pick a prime spot and stay put, or backpack the island’s 165 miles of hiking trails, jumping from one campground to the next. Isle Royale is a build-your-own-adventure destination.
Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
While visitors to Maui have been climbing steadily, visits to Haleakala National Park have dropped. By confining your visit to the beaches, you miss one of the most wondrous landscapes in the islands and a place of major cultural importance. If you do nothing else, watch the first rays of the sun light up the volcano’s crater at dawn. (Online reservations are now required for sunrise viewing.) Sunrise and sunset are also the only times to see the mountain shadow phenomenon – a perfectly triangular shadow in the sky. Don’t stop there: the summit of Haleakala has over 30 miles of hiking trails taking you in and around the craters, and backcountry hikers can reserve one of three historic cabins for an overnight shelter. Word to the wise: bring a jacket. Haleakala’s peak is just over 10,000ft, it occasionally snows and is nearly always chillier than visitors expect.
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
If you’re a national park fan of any sort, head to Alaska: the state has eight of them, the top four by size and some of the least-visited parks in the US. It all comes down to access. For most of the parks, there is little to no road access: plane or boat are your only options. Kenai Fjords National Park is slightly easier, as it’s close to Anchorage and accessible by road (at least in part). For a short visit, explore Exit Glacier, the one area you can drive to. For those willing to brave an icy hike, the Harding Icefield Trail is one of the most memorable adventure day hikes in the entire national park network. But to do Kenai Fjords right, you really need to hit the water; boat tours take you into the namesake fjords, and kayakers can explore iceberg-filled bays while getting close to seals, whales and other wildlife.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
In 2014, a Winchester rifle was discovered leaning against a juniper tree in Great Basin National Park. Who left it there and why they never came back remains a mystery, but it was likely leaning there since the 1880s. The fact that no one found it in all that time hints at just how quiet this park is. Just west of the border with Utah, and just south of US 50 (often called the loneliest road in America), you don’t find yourself at Great Basin by accident. The effort pays off. Wheeler Peak towers 13,000ft over the surrounding desert, with campgrounds set in lush aspen forests and trails leading into the alpine habitat of the peak. Daily guided tours take visitors into the vast, rippling wonderland of Lehman Caves, with its Parachute Shield formation reminiscent of a giant glittering oyster mushroom. In the fall, visitors come to collect prized pine nuts from the single-leaf pinyon pine that grows here.
From Arches to Zion, all of the southern Utah parks have become increasingly popular over the past decade, and rightfully so – the landscape is as photogenic as it comes. But Utah’s largest, Canyonlands National Park, is also its emptiest. What keeps the crowds away? No lodging, no food, limited water sources. What you get in return for roughing it is more than a fair trade: over 500 sq miles of canyons, views from the Island in the Sky mesa lifted 1000ft above the surrounding land, towering needles of striated sandstone and some of the best-preserved rock art in North America. Once you’ve seen the view from on high, try the river; local outfitters offer a range of floats through the deep-cut canyons of the Colorado and Green Rivers for all levels of experience.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Seven tiny islands in the Florida Keys, warm blue waters, a massive 19th-century fort and zero crowds – this is what awaits savvy visitors to Dry Tortugas National Park. Fort Jefferson, built in the mid-1800s to protect the busy shipping lane between the Gulf Coast and the cities of the US’s eastern seaboard, takes up the majority of Garden Key, where a fast ferry service deposits visitors. Surrounded by a moat, the fort is a giant hexagon that you can explore on your own. Dry Tortugas can be visited as a day trip, but campers are in for a rare treat: a quiet beach on an otherwise empty Florida island, and stargazing from the moat wall. The ferry service to the island needs to be booked well in advance.
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