I’ll check out lesser-known National Parks

My friend Paul is on his way to having visited every National Park in America. I, on the other hand, have never visited any National Park – or State Park for that matter – east of the Mississippi River. I’ve been to Yellowstone, Yosemite, The Grand Canyon and North Cascades, but I haven’t seen any of our more remote parks.

I confess I’m a bit envious of Paul’s accomplishments. Since it’s unlikely I’ll live long enough to catch up with him, it occurred to me that I should plan an alternative National Park tour focusing not on America’s most popular ones, but on America’s least popular ones.

Fortunately, every year the National Park Service keeps track of the number of visitors to each park, and the numbers are in for 2023. I’m happy to report the least popular park in 2023 was Gates of the Arctic in Alaska. Only 11,045 hardy souls visited it last year. To put that number in perspective, there were 325.5 million recreation visits to all National Parks in 2023, including 13,297,647 visits to Great Smokey Mountain, the country’s most-visited park.

Gates nosed out National Park of American Samoa for the bottom by just over 1,000 visitors, which is about how many people were ahead of me in line the last time I tried to visit the men’s room near Old Faithful in Yellowstone. It’s understandable why Gates of the Arctic may not be drawing big crowds. For one thing, it consists of some 8.4 million acres located above the Arctic Circle in the cold and rugged Brooks Range. For another, there are no roads or maintained trails in it. Marketing material for Gates of the Arctic touts the joys of backpacking among the steep, vertical spires deep within the Brooks Range, a “multi-day adventure that requires a series of bush plane flights”. The Park Service website doesn’t mention the survival rates for the Gates’ 11,045 visitors in 2023.

National Park of American Samoa is conveniently located a mere 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii and covers portions of three volcanic islands sporting tropical forests, sand and coral beaches, and some 950 species of fish – a few of which are not sharks. American Samoa pushes a homestay program in which visitors can reside with a local family and learn ‘the South Pacific lifestyle’. While that seems like an electrifying adventure, I am not fully convinced that there is anything actually located 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii.

It may not surprise you that the third and fourth least-visited National Parks in 2023 are both located in Alaska. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is located 100 miles southwest of Anchorage and consists of 4 million acres of glaciers, peaks and active volcanos. No actual roads lead to the park, which can only be reached by small plane. The Park is home to three Wild and Scenic Rivers (the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria), which attract paddlers, anglers and hungry bears. Kobuck Valley National Park also sits within the Arctic Circle, and primarily attracts “boaters, birders, and binoculars”. The Kobuck Valley hosts a 25-square mile sand dune as well as large populations of migrating wildlife such as caribou, sleigh-pulling reindeer and Yeti.

Number 5 on the National Park Not-a-Hit list is Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Actually, Isle Royale is less a traditional park and more a cluster of islands in the middle of Lake Superior near the Canadian border. It’s billed by the Park Service as a car-less wilderness where moose and wolves roam freely. It’s accessible only by boat or float plane but does have 165 miles of maintained trails to explore, most of them leading into wolf dens and the upraised hooves of irate moose. Isle Royale promotional material recommends an 8.5-mile hike from Windigo Dock to Feldtman Lake where one can enjoy a long-range view of the Rock of Ages lighthouse on a clear day, which I am told last occurred in the summer of 1987. In the summer, Isle Royale hosts the world’s largest gathering of mosquitos, black flies and sunburned Alaskans.

The 6th and 8th least visited Parks in 2023 are both located in Alaska (Katmai National Park and Preserve and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve). Both require visitors to undergo a mandatory bear safety orientation session, which is only one of the reasons I won’t be visiting either of them. (Before we all feel too smug about the lack of popularity of Alaska’s National Parks, let me point out the 7th least popular National Park in 2023 was our own North Cascades with only 40,351 visitors). The 9th least popular National Park in 2023 was Dry Tortuga National Park, located 70 miles west of Key West on the Gulf of Mexico, but don’t try to drive there; Dry Tortuga is actually a collection of seven islands accessible only by boat, seaplane or trained dolphin. The islands offer world-class diving and snorkeling and lots of nurse sharks, sea turtles and sun-burned New Yorkers.

Paul, I’m packing my bear spray and off to give a little love to our lesser National Parks. See you on the trail.

Tom Tyner of Bainbridge Island writes a weekly humor column for this newspaper.