Take a peek at these underappreciated national gems where only a handful of adventurers go.
Parks are arranged in descending order from the 10th-least-visited to the least-visited park site.
10. Nicodemus National Historic Site, Kansas
Number of visitors in 2018: 2,738
In 1877, seven men from Kentucky — most of them formerly enslaved — set out to create the first all-black settlement on the Great Plains, inspiring many other African American families to travel west, too. Many of these pioneers viewed Kansas as a way to escape the discrimination, violence and poor living conditions they had encountered in the South following the Civil War. Life was difficult, however, and many of these early settlers left quickly; others lived in sod houses or holes in the ground and suffered without enough food until a second wave of settlers brought horses, plows and other resources several years later. In its heyday, roughly 600 people lived in Nicodemus; about 60 people still live there today. A walking tour through town traces different aspects of pioneer life in the late 1800s.
9. Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Alaska
Number of visitors in 2018: 2,642
This roadless wilderness sits on the western edge of Alaska in an area known as the Seward Peninsula. Though few people travel here today, archaeologists believe that ancient populations migrated from Russia into the Americas across this stretch of land during the Ice Age 10,000-12,000 years ago when ocean levels dropped and exposed a 1,000-mile path between the continents. Once the stomping grounds of mastodons and mammoths, the preserve is now home to reindeer, muskox, wolverines and other hardy animals, and is also a nesting site for birds traveling the Asiatic-North American Flyway. A few of the preserve’s most unusual features include towering rock formations known as tors, hot springs with year-round geothermic activity, and the four largest maar lakes in the world. Maars are craters created when magma from a volcano makes contact with groundwater (or, in this case, permafrost), causing a large explosion of steam. A typical maar might measure 1,000 feet across; the largest maar at Bering Land Bridge is more than 5 miles wide.
8. Thaddeus Kościuszko National Memorial, Pennsylvania
Number of visitors in 2018: 2,077
The memorial honoring freedom fighter and engineer Thaddeus (aka Tadeusz) Kościuszko may be the smallest national park site in the country, but it preserves epic tales of war and freedom in its .02 acres. Polish-born Kościuszko helped American colonists win their independence from the British in the Revolutionary War by meticulously designing and fortifying military defenses. After the war, Kościuszko returned to Poland and led a failed uprising in 1794, attempting to liberate Poland and Lithuania from Russian occupation. After suffering serious injury and imprisonment, he was forced to live the rest of his life in exile in a number of countries, returning briefly to America in 1797. The memorial in Philadelphia — known as “K House” to locals — is the home where Kościuszko stayed on this second visit to America, years after helping to liberate his adopted countrymen.
7. Carter G. Woodson National Historic Site, Washington, D.C.
Number of visitors in 2018: 1,954
The home of the founder of the precursor to Black History Month has been a national park site since 2006, but because of structural problems the house was not open to the public until 2017. Now, visitors can join tours every Thursday, Friday and Saturday to learn about the extraordinary contributions of Carter G. Woodson to African American history. The son of formerly enslaved parents, Woodson became the second African American to obtain his PhD from Harvard University, after W.E.B Du Bois. He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, created academic publications dedicated to African American history, and established a company that published the works of African American authors. His life’s work has earned him the unofficial title of “father of black history.”
6. Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, Alaska
Number of visitors in 2018: 1,272
Yukon-Charley might sound like an Alaskan action hero, but it’s actually a wilderness preserve near the Arctic Circle that protects the place where two pristine rivers meet in the state’s interior. The entire Charley River basin is contained within the park, as well as about 130 miles of the Yukon, one of the longest and wildest rivers in North America. The geology exposed by these rivers is some of the oldest in the world, dating back 600 million years to the Precambrian Era. Visitors can paddle through the vast mountains and bluffs and see caribou, peregrine falcons and other wild creatures in their natural habitat. The preserve sits between two former gold-rush towns where miners tried their luck in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the remains of prospectors’ cabins and other historic buildings are part of the park’s landscape.
5. Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Monument, California
Number of visitors in 2018: 653
The worst homeland disaster of World War II happened on a dock not far from San Francisco. Thousands of African American sailors served at Port Chicago in segregated units during the war in limited roles; one of these jobs was loading weapons and ammunition into ships. The work was extremely tedious and dangerous, and the sailors received little training. One evening in July 1944, more than 5,000 tons of munitions exploded, killing 320 men and injuring hundreds of others. Two weeks later, when sailors were ordered to return to the same dangerous conditions, 258 men refused and 50 were court-martialed and found guilty of mutiny. This terrible tragedy was one of the events that led to the desegregation of the U.S. Navy and, subsequently, all U.S. armed forces. The memorial is on an active military base and reservations to visit are required at least two weeks in advance.
4. Clara Barton National Historic Site, Maryland
Number of visitors in 2018: 425
Few people exemplify the notion of service like Clara Barton. After devoting the first part of her life to teaching, she was working in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., when the Civil War started. She began tending injured soldiers in the capital before moving to the battlefield where she assisted the wounded for the duration of the war. Barton became aware of the International Red Cross during a trip to Europe, and she founded the American Red Cross in 1881 and served as its president until 1904. Her house in the Washington suburb of Glen Echo, Maryland, served as an early headquarters for the organization. The site was closed for renovation until recently (explaining the low visitation numbers for 2018), and now tours are available again on Fridays and Saturdays.
3. Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, Texas
Number of visitors in 2018: 330 (not including visitors to Big Bend National Park)
This world-famous river might not make a “least-visited” list when taken as a whole; however, the section of the river designated as “wild and scenic” in the National Park System is a 196-mile stretch that winds through some of the more remote vistas in the Chihuahuan Desert. Boaters looking for a Southwestern adventure can plan a float trip on this picturesque stretch of the Rio Grande to see its rugged canyons with 100-million-year-old rock walls and a diverse array of wildlife. Note that different sections of the river have varying difficulty levels, and traveling through the remote Lower Canyons area requires an access fee and release form, so be sure to research the options and speak with a ranger or hire a guide to help plan your trip.
2. Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site, Washington, D.C.
Number of visitors in 2018: 109
This Washington, D.C., brick rowhouse may not stand out architecturally next to rows of similar houses, but its one-time resident had an impact that was felt through generations of African Americans. An educator, philanthropist and civil rights activist, Mary McLeod Bethune founded a school for African American girls that later evolved into a university, and she became an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on developing education opportunities for African Americans. It was at that time that she founded the National Council for Negro Women, whose headquarters were later located in the house that visitors can tour on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The site usually welcomes a few thousand visitors each year, but overall visitation was very low last year because the house reopened in December after a two-year closure to install fire suppression and security systems.
1. Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, Alaska
Number of visitors in 2018: 100
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Aniakchak may be best-known for its consistent status as the country’s least-visited national park site, seeing fewer than 300 tourists in a typical year. It’s not only remote — accessible by a long journey of flying, boating and/or backpacking — it’s also a rugged, difficult environment, with foggy, rainy weather and a high concentration of bears and wolves. For those brave few who do venture down the Alaska Peninsula and into the monument, the area’s other best-known feature awaits — a jaw-dropping 6-mile-wide, 2,000-foot-deep volcanic caldera. Within this deep, ashy crater is Surprise Lake, source of the Aniakchak River, as well as Vent Mountain, a 2,200-foot-tall cone formed by a volcanic eruption in 1931. For more on the hardships and thrills of traveling to Aniakchak, read Christopher Solomon’s gripping 2014 travelogue in Outside magazine.
About the authors
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits and moderates online content for NPCA.
Nicolas Brulliard Senior Editor
Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as senior editor of National Parks magazine.
- Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve
- Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
- Nicodemus National Historic Site
- Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial
- Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River
- Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial
- Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve
- Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site
- Clara Barton National Historic Site
- Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site
Parks Group’s Report Finds Flawed Methods and Modeling Fails to Identify 90 Percent of Southeastern Sources Polluting Air in National Parks and Communities
NPCA letter of support for the nomination of Shannon Estenoz as DOI Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks
NPCA letter of support for the nomination of Radhika Fox as Assistant Administrator for Water at the EPA