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Cue the music… school’s out for summer and we’ve officially entered vacation season. Families across the country are planning their adventures, booking flights and mapping out road trips. Some hit the beach. Others the amusement park. But millions of people will visit national parks this summer, to camp and hike, swim and kayak… or even just drive along a winding park road. They’ll visit for a variety of reasons, but most are looking to experience the best that America has to offer.

According to this article from National Geographic, 318 million people visited national parks in 2018. The most popular national parks, according to the numbers, are no surprise; Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Zion, and Great Smoky Mountains to name a few. They are iconic parks whose names bring to mind stunning natural beauty and a long, storied history. While these big and popular parks are certainly worth a visit, you’ll also encounter large crowds of other tourists who are all looking for a memorable experience.

We’d like to suggest an alternative for your travel plans this summer. You could seek out some of America’s least-visited national parks. Travel and Leisure released a list of fifteen national parks that welcomed the lowest number of visitors in 2018. They are diverse, memorable, and guaranteed to be less crowded. But many of the national parks on this list, such as those in the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and several in Alaska, can be challenging to visit. Others, like Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota or Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, may be remote but perhaps less costly and logistically challenging when making travel plans.

There are some great suggestions on Travel and Leisure’s list and you can’t go wrong choosing one of those parks. But why limit yourself to just visiting sites with the name “national park” attached? There 419 units in the National Park System that all have a story to tell. For example:

  • The smallest national park site in America has a big story. The Thaddeus Kościuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania honors the actions of Mr. Kościuszko, who helped the American colonists defeat the British in the Revolutionary War.
  • The Clara Barton National Historic Site was the home of Ms. Barton and the early headquarters for the American Red Cross, which she founded in 1881. It’s located just off the Clara Barton Parkway, near Glen Echo Park and scores of other national park sites in Washington, D.C.
  • In California, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Monument commemorates the worst homeland disaster of World War II. Thousands of African American men served at Port Chicago and in 1944, thousands of tons of munitions exploded. Over 300 men were killed and hundreds more injured. This tragedy, in addition to a subsequent series of events involving a mutiny and a court-martial, was one of the events that led to the desegregation of the U.S. Navy and, subsequently, all U.S. armed forces.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Monument.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Monument

You can find several more fascinating, small NPS units in this article from the National Parks Conservation Association. Or, you can plan your trip using National Park Service Find-a-Park this site, which lists all 419 units of the National Park System.

Naturalist John Muir once said, “Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” There are hundreds of NPS sites that offer a doorway to a new world and a new perspective. There are lakeshores and seashores, battlefields and monuments, memorials, and trails. They tell the stories of our national heritage, of the successes and failures that are all part of our nation’s history. And these sites protect the stunning vistas, remote wilderness, or delicate sea life that is all part of our incredibly diverse country.

Maybe you’ll join the crowds and look for bison at Yellowstone, or maybe you’ll take the road-less-traveled and knock on the door of Clara Barton’s home. Wherever your travels take you this summer, we hope you can make at least a stop or two at a national park. They are, after all, America’s Best Idea.