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America’s Least Visited National Parks

If you’re put off by the idea of visiting a national park because you’ve heard they’re crowded, think again. Admittedly, the Great Smoky Mountains received 9.3 million visitors in 2007, while the Grand Canyon welcomed 4.4 million people and Yellowstone had 3.1 million vacationers.

But there are overlooked national parks full of dramatic natural wonders that receive a fraction of those visitors. Start with Big Bend in Texas (above). This 801,000 acre park features canyons, desert and the Chisos Mountain range, yet fewer than 365,000 visitors came last year.

About 400,000 visitors explored Canyonlands National Park in Utah in 2007. It offers an extraordinary landscape of weathered sandstone canyons, mesas and buttes, thanks to centuries of erosion by the Colorado River and the Green Rivers.

In Northeastern California, Lassen Volcanic National Park lies at the southern end of the Cascade Mountains. The tranquil lakes and forest belie a turbulent volcanic landscape that was visited by fewer than 400,000 people last year. They hiked more than 150 miles of trails and drove the park’s much lauded scenic highway to see steam vents, painted dunes and the centerpiece, the 10,457-foot Lassen Peak volcano. In southern Colorado, North America’s tallest wind-shaped dunes rise more than 750 feet high at Great Sand Dunes National Park. What makes them even more dramatic is the backdrop of the jagged Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This is America’s newest national park, established in 2004, yet only about 286,000 visitors came in 2007.

Just 220,000 people made it to Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota last year, a rocky island-dotted landscape of lakes and ponds. Named for the fur trappers who plied these waters in canoes in the 18th century, the park is best seen by water, making it a haven for canoeists, kayakers and houseboats, as well as tour boats.

Finally, if you really want to get away from the crowds, go paddle and hike in Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park. In 2005, less than 16,0000 people came to the rugged, wooded shoreline of Lake Superior to catch a glimpse of moose and listen for the call of timber wolves. The 850 square mile park is only accessible by boat or float plane, but several ferries will drop off backpackers, paddlers and their boats to explore the watery wilderness. There are 165 miles of scenic hiking trails in a park that’s been designated as a United States Biosphere Reserve. And you won’t find an RV in sight.

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