Off Season and Under the Radar

Enjoying our national parks while avoiding the crowds

National parks are becoming more and more popular. Last year, they received a total of 297.1 million recreation visits. More people means longer delays at the entrance gates, filled parking lots, no vacancy at campsites, and crowded trails. But if you’re in the right place, at the right time, you can still get some alone time in one of our great national parks.

The Right Place
Of the 423 National Park Sites in the system, just 25 (6%) received more than 50% of the system’s total visitors. The most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, had 15.9 million visitors. Number 10, Glacier National Park, received 2.9 million. That’s a lot of people, but it also means there are a lot of parks that aren’t overrun with visitors! Here’s a list of some of our favorite, and least visited, National Parks:

Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, Alaska (11,000 Recreation Visits)
Lying entirely north of the Arctic Circle, at the northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains, 200 miles north of Fairbanks, Gates of the Arctic is massive, with a total of 8.4 million acres. This is true wilderness: there are no roads, no trails, no campsite and, of course, no cell service. The only way in and out is by plane.

The landscape is covered by sparse black spruce forests, boreal forest, and arctic tundra. Wildlife includes large portions of the Western Arctic caribou herd, moose, dall sheep, wolverines, wolves, and grizzly and black bears. The Arrigetch Peaks are the most famous section of the park with their mesmerizing, jagged granite spires. Summers are short, but the days are long. Winter days are short, and the temperatures can plunge to -50° F, so plan accordingly. While getting to this park requires some serious planning and previous park experience, we think it’s a beauty that’s worth checking out.

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan (25,000 Recreation Visits)
The largest island in Lake Superior, Royale, lies just 14 miles from the Canadian Province of Ontario but is part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 56 miles to the east. The Ojibwa called the island Minong, “the good place,” thought to be because of its abundance of thimbleberries and blueberries.

The 45-mile-long island features seven interior lakes plus lighthouses, docks, fisheries, and cabins that were here from before the island was named a National Park in the 1930s. There are also 165 miles of trails and more than 30 campgrounds and plenty of wolves and moose. The park is open from mid-April through the end of October and the only way in and out is either by ferry or seaplane. The skies over Isle Royale are some of the darkest on earth. Pick your spot, lay out a blanket, and look up. You won’t find a better show on any cable channel.

North Cascades National Park, Washington (30,154 Recreation Visits)
This one is puzzling. How does such a beautiful park, located just three hours from Seattle make a list of least visited? It can’t be for lack of beauty. Every inch of this park is covered either in majestic peaks, forested valleys, clear mountain lakes, or one of over 300 glaciers, which is more than any other national park outside of Alaska.

The park features a variety of landscapes ranging from temperate rainforest to a dry ponderosa pine ecosystem with more than 1,600 species of plants. Visitors enjoy hiking along over 400 miles of trails, fishing, rafting, rock climbing, or just enjoying the view of the North Cascades which are covered in snow most of the year. The best places to take in the views are from Artist Point near the northwest entrance and Washington Pass Overlook near the southeast entrance.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina (204,000 Recreation Visits)
The Park Service says the park’s landscape is “defined by the presence of both flood and flame.” The flooding part comes from the Congaree and Wateree rivers regularly covering the large areas of the park while the upland forests depend on wildfires to clear out vegetation.

The park boasts the largest expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States. It has one of the largest concentrations of champion trees in the world. It is home to the tallest known examples of 15 species including a 170-foot loblolly pine, a 157-foot sweetgum, a 154-foot cherry bark oak, and a 135-foot American Elm. Canoeing and kayaking are all popular activities with over 40 miles of waterways available. The rivers, wetlands, lakes, and creeks also provide great fishing and birdwatching opportunities.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas (219,987 Recreation Visits)
Home to the four highest peaks in Texas, the park is best known for Guadalupe Peak. Known as the “Roof of Texas”, Guadalupe Peak reaches 8,751 feet. The summit can be reached on a long day hike or overnight backcountry trip. Once at the top, the uninterrupted view makes it all worth it.

The Guadalupe Mountains were once a reef (Capitan Reef) which formed under an ancient inland sea. Today, the National Park Service calls the area the world’s “premier example of a fossil reef from the Permian Era.” Hikers can enjoy more than 80 miles of trails, including a hike in the Salt Basin Dunes that rise 100 feet from the desert floor.

The Right Time
The best time to visit national parks is during midweek and off-peak seasons. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are statistically the quietest days to visit the parks. Off-peak season varies from park to park, but July is the busiest month for National Park Service sites in the United States. In 2021, July attracted over 1.3 million visitors per day! January, on the other hand, receives less than a third of that. Your best bet is to visit during the months of October or April when you combine decent weather with small crowds. But no matter when you go, get to the park early. Parks get most crowded starting around 10 AM. Our advice is to find a scenic overlook and get there in time for the sunrise. It’s a great way to start the day.