The United States government was the first national government to set aside land for management, preservation, and public use. Explorer George Catlin and activist John Muir both noted the need to protect America’s hot springs, natural areas, and Native America cultures as they traversed the continent during the 19th Century.
In 1832, the first public land in the world was protected by President Jackson, in the area surrounding present-day Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. In 1864, the land now known as Yosemite National Park was similarly protected by President Lincoln. In 1872, the world’s first National Park—Yellowstone—was formed under Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. The Yellowstone area was in a U.S. territory at the time (not governed by a state), so the federal government addressed the need to protect Yellowstone’s unique landscape and resources, while providing a tourist attraction along the Northern-Pacific Railroad route through Montana.
Today, there are over 7000 National Parks and other protected public areas around the world. In the United States, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks remain some of the more infamous parks, as the third and fourth most frequently visited national parks (The Great Smokey Mountains and Grand Canyon National Parks are the first and second most visited parks). Following are some of the least visited national parks in the U.S. due to their remote locations, but all are well-worth getting to for their uniqueness and isolation.
Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
It’s no surprise that many of the least-visited national parks are in Alaska. The remote Kobuk Valley is the least-visited national park of them all, probably in part because there is no road access to the area: one must take a chartered flight from either Kotzebue or Bettles, Alaska. Once there, the Kobuk Valley is well worth the trip. The park boasts three sand dune areas that make up the world’s largest arctic dunes, where summer temps can reach over 100°F just 40 miles from the arctic circle. Half a million caribou migrate through the dunes and the Kobuk River each year, providing necessary food to native tribes.
Gates of the Arctic, Alaska
Not only is Gates of the Arctic National Park the northernmost national park (north of the arctic circle), it is also the only national park with no facilities, providing a wilderness-survival experience to visitors. Like Kobuk Valley, there are no roads in or around the park, which can be accessed by air-taxi at several locations. Alaska’s Dalton Highway comes within five miles of the park’s eastern boarder for those who want to hike in, but whether hiking or flying, visitors must carry with them all the gear and supplies they need to survive. The park protects parts of the Brooks Range and provides land to native tribes that inhabit the area.
Isle Royale, Michigan
Isle Royale National Park includes the 207 square-mile island named Isle Royale and over 400 smaller surrounding islands in Michigan’s Lake Superior. Isle Royale is Lake Superior’s largest island the third largest island in the country. The island is accessible only by boat, plane, or ferry, and there is no drinking water available. The park has a plethora of hiking trails and campgrounds, but many of these are only accessible from the water. Scuba divers willing to brave the cold waters can explore shipwrecks protected by the park. There are only 18 mammal species on the island, but these include moose and wolves. The wolves in the park are part of the longest running predator-prey mammal study in the country.
American Samoa, Samoan Islands
American Samoa is the southernmost U.S. territory made up of several islands in the Samoan Islands Chain in the South Pacific Ocean. American Samoa National Park was established primarily to protect the area’s natural resources, but the park also provides a unique experience to visitors. It is one of the more recently established national parks—still relatively undiscovered by the general public—and the only U.S. national park south of the equator. The mountainous islands include a diverse ecosystem of rainforests and coral reefs. Of the park’s 10,500 acres, 2,550 are under water, and visitors to the park can enjoy a variety of activities, such as beachwalking, hiking, scuba diving, and snorkeling.
Dry Tortugas, Florida Keys
Dry Tortugas National Park is located 70 miles west of Key West and comprises seven islands and their surrounding coral reefs and waters. The islands were discovered by explorer Juan Ponce De Leon, whose ships were surrounded by turtles (Tortugas) and found the islands had no fresh water (dry). The park’s main attraction is Fort Jefferson, one of the world’s largest marine forts, while snorkeling is the most popular activity with a giant coral reef and several shallow shipwrecks just feet from Fort Jefferson. Scuba diving, fishing, island hopping, and camping are some of the other main activities offered. Visitors to Key West can ferry to Dry Tortugas for the day, and while the park is only open during the day, overnight camping on the water is available in a small campground.
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