In 2009, more than 285 million people traveled to U.S. national parks. High visitation numbers are great news for the national parks, most of which rely heavily on admissions fees for revenue. But for those of us seeking isolated mountain trails and deserted, wind-swept beaches, masses of fellow park-goers can be a bit of a bummer.
Travelers who've trekked the popular trails in some of the most visited national parks -- Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Zion -- on a summer Saturday morning have seen the crawling crowds that descend upon the nation's most famous parks in high season.
If you're seeking a quieter national park experience, it's a good idea to travel to your favorite park during shoulder season, (the period between peak and off-peak season) or even low season (which for most parks is during winter). Even better, you can plan a trip to a less traveled national park, where crowds are sparse throughout the year
Most of the less-traveled national parks see smaller numbers of visitors due to limited accessibility and services. Some have vast expanses of wilderness with no roads or lodging. Others can only be accessed by boat or plane. But these more isolated national parks offer fascinating natural features and an abundance of wildlife, and boast beautiful landscapes on par with the most popular parks -- from magnificent sweeping canyons to fertile tropical rain forests.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Isle Royale National Park is only accessible by boat or seaplane, which explains why this gorgeous, isolated archipelago of islands in Lake Superior sees just 14,000 visitors per year. The misty main island, Isle Royale, is the perfect place to retreat from civilization. There are no roads here, and wheeled vehicles -- including bikes -- are not permitted in the park.
Those who make their way by water or air from nearby Michigan or Minnesota will undoubtedly find this unspoiled natural haven well worth the trip. Visitors can explore sunken vessels by diving in the island's surrounding waters, kayak on foggy inland waterways or hike through bogs and thick forests, where it's common to spot indigenous animals like wolves and moose.
It's nearly impossible to see Isle Royale in a day, so most visits to the park include a few nights' camping or a stay at Rock Harbor Lodge, the only hotel on the island. For those less comfortable exploring an island wilderness independently, organized activities from fishing charters to ranger-led sightseeing trips are available in the park.
Those who equate national parks with grand American mountain ranges and historic pioneer trails may be surprised to learn there's a U.S. national park in the South Pacific. National Park of American Samoa is a relatively new park (established in 1988) that has spectacular tropical scenery, plus extensive coral reefs and paleotropical rain forests. One of the park's most unique features is its home-stay program, a fantastic opportunity to learn about the Samoan culture, Polynesia's oldest civilization. Visitors can live like true South Pacific locals by becoming houseguests of participating Samoan hosts and taking part in village activities such as weaving and cooking.