While the National Park System is made up of 423 national sites, including parks, historic sites, monuments, seashores, and recreation areas, only 63 are officially designated as national parks. From the first, Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, to the most recent, New River Gorge in 2020, the 63 parks have become celebrities in their own right, attracting millions of visitors every year.
And while some parks clearly have become more popular than others, knowing this can actually make for some unique traveling opportunities. Smaller crowds, better parking, and more time to explore are just a few reasons to visit some of the least visited parks in the system. Here are three you should not miss.
Pinnacles National Park
Established as a National Park in 2013, the towering rock structures that make up this rugged landscape were formed more than 20 million years ago after multiple volcanic eruptions. Today, the park is a mecca for hiking, rock climbing, cave exploring, campers, and seeing condors.
Located just east of the Salinas Valley, the park attracts under 200,000 visitors annually. When you compare that to California’s Yosemite, which is visited by more than four million people annually. The landscape of jutting rocks and boulders feels like an island amid a sea of surrounding grasslands.
The endangered California condor is the main attraction at Pinnacle. Their wingspan can reach 9 feet wide, and because they do not migrate, they are viewable all around the park. One of the best viewing spots is called the High Peaks. The area is accessible from any of the park’s main entrances but will include a difficult hike. The best times for viewing are early mornings and early evenings.
Rock Climbing In Pinnacles
The best part about this activity is that you don’t need to be an expert here. Not only is the park a great place to excel if you’re experienced, but it’s also a great place to learn. Several private companies offer classes for every level. Also, because of the California climate, you’ll find climbing opportunities pretty much year-round.
Channel Islands National Park
Located off the coast of Southern California, this park is made up of five islands in the Pacific Ocean, providing a preserve where you can see animals, plants, and rare archaeological experiences. Annually, the park sees less than 500,000 visitors and is located between 12-70 miles off the coast.
Dolphins And Whales
Getting there is half the fun, right? Well, especially on the way out to the Channel Islands. Keep your eyes open for pods of dolphins and whales, too, as you take a boat out to sea. Dolphins are known to swim and jump in the area waters, and sometimes there are gray, humpback, and blue whale sightings as well. Your crew will keep you alerted.
Pick An Island, Any Island
The five islands that make up the Channel Islands offer unparalleled scenic views and a diverse range of recreational activities and wildlife.
Consider Anacapa Island for camping, watersports, and stunning scenic hikes. Do note visitors need to bring their own water.
The easiest island to access is Santa Cruz Island, making it a great option for day trips and picnics. You can also find camping, hikes, and an array of wildlife and wildflowers on the island.
San Miguel Island is only accessible via permit from registered companies. The island used to be a bombing range, and there are possible unexploded ordnances. Visitors must be accompanied by park rangers or staff at all times, and all tours and hikes are guided.
Santa Barbara Island is where you’ll find more activities, making it the more popular and crowded of the five islands. There are 5 miles of hiking trails, and guides can get you to the low mountain tops to see the amazing overlooks and coastal views.
Santa Rosa Island offers similar activities to what you’ll find on Santa Barbara Island, but the weather can be a challenge due to its location. Thirty-knot winds are not uncommon during the boat ride to this island, so prepare for adverse weather.
Redwood National Park
Some may not know that aside from the famous trees, the park is also home to protected prairies, oak woodlands, wild riverways, and 40 miles of rugged California coastline.
Let Time Be Your Guide
Don’t miss the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway in the southern part of the park. The 10-mile drive is described as stunning and will provide you with a solid understanding of what is in the park.
If you have a full day to spend, don’t miss the Stout Memorial Grove Trail. You’ll walk among the majesty that is the redwoods along the Smith River in the park's northern section.
If you can handle 12 miles, the James Irvine Trail to Fern Canyon Loop is one of the longest hikes in the park. The trail is a loop and will take you from the Redwoods, through spruce forests, to the coast of the Pacific, and back.