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!

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