Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Lesser-Known US National Parks For Your Bucket List

While parks like the Grand Canyon or the Great Smoky Mountains attract millions of visitors every year, there are many more places in the United States’ national parks system that don’t nearly get the attention they deserve.

Home to 63 national parks, the United States has many incredible natural places to visit that offer exceptional outdoor destinations. Most people tend to lean towards visiting the most iconic ones, but with so many on the list, there are a few that don’t really see as many visitors, either because they’re somewhat remote or simply because they are rarely marketed.

Whether you’ve been to the popular national parks already, missed out on timed reservations at the most popular parks, or you’re simply looking to do something a little bit different, here’s a list of some seriously underrated national parks you’ve got to visit!

9 National Parks You May Have Never Heard Of

1. Dry Tortugas National Park

Location: Florida

If white sandy beaches and sapphire blue waters sound like your idea of a perfect vacation, you don’t need to visit the Caribbean or the Maldives in order to get just that!

Chances are you haven’t heard of Dry Tortugas National Park, and that’s totally okay – even most Floridians don’t know about it!

USA National Parks Lesser Known - Dry Tortugas

Dry Tortugas remains a hidden gem in Florida due to the fact that getting there isn’t exactly the easiest of tasks. In order to reach this national park, you’ll either need to take a ferry from Key West or a seaplane, which pretty much guarantees you’ll get the park almost all to yourself!

This national park is actually made up of 99% water, with only 1% of it being set on land. In order to explore the underwater side of Dry Tortugas, you can snorkel or dive to see colorful coral reefs and insane amounts of marine life thriving and kicking.

Entrance Fee: $15 per person (over 16 years of age) good for 7 days – included in ferry ticket from Key West, or pay on arrival cash if coming via seaplane. Camping is additional and must be pre-booked.

Operating Season: Open 24 hours throughout the year, although some islands are seasonally closed for breeding. Note hurricane season warnings may also be in effect from June to November.

2. Isle Royale National Park

Location: Michigan

Isle Royale is located in the middle of Lake Superior in the state of Michigan. While this may not sound like much, its location is pretty remote, which means the only way to reach this park is via seaplane or boat.

Despite the unbeatable beauty the landscapes at Isle Royale boast, it still remains pretty untouched by tourism, which means the nature and scenery you’ll find here are as raw as they can get. (In 2021 it was the 7th least-visited National Park in the US – and the second least-visited in the lower 48!)

USA National Parks Lesser Known - Isle Royale

Isle Royal harbors tons of amazing things to do, ranging from glorious hiking trials to scuba diving adventures. Moreover, there are also plenty of historic lighthouses and copper mining sites to explore in case you also want to get a dose of history on your national park visit.

A few highlights of visiting include scuba diving or snorkeling in order to see actual shipwrecks, hitting a few hiking trails, or spending a day or two canoeing and kayaking in order to explore the many islands that make up the park.

Entrance Fee: $7 per person, per day (ages 16 and up); Annual passes available for $60 (covering groups up to 4) or covered with America the Beautiful and other annual passes. If you don’t have your own boat you will also be paying for a ferry or private transportation.

Operating Season: Isle Royale National Park is open from April 16 through October 31. The island is closed from November 1 through April 15 annually due to extreme winter weather conditions. 

3. Voyageurs National Park

Location: Minnesota

Located almost on the Canadian Border in Minnesota, Voyageurs is one of the best-kept secrets of the northern United States, having received less than 300,000 visitors even during its busiest year!

The park is made up of a series of waterways that are interconnected, as well as several lakes. In fact, over 40 percent of the park is set on the water!

USA National Parks Lesser Known - Voyageurs

Voyageurs also offers the unique chance to see the Northern Lights, something that is not very common in the United States other than in Alaska. This makes Voyageurs a must if you’ve always wanted to see the aurora borealis but don’t necessarily want to leave the Lower 48.

Aside from offering all sorts of water activities like boating, fishing, kayaking, houseboats, and just about everything in between, Voyageurs also offers tons of adventures you can enjoy on foot. Hiking is prime here, and camping is pretty much out of this world, considering Voyageurs offers some of the clearest night skies in the country.

Moreover, wildlife spotting is a real treat here, with species like bears, foxes, and wolves commonly spotted inside the park, especially around the Gold Portage area, which you can reach on a canoe!

Entrance Fee: Free! (camping and houseboat permits are required, as well as boat tour reservation fees apply).

Operating Season: Year-round. Summer is boating whilst in winter, the park is transformed into a frozen lake making for a great Minnesota road trip. Icy conditions can make the park inaccessible in the should seasons, so bear weather warnings in mind.

4. Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

Location: Colorado

Sand dunes probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Colorado, which makes this park even more special than it already is!

USA National Parks Lesser Known - Great Sand Dunes

This national park homes the tallest sand dunes in North America, some of which rise higher than 700 feet! While that makes Great Sand Dunes incredible enough to visit, when you add the fact that these sand dunes are towered over 14,000 feet snow-capped peaks, you’re guaranteed a contrast of landscapes that feels almost out of this world.

During your visit, you’ll get to stand over the tallest sand dune in North America, sled down enormous dunes, go on a 4×4 drive across the desert, and camp under a billion stars (this national park offers incredible night skies!).

Entrance Fee: $25 per private vehicle valid for 7 days

Operating Season: Open 24/7 throughout the year but do take note of potential adverse weather from fall to spring. Some campgrounds closed in winter due to frigid conditions.

5. New River Gorge National Park

Location: West Virginia

Having only received its national park status in 2021, New River Gorge is fresh on everyone’s radar.

The park is far from unvisited, especially considering it received over a million visits in 2021. Still, however, for most people outside West Virginia, it still remains a shiny new park to check out in the system.

USA National Parks Lesser Known - New River Gorge

New River Gorge is mostly made up of an Appalachian canyon that offers plenty of opportunities to explore the 70,000 acres of land the park encompassed. From climbing on sandstone cliffs to going whitewater rafting to hiking, you’ll hardly get bored while exploring this brand new national park.

Entrance Fee: Free

Operating Season: Open year-round

6. Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Location: Colorado

Often nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Rocky Mountains”, this massive canyon plunges a whopping 3,000 feet down into the ground.

The entire scenery you’ll find at Black Canyon of the Gunnison will make you feel almost as if you traveled back in time to the dinosaur era. One of the things that is extremely unique about the Black Canyon is the fact that, due to its deepness, the walls of the canyon only see 33 minutes of sun every day. This is why it received that name!

USA National Parks Lesser Known - Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Driving the park’s Rim Drive is one of the easiest ways to explore this unique national park. The drive offers 12 scenic lookout points to the canyon, from where you’ll be able to get an idea of how deep it actually is. Other ways to explore are by going on a whitewater rafting adventure or canoeing in order to get an up-close view of the canyon.

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even hike down to the bottom of the canyon. This trail takes about 5 hours to complete and is considered pretty challenging, but worth the effort as you’ll get a brand new perspective of the canyon. There’s actually a campsite at the bottom of Black Canyon in case you’re feeling up for a night of a lifetime!

Entrance Fee: $30 private vehicle pass valid for 7 days.

Operating Season: year-round. Winter open daily from 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM (Temporary weather closures possible), Spring open daily from 9:00 Am to 4:00 PM. Summer open daily 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM.

7. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Location: Alaska

Covering over 13 million acres of land, Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest national park in the United States and also one of the least visited with only about 70,000 visitors every year. In fact, you’ll probably see more animals like wolves, moose, and grizzly bears than you will see people!

USA National Parks Lesser Known - Wrangell St Elias

Home to four mountain ranges, some of the tallest peaks in the country, and the biggest system of glaciers in the country, Wrangell St. Elias wins plenty of prizes when it comes to adventures to offer!

Here, you’ll be treated to plenty of scenic roads to drive over, get the chance to go whitewater rafting over an extremely unique landscape, and even hike or go ice climbing over a humongous glacier called Root Glacier. There’s also an amazing backpacking trail known as the Skolai Pass, which offers views of the canyon, waterfalls, and more.

Entrance Fee: Free!

Operating Season: No entrance stations and it is public land so theoretically open year-round, but the season really only runs mid-May to mid-September for accessibility.

8. Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Location: Texas

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is home to the tallest mountain in Texas, expansive deserts, gorgeous canyons, and seas of sand dunes, making it a mecca for those keen to explore the wilderness in a desertic setting.

USA National Parks Lesser Known - Guadalupe Mountains

Plus, Guadalupe Mountains is extra interesting if you’re into paleontology. Because the region was once submerged underwater, it’s possible to see a lot of fossils of reefs and ancient marine animals encapsulated in the rocks all over the park.

Entrance Fee: $10 per person (over 16 years old) valid for 7 consecutive days.

Operating Season: Year-round.

9. Biscayne National Park

Location: Florida

If you want a mix of beach and nature on your next national park visit, Biscayne National Park has the best of both worlds.

This national park is located at the start of the alluring Florida Keys. The park is actually set 95% underwater, which means you need to swim, dive, or snorkel in order to see most of its highlights. If you’re not too keen on doing that, though, there are also glass-bottom boats available, from where you can see some of what’s underneath the water.

USA National Parks Lesser Known - Biscayne

Of course, exploring on land is also an option, with several islands spread out all over the park that make up the remaining 5% of it. You can either take a hike, search for wildlife, or simply relax over the white sandy beaches of Biscayne!

Entrance Fee: Free entry but $25 per night to camp. Boat tours and snorkeling trips will be charged separately.

Operating Season: Open 24 hours year round.

By The Numbers – The Least Visited US National Parks

If you truly want to beat the crowds and up for an adventure, these were the least visited parks in 2021, according to the National Parks Service

National Park NameStateVisitors 2021
Gates of the Arctic National ParkAlaska7,362
National Park of American SamoaAmerican Samoa8,495
Kobuk Valley National ParkAlaska11,540
North Cascades National ParkWashington17,855
Lake Clark National Park Alaska18,278
Katmai National ParkAlaska24,764
Isle Royale National ParkMichigan25,844
Wrangell-St. Elias National ParkAlaska50,189
Dry Tortugas National ParkFlorida83,817
Glacier Bay National ParkAlaska89,768

It’s no surprise that most of these are pretty remote; inaccessible to most vehicles, you’ll need combinations of boats, light aircraft, and helicopters to get to these incredible protected lands – and in many cases, a fair bit of cash!

If you’re interested in learning more about the most remote national parks in Alaska, check out our complete guide to Every Alaska National Park.

More National Park Road Trip Inspiration

Undoubtedly adding a national park visit to any US road trip itinerary is a highlight, you may also be interested to check out:

Have you heard of any of these underrated national parks in the United States? If you know of any others that are also worth visiting, please feel free to recommend them in the comment section below!

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