Offbeat Adventure

4 of the Best Adventures in America's Least-Visited National Parks

The difference is striking: In 2017, more than 11 million people visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park. How many people visited Gates of the Arctic National Park? Just over 11,000 — three orders of magnitude difference. But that's not because Gates of the Arctic is any less glorious than Great Smoky Mountains. The latter is within spitting distance of Nashville, Tennessee, while the former is inaccessible from major roads.

Many parks face the same fate as Gates of the Arctic. Through a combination of them being far away from population centers, hard to get to, or lacking convenient infrastructure, a handful of parks have fallen through the cracks. But that doesn't mean there aren't bucket-list-worthy adventures in each of them. Below, we give you five of the U.S. National Park Service's underdogs, numbered by their ranks on the most (or should we say least?) visited list.

Number 54: Dry Tortugas National Park

Almost 67 miles (108 kilometers) west of Key West, Florida, the Dry Tortugas were one of the most important strategic spots in the Caribbean in the mid- to late-19th century, guarding the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico and one of America's busiest shipping lanes — connecting the East Coast and Gulf towns like New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola. The best way to protect them? One of the world's largest forts. Built between 1846 and 1875, the hexagonal Fort Jefferson was never completed or even fully armed, but the fort — and the deepwater harbor that it protected — was a critical base during and after the Civil War. It even served as the prison that held Dr. Samuel Mudd, a co-conspirator with John Wilkes Booth in Abraham Lincoln's assassination, and the man that reset Booth's broken leg after the murder.

The park itself is less than 1 percent dry land, so the best way to explore it is by water. Paddle 3 miles (5 kilometers) west of the fort to Loggerhead Key, the park's largest island and a great spot to jump in for some snorkeling among coral reefs and shipwrecks or swimming along the numerous white sandy beaches that dot the shore.

Number 56: North Cascades National Park

The fact that North Cascades saw only 30,000 visitors in 2017 is a bit of a mystery. Its miles of snow-capped peaks interspersed with glaciers and alpine tarns, its endless pitches of rock climbing and mountaineering, some of the best hiking in this part of the country, and an only three-hour drive from Seattle make North Cascades a no-brainer. Maybe its kryptonite is the fact that it's also competing with Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks, also just a short drive away. But either way, North Cascades is a gem of the Pacific Northwest.

Hiking up to the Sahale Arm might be one of the better ways to get deep into the area, too. The 11.5-mile (18.5-kilometer) round trip (with 3,800 feet/1 kilometer of elevation gain) will see you climbing up stacking switchbacks to one of the most jaw-dropping panoramas in the park, offering views of jumbled mountains and hanging glaciers from the toe of the Sahale Glacier.

Time Lapse from North Cascades National Park

Number 57: Isle Royale National Park

In the middle of Lake Superior, Isle Royale is actually closer to Canada than it is to Michigan, but it's still no more than a six-hour boat ride on what the Park Service touts as the "largest piece of moving equipment owned and operated by the National Park Service." Rugged, rocky shores, countless coves, and the dueling moose and wolves make it a unique place for backpackers and hikers.

You'll see most of the length by hiking the 27-mile (43-kilometer) Minong Ridge Trail along the island's northern shore from McCargoe Cove to Windingo. The rocky ridge is dotted with views out over rocky inlets and inland lakes inhabited by loons.

Number 60: Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

This one might be understandable, but only because of how difficult it is to get into. From Fairbanks, you can take a bush flight (across the Arctic Circle) into Anaktuvuk Pass, an Eskimo village within the park, or you can drive up an unpaved oil pipeline road and hike into the park — but there are no roads that will get you directly there. Which is a shame, considering the snaking rivers winding through rugged peaks, rocky passes, and glacially carved basins, and the herds of caribou ambling through the meadows.

Backpack along the North Fork Koyukuk River to where it sneaks between Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain, which stand like sentries on either side of the river. In the 1920s and 30s, explorer Robert Marshall named the scene the "Gates of the Arctic" for their doorway-like position in the transition from the Brooks Range mountains into Alaska's far north tundra.

Enjoy the view before you take the journey with the gorgeous book, "America's National Parks: A Photographic Tour of all 59 of Our Greatest Natural Treasures" by Matt Noble and Aaron Lanni. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ryan Wichelns August 22, 2018

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