Some popular parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains and Golden Gate, draw record numbers of visitors year after year. But what about the underappreciated places where only a handful of adventurers go? Take a peek at these under-the-radar national gems.
Parks are arranged in descending order from the 10th-least-visited to the least-visited park site. Click the photos for more information on each park.
10. Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, Virgin Islands
Number of visitors in 2014: 5,192
This Caribbean park preserves 2,000 years of indigenous culture on the island of Saint Croix, as well as the history of European forces attempting to colonize the area’s native tribes. Members of Christopher Columbus’ crew once set foot on the park’s undeveloped beachfront. This beautiful area features natural wonders like mangrove forests, coral reefs, and a rare bioluminescent bay. Several outfitters offer guided tours to explore the waters and their glowing marine life.
9. Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, Texas
Number of visitors in 2014: 4,513
For those fascinated by geology and history, the park is a find—its remote mineral deposits are a unique trove like nowhere else in the world. Native Americans have quarried the flint in this region of the Texas Panhandle since the Ice Age for its superior durability. Walk through grassy mesas sprinkled with manmade mineral shavings and learn about the history of the quarries, which include more than 700 excavation sites. Rangers even offer “flintknapping” demonstrations, showing how native craftsmen once made tools out of this unusually strong and colorful stone. Visitors must make a reservation to tour the site, so be sure to call in advance.
8. Nicodemus National Historic Site, Kansas
Number of visitors in 2014: 3,374
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.
7. Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site, California
Number of visitors in 2014: 3,202
Eugene O’Neill was America’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright, and this home and studio on 13 wooded acres in Contra Costa County is where he wrote many of his best-known and most celebrated works, including A Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. O’Neill and his wife, Carlotta, designed the home, known as the Tao House, with a curious mix of Chinese and Spanish architectural influences. Learn more about the work of one of America’s great writers and get a feel for how he lived at the height of his career. Reservations are required to see Tao House, and visitors must use a shuttle to access the property (no private vehicles are permitted). Contact the park’s reservation line a week or two in advance for a tour.
6. Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Alaska
Number of visitors in 2014: 2,636
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.
5. Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, Alaska
Number of visitors in 2014: 2,329
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.
4. Thaddeus Kościuszko National Memorial, Pennsylvania
Number of visitors in 2014: 1,475
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 an uprising in 1794 in a failed attempt 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.
3. Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Monument, California
Number of visitors in 2014: 786
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.
2. Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, Texas
Number of visitors in 2014: 321 (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—be sure to research the options and speak with a ranger or hire a guide to help plan your trip.
1. Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, Alaska
Number of visitors in 2014: 134
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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 six-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 author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits, and moderates online content for NPCA.
- Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
- Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve
- Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
- Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site
- Nicodemus National Historic Site
- Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial
- Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River
- Salt River Bay National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve
- Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial
- Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve