8 National Parks to Get You Off the Beaten Track

A cove in Santa Cruz Island

David Wan / Santa Cruz island of the Channel Island National Park in California

If you are a traveler who likes to get off the beaten track and escape crowds of enthusiastic tourists seeking Instagram-worthy nature shots, then you should learn about the least-visited national parks in the United States. Many Americans do not know about these places — not because they lack natural beauty, but because they are overshadowed by their more famous counterparts which tend to be at the top of everyone’s bucket lists. National Geographic recently published a list of 10 lesser-known national parks in the U.S., which has served as inspiration for this slideshow, along with some TreeHugger staff-sourced suggestions. Make one of these parks a destination for your next camping trip and you’ll discover an especially stunning and uncrowded place.

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Great Basin National Park

credit: Great Basin National Park

Located in Nevada near the Utah border, about a 5-hour drive from Las Vegas, Great Basin National Park is known for its groves of ancient bristlecone pines and numerous limestone caves. The caves are unusual for their profuse natural decorations: “Stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, flowstone, popcorn, and other formations cover almost every surface of the cave.” Great Basin’s name comes from the fact that it’s a hydrological region, where all precipitation (rain or snowmelt) flows into a basin that either evaporates or drains into an aquifer, never reaching the ocean. It is one of the youngest national parks, created in 1986 by the Reagan administration.

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Voyageurs National Park

credit: jck_photos -- Rainy Lake at Voyageurs National Park

You don’t need to travel to Scandinavia for spectacular northern lights. Just make a trip to Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, where the night sky is one of the darkest in the country and you’ll be able to see meteors, planets, the moon, the Milky Way, and, of course, a stunning show of the aurora borealis. [Watch this amazing video to see what happens in this park.] The park, which covers more than 340 square miles, is at the southernmost tip of the boreal forest. Its focal point is the ancient waterways that once carried the fur-trading voyageurs to their destinations and have now become the playground of park visitors.

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Congaree National Park

credit: Ken Lund -- The lower boardwalk trail in Congaree National Park

Another young park, created in just 2003, Congaree is located 20 miles southeast of Columbia, South Carolina. It is a floodplain forest that floods about ten times each year, “the largest contiguous tract of old-growth bottomland hardwoods in the United States.” Take a hike through the lush backcountry full of Spanish moss, deer, woodpeckers, bobcats, and river otters. Go on a nighttime ‘owl prowl’ with a guide to hear owls calling and see glowing fungi on the cypress trees. Congaree is a national monument dedicated to the diverse bird life that can be found there.

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North Cascades National Park

credit: U.S. Geological Survey -- A winter view of North Cascades National Park

Located only three hours north of Seattle by car, this beautiful mountainous park boasts 300 glaciers among its jagged peaks — approximately one-third of all the glaciers located in the lower 48 states. Despite this astonishing claim to fame, National Geographic points out that North Cascades receives 25,000 visitors per year compared to the 2 million annual visitors that flock to Montana’s Glacier National Park, with only 25 glaciers. North Cascades features diverse ecosystems that range from wet rainforest on the park’s west side to dry ponderosa pine in the east.

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Dry Tortugas National Park

credit: Snorkelling Dives -- Diving around the old piers on Dry Tortugas

Called ‘dry’ because they lack fresh surface water, this national park is actually a series of seven small islands located 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. Its focal point is the immense Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry structure in the Western hemisphere, built in the 19th century. Most of Dry Tortugas’ attraction, however, is in the water that makes up 99 percent of the park’s official area. Swimming, snorkelling, and diving will reveal spectacular coral reefs, shipwrecks, diverse marine life, and birds. Camping is available on the same island as the Fort. Islands are accessible by boat or seaplane.

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Canyonlands National Park

credit: Murray Foubister -- The Needles area of Canyonlands National Park

National Geographic points out that Canyonlands, near Moah, Utah, has always been upstaged by its more famous neighbours, Grand Canyon to the south and Arches to the north; and yet it merits a visit just as much as they do. Ancient waters and relentless winds have carved intricate canyons, pillars, stairs, and narrow paths through the sandstone, creating a stunning park that’s best explored on foot or bicycle. There are very few paved roads throughout the park’s 527 square miles.

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Channel Islands

credit: Ken Lund -- A view of Santa Cruz Island of the Channel Islands, California

This unusual national park features five islands off the coast of California, as well as a marine sanctuary that extends for six nautical miles around each of the islands. The purpose of the sanctuary is to preserve the astonishingly diverse wildlife that lives on the Channel Islands, including kelp forests. Writes National Geographic, “The islands shelter the only breeding colony of northern fur seals south of Alaska.” Camping is available at National Park Service-managed campgrounds; backcountry options are also available. Year-round transportation to the island is available, although visitors are responsible for their own locomotion on the island, whether it’s on foot, private boat, or by kayak.

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Gates of the Arctic National Park

credit: Paxson Woelber -- The beautiful backcountry of Gates of the Arctic National Park

The second northernmost national park in the U.S., located entirely above the Arctic Circle, this immense, 8.4 million-acre preserve is nearly the size of Switzerland, and yet sees only around 10,000 visitors per year. Those visitors, however, are told by the National Park Service that they must be self-reliant, knowledgeable about survival skill, and flexible, because there is no one else around to help out, should an emergency arise. The scenery is incredible, filled with mountains, valleys, rivers, and lakes, as well as moose, caribou, muskox, and grizzlies. This is a park worth preparing for over the course of many years.