The National Park Service (NPS) is celebrating its centennial this year by offering free admission to all NPS sites from August 25 to 28. If you want to take advantage of the free admission but skip the crowds, consider visiting one of these lesser-known national parks. Each of the following five parks received less than a quarter of a million visitors last year, which amounts for less than 1 percent of all national park visitors. For comparison, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (the most visited park of 2015), received nearly 6 million visitors just on its own.
1. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
It’s a prime location for coral reef snorkeling, and the Dry Tortugas National Park is a great choice for history buffs. Fort Jefferson, which served as a federal prison following the Civil War, is located on one of the seven islands that make up the park. Ponce de Leon named these islands Las Tortugas (Spanish for “The Turtles”) during his famed trip to Florida to discover the Fountain of Youth in 1513. Dry Tortugas can only be reached via boat or seaplane—and know there are no bathrooms, trash sites, or concessions on the islands. Be prepared to pack in and pack out! (The ferry bathrooms are accessible for park visitors.)
2. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Source: Carl TerHaar
Isle Royale National Park received less than 20,000 visitors last year, making it one of the five least visited national parks in the entire country. This is partly because the park is located in Lake Superior and only accessible by boat, but once on the island, adventure abounds for backpackers, hikers, kayakers, and scuba divers. Most visitors spend a few days enjoying Isle Royale, but it is possible to do day trips to Rock Harbor or Windigo if you don’t have a long weekend to devote to exploring. There is also lodging available at those locations for visitors who do not wish to camp.
3. Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado
Source: Nina Mayer Ritchie
Unlike the Grand Canyon National Park, which was the second-most popular national park last year with 5.5 million visitors, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison received just over 200,000 visitors in 2015, which means more beautiful vistas and quiet hiking trails for you! This little-known canyon, located in western Colorado, is deeper in some spots than it is wide, which leads to quite impressive views. The park offers trails along the rim of the canyon and strenuous hikes down into the river, as well as expert rock climbing routes. Summer is an excellent time to visit the Black Canyon, as access to the North Rim is closed during the winter.
4. Pinnacles National Park, California
Source: Inspired Imperfection
Pinnacles National Park is the least visited of California’s nine national parks, perhaps because it was just upgraded to “National Park” status from “National Monument” in 2013. If you are in central California, consider skipping the crowds at the popular Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, both located within a few hours of Pinnacles, and explore this mountainous park instead. Popular activities include rock climbing, hiking, and bird watching. Know that central California can be quite warm in August, with daily temperatures reaching 100 degrees, so plan accordingly!
5. North Cascades, Washington
Source: Cameron Anderson
Located just a few hours outside Seattle, North Cascades National Park boasts lush forests, expansive meadows, and hundreds of glaciers, with scenic mountain vistas, gorgeous waterfalls (hence the park’s name) and more than 400 miles of hiking trails. Summer is an ideal time to visit the North Cascades because you have a good chance at catching a rare sunny day in the PNW, but average daily temperatures in August top out in the high 70s.
Source: Jonathan Irish
Other little visited national parks you might consider include Congaree National Park in South Carolina, Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas (pictured above), Great Basin National Park in Nevada, and the National Park of American Samoa.
When deciding how you want to celebrate 100 years of the National Park Service, don’t forget the NPS includes more than just parks! In addition to the 59 designated national parks, the National Park System also includes national monuments, battlefields, historic sites, seashores, and recreation areas—more than 400 sites total. Find your park and start planning your August excursion today!