Attendance, as a whole, was up significantly at U.S. national parks last year.
The National Park Service has released its final attendance numbers for 2021, and that data shows more than 297 million people visited U.S. national parks last year. That’s a 60 million-visit increase over the 237 million visits logged at national parks in 2020.
Considering that people looked for outdoor activities where they could distance themselves from others during the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, it isn’t too surprising that in 2021, six national parks broke visitation records, according to the National Park Service (NPS). It’s also worth noting that 11 national parks logged more than 5 million visitors in 2021.
On the other hand, not all national parks saw a surge in attendance. As the NPS notes, 25 percent of all visits to U.S. national parks were to the top eight most-visited parks — that’s just 2 percent of all parks in the National Park System. Furthermore, half of all visits to U.S. national parks in 2021 were to the top 25 most-visited parks.
“It’s wonderful to see so many Americans continuing to find solace and inspiration in these incredible places during the second year of the pandemic,” Chuck Sams, director of the NPS, said in a statement. “We’re happy to see so many visitors returning to iconic parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, but there are hundreds more that should be on everyone’s bucket list.”
The good news is that if you’re looking for a true getaway where you won’t encounter crowds, the NPS data also highlights national parks that logged low visitation numbers. Interestingly, six of those national parks are in remote locations in Alaska.
Let’s get right to it. Here are last year’s top 10 least-visited U.S. national parks.
10. Glacier Bay National Park And Preserve
In 2021, 89,768 people visited Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, according to the NPS data.
Here’s one reason why those numbers were low: Glacier Bay, which is west of Juneau, Alaska, can only be reached by plane or boat. As you would expect, most people who visit the park do so between May and September. That’s because the park is open the rest of the year as well, but visitor services are extremely limited out of season.
The people who do visit the park explain that the visit is well worth the trip. After all, Glacier Bay features 3.3 million acres of rugged mountains, glaciers, temperate rainforest, wild coast, and fjords. One of the highlights for any visit is watching the humpback whales that visit the feeding grounds every summer.
9. Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park, a 100-square mile park, is mostly made up of open water — although it also includes seven small islands. The park, which is only accessible by boat or seaplane, is a diver’s paradise because its colorful coral reefs and crystal-clear water is home to numerous species of fish, lobsters, sponges, sea stars, and anemones. It’s also home to Fort Jefferson, a 19th-century fort originally intended to protect the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard shipping lanes.
8. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park And Preserve
Wrangell-St. Elias, with its 13.2 million acres, is America’s largest national park. As the NPS notes, it’s the same size as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Switzerland combined.
Interestingly, the Wrangell and St. Elias ranges contain some of the largest volcanoes and highest concentration of glaciers in North America. What’s more, thousands of lava flows and some of the highest peaks in North America are found in the Wrangell Volcanic Field. It even includes Mount Wrangell, one of the largest active volcanoes in the world.
In 2021, 50,189 people visited Wrangell-St. Elias.
7. Isle Royale National Park
A trip to Isle Royale National Park is like a dream come true for people who love wilderness. That’s because the park has wolf and moose populations, the deep North Woods forest, and cool weather that can change in a heartbeat, all set on the rugged shoreline of Lake Superior.
Here’s why Isle Royale is so remote and wild. The park actually is a freshwater archipelago that includes Isle Royale — the largest island in Lake Superior — and more than 400 smaller islands as well. Isle Royale, which is only accessible by ferry, seaplane, or private boat, has 165 miles of scenic hiking trails and 36 campgrounds used by backpackers and paddlers.
In 2021, just 25,844 people made the trek to Isle Royale National Park.
6. Katmai National Park And Preserve
Katmai may be open year-round but the remote spot is not accessible by car. Instead, visitors need to fly some 300 miles via commercial plane from Anchorage, or they can make the journey on a private or chartered boat.
Here’s how 24,764 people visited Katmai last year. There are hundreds of miles of rivers and streams in the park, which is made up of more than four million acres. Katmai is also home to a high number of brown bears, so it’s an ideal place to study the bears. It stands to reason that there are so many bears; the park is also known for an important spawning and rearing ground for Bristol Bay sockeye salmon.
5. Lake Clark National Park And Preserve
Another national park in Alaska accessible only by plane or boat, Lake Clark is located north of Katmai and about 120 air miles southwest of Anchorage. Like Katmai, Lake Clark is known for its brown bear and Bristol Bay sockeye salmon populations. The rugged park is also known for its bird-watching opportunities because 187 different species have been documented in the area.
In 2021, 18,278 people went to Lake Clark, primarily to visit Crescent Lake. That area is known for its superb fishing and bear watching opportunities. The bears and humans alike fish for sockeye and silver salmon.
4. North Cascades National Park
North Cascades may only be about 3 hours from Seattle but it’s still remote and rugged. In fact, the park is known for its jagged peaks, more than 300 glaciers, and water running through heavily forested valleys.
The park is a haven for hikers, backpackers, and wilderness mountaineers because it links Washington’s interior wilderness with the Cascade Mountain Range. North Cascades is also known for its bird and wildlife watching, camping, biking, boating, and fishing for five salmon species as well as steelhead and cutthroat trout.
Last year 17,855 people visited North Cascades.
3. Kobuk Valley National Park
There’s no other way to put this: Kobuk Valley is very remote. Simply getting to the park requires a series of plane trips. What’s more, there are no roads, entrance gates, or campgrounds, and Kobuk Valley, which is open year-round, doesn’t even offer any services.
In 2021, 11,540 people visited Kobuk. Those visitors tended to be “skilled backcountry explorers familiar with surviving wind, rain, and snow — and that’s in the summer months,” the NPS explains. “Winter visits are recommended only for outdoors people experienced in arctic camping and winter survival techniques. For visitors with the right skills and gear, it’s a trip of a lifetime.”
2. National Park Of American Samoa
National Park of American Samoa may not be in Alaska, but it’s equally remote for most people. Located in the U.S. territory American Samoa, the park is approximately 2,600 air miles southwest of Hawaii.
In 2021, just 8,495 people visited the National Park of American Samoa. However, one reason for that low number was travel restrictions to American Samoa and Hawaii that were in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of the park’s visitors travel there for diving and snorkeling opportunities. In fact, the American Samoa islands are home to more than 950 species of fish and more than 250 species of corals.
1. Gates Of The Arctic National Park And Preserve
By now, it probably isn’t surprising to see that the least-visited U.S. national park in 2021 is also in Alaska.
Last year, just 7,362 people visited Gates of the Arctic, an 8.4-million-acre wilderness that, as you would expect, doesn’t have roads or trails. Most of those visitors access the park by air taxi, however, others do hike in from the Dalton Highway or from the village of Anaktuvuk Pass.
On the one hand, visitors are able to watch rivers pass through valleys carved by glaciers and caribou herds as they migrate. Then again, visitors “must have the knowledge and skills to be truly self-sufficient in the remote location and demanding climate and terrain of the Brooks Range,” the NPS explains.
The upside is that visitors who are prepared for “one of the last truly wild places on earth” will find opportunities for “recreation, and for natural quiet, solitude, and wilderness enjoyment,” the NPS notes.
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