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The most uncrowded national parks

A  first-time visitor to Yellowstone National Park might experience the unpleasant phenomenon known as a “wildlife jam.” Forget the bumper-to-bumper traffic, and go off the beaten path for these less-trodden forest getaways.
Mount Shuksan and Autumn in the Cascades National Park in Washington seen from a small mountain tarn
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.George And Monserrate Schwartz / Alamy
/ Source: Forbes

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 , 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.

1991, East Rim, Tennessee, USA --- The Cumberland River runs through a forest of autumn colors at the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Tennessee, USA. --- Image by © Pat O'Hara/CORBISPat O'hara

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.

Also 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.

ca. 1980s, Government Well[?], Texas, USA --- A yellow forest of willows in autumn colors lies before the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park, Texas. --- Image by © Scott T. Smith/CORBISScott T. Smith

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.