Mount Shuksan and Autumn in the Cascades National Park in Washington
George and Monserrate Schwartz  /  Alamy
North Cascades National Park in northern Washington also includes the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. With 400 miles of trails and massive tracts of pristine wilderness, you can really get in touch with nature.
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updated 9/18/2009 5:44:11 PM ET 2009-09-18T21:44:11

With roughly 3 million annual visitors, many of whom don’t often leave their cars, a first-time visitor to Yellowstone National Park might experience the unpleasant phenomenon known as a “wildlife jam.” A stray bear or bison can be the cause of stopped traffic, creating bumper-to-bumper congestion worthy of an L.A. freeway at rush hour.

Yellowstone was the fifth most popular park in 2008. The top four, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Olympic National Park, combined with Yellowstone saw 23 million annual visitors last year.

How to find some of the less-trodden forest getaways in the park system? One good way to is to use the statistics compiled by the National Park Service, and consider those parks with the least number of annual visits. Another is to compare miles of trails to the overall acreage of the park; more miles of trails over greater acreage give you more avenues of escape.

But even in a very popular park, a careful study of the map and consultation with a ranger will point out places where most of the crowd simply doesn’t go, such as the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. If you’re willing to drive a bit farther than usual, and break out the hiking boots, you can find some space in a park all to yourself.

“Most people stay within a couple of hundred yards of the scenic overlooks,” says Kathy Kupper, a spokesperson for the National Park Service. “If you get on the trails and into the back country, you can have a near-wilderness experience away from the crowds. Just remember to stay on marked trails and take plenty of water with you.”

However, if you want a strong guarantee of finding solitude, consider this list of national parks that may not rank high in familiarity but are beautiful, rugged, unique places:

For classic northwestern beauty, the North Cascades Park Service Complex is hard to beat. Located in the northern part of Washington State, it has just about every feature the outdoors camper and adventurer could want: deep forests, alpine lakes, climbing peaks, many miles of trails, and lots and lots of pristine space. Wildlife-watching opportunities abound for those who have the time and patience to venture into the wildest areas and sit still and just observe for long stretches at a time. You might even catch a glimpse of Sasquatch, a.k.a. Bigfoot, since these are his supposed stomping grounds.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Tenn. and Ky.
Pat O' Hara  /  CORBIS
As a regional alternative to the Great Smoky Mountains, take a look at Big South Fork, in northeast Tennessee and southern Kentucky. The 125,000 acres here collect around the free-flowing Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. The variety of recreation here accommodates horseback riders, rafters, fishermen, hikers, mountain-bikers and more.
The Great Basin National Park, in central Nevada near its border with Utah, is stocked full of 500-year-old bristlecone pines. Groves of these other-worldly-looking trees are found in this park, a stunning landscape that’s also filled with wildlife. If you visit, you’ll need three essentials: high-quality lug-sole boots, plenty of water and a fleece jacket. Deserts can become chilly at night, even in summer.

In the southeast, everyone is aware of the Everglades National Park. A great alternative is the Congaree National Park, in South Carolina. The floodplain cypress forest here is huge, and just about anything you could do in the Everglades—kayak, canoe, fish, watch wildlife—you can enjoy here. A celebration of the Congaree community, Swampfest on October 3, 2009, will feature primitive-tool making, traditional American Indian dance ceremonies, African drumming demonstrations, and various ranger-guided tours.

National park secretsAlso check out the Cumberland Heritage Days at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in northeastern Tennessee (the park stretches into Kentucky, southeast of Monticello). Every Saturday in October visitors can enjoy traditional local music, demonstrations of traditional Appalachian skills and crafts, including woodworking and blacksmithing demonstrations, and numerous story-telling events.

For extreme landscapes and volcano-lovers, there are two must-see parks: Craters of the Moon National Park, in Idaho, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, on the Big island of Hawaii. Both were created by volcanic and seismic activity, and offer a stark beauty unlike anything else. Mount Kilauea is still spewing molten lava, and while the volcanic activity at Craters of the Moon is long over, it left behind endless natural sculptures.

Autumn Forest at Big Bend National Park
Scott T. Smith  /  CORBIS
In southwest Texas, due south of Alpine, the 800,000 acres of Big Bend offer a lot of room to the dedicated hiker who has the time to trek away from the day-tripper trails, head for the backcountry, and take in some of the most majestic views in south Texas. Hiking through the Dead Horse Mountains is one of the best crowd-beating tactics.
Even the most popular parks, however, do have their secret corners. Sven Feitknecht, tour director for Globus Tours, has traveled through Yellowstone as many as 150 times since 1991. Yet he still looks forward to discovering the park anew, particularly his favorite corner—the Lamar Valley. Located in the northeast corner of the park and totally inaccessible by vehicle, the area is home to many of Yellowstone’s wolf packs.

“Most tourists want to drive just to the various sightseeing spots, which is why 99 percent of Yellowstone is not visited by man,” says Feitkhnecht. ”Our guests are usually very surprised to find out that the Lamar Valley is still very much a hidden secret.”

But if you need as much uninterrupted space as possible, consider these 10 lesser-known gems of the National Park System. As ever, abide by the “leave no trace” approach: Carry out what you carry in, and go off-trail only in those wilderness areas where that’s allowed (most places welcome you, but some sensitive areas can’t withstand much human traffic). If you camp overnight, follow the local rules about putting food out of the reach of bears.

Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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