By Nicholas DeRenzo
The Active Times
As snow finally melts on the mountains, animals come out of their cold-weather slumber, and kids start their school break, summer in America’s most popular national parks might remind you of being in a crowded theme park: long queues of cars at entrance gates, jockeying for position in cramped parking lots, elbowing aside fellow tourists for a front-row seat at Old Faithful or El Capitan or the Grand Canyon.
The comparison might be truer now than ever before. In 2012, more than 282 million people visited America’s national parks, up more than 3 million from the previous year. This represents the sixth highest annual visitation in the National Park Service’s history. And keep in mind that 70 park sites on the Atlantic Coast were closed down in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, greatly diminishing possible visitor numbers for the year. The takeaway? This year could be poised to break all-time visitation records.
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These statistics usually inspire dual reactions in American travelers. On the one hand, it's heartening to hear that Americans are taking advantage of what documentarian Ken Burns calls "America's best idea." On the other, who likes a crowd?
But you’re in luck! While the Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw just short of 10 million visitors last year and blockbusters like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone each attracted millions of their own, all parks are not created equal. In fact, some of the National Park Service’s hidden gems have been known to attract fewer visitors in an entire year than more popular parks see on one crowded summer day.
There are a number of factors that can make a national park under-the-radar, from extreme geographic isolation (in the Arctic Circle or the middle of the South Pacific) to accessibility issues (some are only reached by foot, boat, seaplane or bush plane) to relative youth (Pinnacles National Park is less than a year old).
But no matter the cause, one thing's for sure: You're going to love having these parks practically all to yourself!
2012 visitors: 352,517
Known for -- you guessed it -- its towering Redwood trees (some of which approach 400 feet tall!), this northern California gem is also home to open prairies, oak forests, wild rivers and 40 miles of rugged, unsoiled Pacific coastline. Despite being on the California coast, this park is even more isolated than the relatively empty Lost Coast. That makes it perfect for exploring the peaceful trails that wind through hushed Redwood groves, ogling herds of Roosevelt elk and checking out the open-air aquariums of the coastal tide pools.
2012 visitors: 292,055
Located more than six hours from the closest (American) city, it's no wonder this southwest Texas park doesn't get too many visitors. But it’s a Chihuahuan Desert wonderland, stretching from the lofty, 7,000-plus-foot peaks of the Chisos Mountains to the spectacular, 1,500-foot-deep canyons of the Rio Grande. Take advantage of a float trip at the start of the rainy season in July, when afternoon and evening rains cool the desert and feed the mighty Big River. Or backpack the cool Chisos—where temps can be 20-plus degrees cooler than at water's edge -- keeping a keen eye out for mountain lions. At night, gaze at the Milky Way and, on any given night, faint meteors streaking across the great big West Texas sky.
2012 visitors: 254,674
This 44,000-acre park is home to 750-foot-tall sand dunes—the tallest in North America—which, set against the backdrop of 13,000-plus-foot Rocky Mountain peaks, lend it an otherworldly atmosphere. Funny, then, that it’s only a four-hour drive from Denver. Trek across the high desert dunescape, and sled down the sand mountains (the Park Service offers visitors beta on when to go) for a novelty adrenaline rush. When the afternoon sun turns the sand a scorching hot 150ºF, try wading in Medano Creek or soaking in the sounds of nature—a 2008 Soundscape Study by the NPS showed that Great Sand Dunes is the quietest of all the national parks.
2012 visitors: 10,440
With its tropical rainforests, mountains full of endangered flying foxes, and reefs boasting more than 800 native fish species and 200 types of coral, this chain of three South Pacific volcanic islands is so wild that it makes Hawaii look positively Middle American by comparison. Though the natural world beckons travelers, it’s the unique Samoan culture here that truly sets this place apart. Engage with locals by taking part in the park's homestay program, during which you can live with a Samoan family, collect giant clams along the shore, spearfish for octopus, or weave baskets with pandanus leaves.
2012 visitors: 214,841
To explore this vast 84,000-acre network of interconnected lakes, streams and ponds along the Minnesota-Ontario border, it’s best to take your inspiration from the namesake voyageurs, French-Canadian fur traders who plied these waters in birchbark canoes during the 17th and 18th centuries. Nowadays, you’ll have your choice of houseboat, rowboat or guided tour boat, though the tried-and-true canoe or kayak may still be the most intimate way to get up close and personal with the loons, beavers and otters that call these waters and 655 miles of shoreline home.
2012 visitors: 224,476
Just over an hour drive from Monterey in the scrubby chaparral east of Central California’s Salinas Valley, Pinnacles National Park is far from inaccessible. With its dramatic landscape of boulder caves, canyons and spires left over from the eroded remains of an ancient volcano, it might come as quite a surprise that Pinnacles doesn’t rank higher on the list of most-visited national parks. While rock climbers have known about this craggy playground for years, many Americans heard about this place for the first time in January, when Barack Obama upgraded the area from a national monument to America’s newest national park.
2012 visitors: 249,594
Think of Southern California’s Channel Islands as America’s answer to the Galapagos Islands—a nature lover’s bucket list must-see, where geographic isolation has allowed evolution to occur separately from the mainland and even independently among each of the islands in the chain. The result is 145 species of plants and animals, including the island fox and the island deer mouse, that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet. As might be expected, one of the best places to commune with the island’s fauna is along the coast, where you’ll be able to spot sea lions, seals and 27 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises.
2012 visitors: 192,570
At almost two billions years old, the steep, ultra-narrow walls of western Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison are among the oldest exposed rock in the world. These geological wonders quite literally overshadow everything else here: The walls are so steep and the canyon so deep that sunlight only reaches the bottom a few hours each day, casting the walls in the dark shadows that give the canyon its colorful name. The nearly vertical cliffs, which reach a height of 2,722 feet from floor to rim, are best left for experienced rock climbers. Amateurs should stick to the three scenic drives, from which you can look out for ravens, golden eagles and Peregrine falcons riding the wind.
2012 visitors: 109,685
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about South Carolina’s Congaree National Park is that it managed to escape the chainsaw for so long: The park is a lumberjack’s dream, encompassing the Southeast’s largest expanse of valuable old-growth bottomland hardwoods like bald cypress and water tupelo. Luckily, thanks to accessibility issues caused by the floodplain’s near-permanent wet conditions—and later the intervention of the Sierra Club—the forest was allowed to thrive. The watery landscape is now best explored by kayak or canoe, which you can rent in nearby Columbia.
2012 visitors: 159,360
Hiking through the deserts, canyons and mountains of this West Texas national park, a thriving tropical reef might be the furthest thing from your mind. But this arid landscape hides an ancient secret: More than 250 million years ago, this entire area was completely underwater, leaving behind one of the best-preserved marine fossil reefs on Earth. As you explore its 80 miles of trails or climb to the state’s highest point, the 8,751-foot-tall Guadalupe Peak, see if you can spot the thousands of fossils of algae, coral, snails, sea urchins and sponges that incongruously dot the widely bone-dry landscape.
2012 visitors: 94,850
Located in the underexplored wilderness on the Nevada-Utah border, Great Basin may be one of the only national parks that looks better with the lights turned off: Thanks to its combination of high elevations and extremely low light pollution, the area is considered the best place in the continental U.S. to see the Milky Way, in addition to astronomical wonders like five planets, thousands of stars, meteors, man-made satellites and the Andromeda Galaxy. Luckily, the park also boasts an all-star lineup during the daylight hours, including the 13,063-foot-tall Wheeler Peak, more than 40 stalactite-filled caves, one of the southernmost glaciers in the United States, and a remarkably ancient—we’re talking thousands of years old!—collection of bristlecone pines.
2012 visitors: 10,899
Five of the 10 least visited national parks in the United States are, as you might expect, in remote Alaska. But perhaps the most far-flung of all is the northernmost park in the system, Gates of the Arctic, which is accessible only by bush plane or (with very careful planning) by foot. The park is located entirely above the Arctic Circle, meaning you’ll often see the aurora borealis in the dark winter months while summer brings weeks during which the sun never sets. The wildlife leans appropriately toward the big, bushy and equipped-for-the-cold, so you just might run into muskoxen, moose, caribou or grizzly bears during your stay.
2012 visitors: 26,935
You’ll be forgiven if you confuse Washington’s North Cascades National Park for a scene right out of Switzerland: With its jagged, glacier-topped peaks, pine-forested valleys, green meadows and mirror-still lakes and ponds, it’s not hard to see why this range has earned its nickname of the American Alps. Spanning over 9,000 vertical feet, the park encompasses a wildly diverse range of ecosystems, from temperate rainforests to dry ponderosa pine. As a result, the park can support the largest number of plant species of any American national park at about 1,630, in addition to animals like the ubiquitous banana slug and easy-to-spot mountainside critters like hoary marmots and pikas.
2012 visitors: 60,550
Located some 70 miles west of Key West, Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park is closer to Cuba than it is to mainland America. Its strategic location explains why it houses Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the country, built between 1846 and 1875 to guard the Gulf of Mexico. The seven small islands are accessible only by boat or seaplane, but this isolation has left teeming coral and sea grass communities. The archipelago is a favorite among sea turtles who nest on its shores and gave their name to the islands as early as 1513, when Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León landed here.
2012 visitors: 16,663
Wild, isolated, and only reachable by boat or seaplane, this 45-mile-long island in the middle of Lake Superior sees fewer visitors in a year than Yellowstone sees in a day, making it the least-visited national park in the continental U.S. But those who do make the trek out here tend to stay rather than simply pass on through -- Isle Royale boasts the highest backcountry overnight use per square acre of any national park. Perhaps its most famous residents are the moose and wolves, whose cat-and-mouse game has been the subject of the longest-running predator-prey study in the world since 1958.
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